With many teachers among the thousands of residents fleeing Puerto Rico for the mainland after Hurricane Maria, school districts in Florida, Texas and New York are working to streamline the certification process in the hopes of adding Puerto Rican teachers to their classrooms.
But for many of the teachers, the effort has hardly meant a quick ticket to employment.
Those states already have large concentrations of Puerto Ricans, and the numbers likely will grow as people displaced by the hurricane come to the mainland to stay with family.
Florida has seen 58,000 people from Puerto Rico land in Orlando and the Miami metro area since Oct. 3. More than 4,300 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in its schools, as have more than 500 from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
School administrators in Florida say they are eager to hire Puerto Rican teachers, teacher’s aides, substitutes and bus drivers in a state where a teacher shortage will be compounded by a growing number of students. Just days after the hurricane made landfall on Sept. 20, several Florida school districts had set up booths at local airports to sign up students and recruit school staff.
“There’s a shortage of teachers within central Florida, and this is a great opportunity to try and recruit and hire folks who really reflect our student body in terms of being bilingual and being of Latino or Hispanic background,” said Greg White, recruitment specialist for Osceola County schools. The district has openings for as many as 150 teachers and is desperate for bus drivers.
So far the district has hired five teachers who evacuated the island, he said. Several others are set to be interviewed.
Florida will waive the application fee for a teaching certificate and will accept unofficial transcripts to expedite the hiring of Puerto Rican teachers. In New York, the state is offering one-year teaching certifications for those with certificates from Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories who meet basic requirements for teachers.
But those actions may not be enough for Puerto Rican teachers who find they must take additional tests before they can work in the state. Many who came to the mainland years before the hurricane say this has long been a problem. Elementary schoolteachers in particular may face challenges because the island breaks up certification into two categories: kindergarten through third grade and fourth through sixth grade. This doesn’t align with Florida, which certifies teachers for pre-K through third grade or all elementary school grades.
Glenyarid Melendez-Rivera, a 33-year-old English teacher from Orocovis, Puerto Rico, has been trying to get a job since she arrived in the Orlando area about two weeks ago. But her certification in elementary English doesn’t have an equivalent in Florida, and school officials told her she would have to take a $200 test to get certified.
Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Audrey Walden said the state had no plans to adjust certification requirements or waive fees.
Melendez-Rivera thought she would get work fast given the state’s need for bilingual educators and for those who teach English as a foreign language. She left her husband in Puerto Rico and arrived with her 20-month-old daughter to stay with a cousin, under the assumption that she could land a job and get established.
“They told me, ‘In the meantime, you can apply for something noninstructional,’ like a teaching assistant or substitute teacher,” she said. “That’s fine, but it pays a third of what they pay teachers here. It’s even less than what I made over in Puerto Rico.”
So far, it’s unclear how much of an effect states’ efforts have had on Puerto Rican teachers. No teachers have yet applied for the temporary certificates in New York, officials there said. And Florida has documented just 20 Puerto Rican teachers who have applied for a certification fee waiver, though officials there say their records are likely incomplete because individual school districts handle hiring.
Nancy Morales Benitez, director of Maestros Puertorriquenos en Accion (Puerto Rican Teachers in Action), said she started the group two years ago after seeing Puerto Rican teachers struggle to get licensed in Florida. That’s despite a reciprocity agreement that should make it easier for Puerto Rican teachers to get their credentials in Florida.
She has been lobbying Florida legislators to reduce or waive fees on tests some teachers will be have to take.
“If they could just get a temporary teaching certificate and job for just, say, a year, at least you’d have money to prepare for and take the test,” she said.
A Puerto Rican teachers’ union, Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, is not pleased to see so many teachers trying to leave. Grichelle Toledo Correa, the group’s secretary-general, said an exodus of teachers could leave the island even more desperate for hard-to-find special education, bilingual and high school teachers.
“In our position,” she said, “we are encouraging teachers to stay in Puerto Rico.”
In May, before hurricane season even began, the territory closed about 180 schools in part due to Puerto Rico’s budget crisis. Many teachers are unsure when schools that closed after Maria will reopen. Some have just begun to open more than a month after the hurricane landed.