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In need of bilingual teachers, recruiters head to Puerto Rico

Island commonwealth teachers looking for jobs following hurricanes

Evelyn Ortiz came from Puerto Rico to Grand Rapids by putting coins in a pay phone and telling the operator she wanted to talk to the Michigan Department of Education about getting a teaching job. The obliging operator connected her to MDE, where an official said they needed bilingual teachers. 

Long story short, Ortiz was hired in 1997 to teach bilingual second grade at Burton Elementary School. She arrived, she said, with 13 boxes, two children and one friend in Grand Rapids. 

“I kind of say it was meant to be,” said Ortiz, now in her 10th year as principal at Buchanan Elementary School. “I love working for Grand Rapids Public Schools. My passion and love is for my community, my children, my families.”

Now she is offering other teachers in her homeland a chance to follow her path to GRPS, although by decidedly less old-school means. 

This week she flew to Puerto Rico with three other administrators to recruit bilingual teachers for the district. Like many school districts across the state and country, GRPS is facing a shortage of qualified teachers, including those who are bilingual in Spanish and English. 

The team left Wednesday, Oct. 30 to the Caribbean island for a five-day stay, in hopes of hiring bilingual teachers for the 2020-21 school year. The goal is to sign letters of intent with about half a dozen teachers, who would help meet a growing need for instructors in the district’s dual-immersion and bilingual schools and better serve its growing Latino student body, now 37 percent of all students, officials say. 

“We want to have teachers who more reflect our students,” said Nicholas Swartz, talent acquisition manager for GRPS. 

Ortiz is optimistic they can attract several teachers to GRPS schools like hers, where 90 percent of the nearly 450 students are Latino children whose first language is Spanish. She says the need will only increase for teachers who can help her students learn their parents’ language well while transitioning them into English instruction.

“I’m very positive,” Ortiz said. “We have lots to offer in Grand Rapids.” 

About 90 percent of students at Buchanan Elementary are Latino

Teachers Jobless Following Hurricanes     

As American citizens in a U.S. territory, Puerto Rican teachers would not need visas to move to Grand Rapids, Swartz said. And due to the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, many families have left the island leading to hundreds of closed schools – and lots of unemployed teachers, he noted. 

“It helps our students, which is our primary concern, and there’s teachers out there who are not teaching who might like to teach,” he said. 

Administrators will interview applicants at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan and the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce. Their trip will be partially funded by a $6,000 grant from the Grand Rapids-based Jandernoa Foundation. 

‘I’m very positive. We have lots to offer in Grand Rapids.’

— Evelyn Ortiz, principal of Buchanan Elementary School

Besides Ortiz, the recruiters include Micky Savage, GRPS executive director of human resources; Mayda Bahamonde-Gunnell, executive director of bilingual and dual language programs; and Lea Tobar, community liaison. 

In researching how to find more teachers for schools such as Buchanan and Southwest Community Campus, a dual-immersion program now building a high school, GRPS learned of other districts who have hired teachers from Puerto Rico, Swartz said. With some offering incentives such as signing bonuses — which GRPS will be offering — “everyone had some success” in recruiting there, he said. 

Some Will Choose ‘a Better Life’ 

While some have raised concerns about Puerto Rican teachers moving to U.S. schools, Swartz emphasized, “I don’t like the idea of stealing teachers from anybody.” However, he added, “They have almost the opposite problem that we have. There are actually a lot of teachers looking for work.” 

Ortiz, who still has family there, agreed. “I don’t feel that we are taking away resources from the island,” she said. “I feel the teachers on the island that are without a job are a great resource for other states. … If they’re highly qualified and they have a teaching certificate (and) they’re stocking aisles in a supermarket, guess what? They’re going to choose a better life.” 

The district has advanced its visit with social media ads for teaching positions, including Facebook video ads featuring Ortiz and a teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary. Interested teachers can sign up for interviews at grpstalent.com, which advertises a $40,000 starting salary for first-year teachers and “diverse affordable city life” here. 

GRPS will provide relocation assistance for any recruits to make the transition to West Michigan, and the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan will help them find housing and become acquainted with the community, its restaurants and culture, Swartz said.

That community support should be a draw for Puerto Rican teachers, Ortiz said, adding she will happily serve as a mentor. Hispanic families and Latino teachers will help them acclimate to the area, providing a stronger network of support than when she came, she said. 

“I didn’t have anyone, only one friend,” Ortiz said. “Here, we are allowing them to feel that they have a family here. They should feel that they have a family in Grand Rapids.”  


Evelyn Ortiz recruitment video

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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