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Teacher recruits from Puerto Rico find welcoming new home in Grand Rapids

District outreach to island helps meet need for bilingual teachers

Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick 

Grand Rapids – While visiting her father one day late last year, in her hometown of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, Cindy Rivera Madera heard him say something that changed her life. 

“My dad tells me, ‘Cindy, leave. There’s nothing here for teachers,’” she recalled. 

Times were indeed difficult for teachers. Cindy and her husband, Ernesto Soto, had been thinking of leaving the island for some years, but family ties kept them there. That day, however, she went home, opened her Facebook page and saw an ad from Grand Rapids Public Schools.

They were looking for teachers. 

“I was like, OK,” Rivera Madera recalled with a laugh. “I took the risk.” She applied for an interview with GRPS recruiters, got one, and was offered a job the same day. She immediately accepted, earning her a hug from recruiter Lea Tobar.

“Welcome to your new home, welcome to your new family,” Tobar told her. 

Rivera Madera is now teaching in her new home. The veteran educator was one of two teachers from Puerto Rico hired by GRPS as part of an innovative district effort to address a shortage of bilingual teachers. A recruiting team traveled to the island commonwealth in November, interviewing prospective instructors after posting ads on Facebook and other social media.

‘I love Grand Rapids. It is a peaceful place.’

– Charlotte Cabello Rivera

Rivera Madera is teaching this fall at Dickinson Academy. The other recruit, Charlotte Cabello Rivera, is teaching at the district’s new dual-immersion secondary school, Southwest Middle/High – Academia Bilingüe

Cabello Rivera, too, got a welcoming hug from Tobar – and began to cry.

Charlotte Cabello Rivera says she likes what Grand Rapids offers for her, her daughter and her mother

Storms put Teachers out of Work 

GRPS administrators are hoping the new teachers’ arrival will begin a long-term relationship with Puerto Rico. Devastating hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 led to mass school closings on the island, throwing many teachers out of work. Earthquakes this past December and January made matters worse. 

Puerto Rican teachers looking for jobs attracted the attention of GRPS, which, like many districts, has struggled with a shortage of teachers — bilingual ones in particular. Supported by a grant from the Jandernoa Foundation, a recruiting team interviewed 16 candidates, with four receiving offers, said Nicholas Swartz, talent acquisition manager for GRPS. Two backed out because of COVID-19, but the district hopes the two new hires will encourage future applicants from the island. Both got $2,000 signing bonuses. 

“They will add depth to their classrooms and the learning experience their students have,” including students from Spanish-speaking homes, Swartz said. “They provide fresh perspective from their experience teaching in Puerto Rico and bring new voices to the teaching conversation.”

Indeed, with its growing student Latino population of about 37%, the district is happy to have new teachers such as Rivera Madera and Cabello Rivera to serve bilingual as well as English-speaking students. And they are happy to be here. 

“I love Grand Rapids. It’s a peaceful place,” said Cabello Rivera, who’s teaching eighth-grade science and ninth-grade biology, in Spanish, at Southwest Middle/High. “The students are so sweet and so humble and so cute. They listen to you, they pay attention, they participate. … It’s a beautiful experience, teaching at Southwest. I’m lucky to have it.” 

Rivera Madera seconds that emotion, even though she longs to teach her fourth-graders at Dickinson in person. Like Cabello Rivera, she feels much more supported as a teacher in the U.S. and has felt warmly welcomed by GRPS. Swartz collected furniture from the school community and helped them move into their apartments with a trailer.

“I feel secure here. I feel so welcome here,” Rivera Madera said. “I’m so thankful, because God put some wonderful persons on our path here.” 

Cindy Rivera Madera says Grand Rapids is a good place for her professionally and personally

Better Pay, Support in Grand Rapids 

For her, the path winds back to 21 years spent working for the Puerto Rican Department of Education, 14 of them as a third-grade teacher. Although she loves teaching, she grew increasingly discouraged by the low pay and lack of government support for schools. She and her husband struggled financially after he lost his job with the education department due to unfair government regulations, and their home was flooded by Hurricane Maria. 

With two children to support, one of them in college, they could not pass up the Grand Rapids opportunity, she said.

“I love my island, but right now Grand Rapids is a better place to live,” said Rivera Madera, whose children, Cydmarelies and Ernesto, are due to follow her here in November. “My kids, my family was my priority here.”

Family was also key for Cabello Rivera, a 10-year educator with two master’s degrees. So were government education policy and natural disasters. Hurricane Maria knocked out her home’s electricity for three months, and the January earthquake forced her damaged school to close. Though she received another teaching post, she knows such catastrophes will happen again. 

‘I love my island, but right now Grand Rapids is a better place to live.’

– Cindy Rivera Madera

Having to re-apply each year for low-paying teaching positions with no job security was also a major factor in the decision. But most important was better special education services in Grand Rapids for her daughter, Zuly, a fifth-grader at Dickinson, and better health services for her mother. 

“That’s why I am here, because I know this is a good place,” said the single mother. “It’s a place with a high life quality.” 

And Zuly’s assessment? “Sometimes I ask if she wants to go back to the island,” her mom said. “She says, ‘No, I love Grand Rapids. I love this place.’”

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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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