Jan 26, 2023 - News

Teachers on visas fill a void in Charlotte public schools, but their time is limited

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Oaklawn Language Academy Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

As schools nationwide grapple with teacher shortages, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is looking beyond U.S. borders for experienced educators.

Why it matters: Teachers from overseas have become a staffing pipeline for CMS. The added diversity to the staff reflects the student body. CMS’ roughly 141,000 students represent 184 countries and speak 204 languages and dialects.

  • “Charlotte is becoming more and more diverse,” said Robert Ellyson, executive director of talent acquisition at CMS. “Supporting students with teachers that have a similar experience is very important, and it helps to engage them in their education.”

What’s more, enrollment in education programs nationally is dwindling. Veteran educators are reaching retirement age or are resigning in droves. CMS is feeling the effects, with 220 teacher vacancies this month.

How it works: The J-1 visas are for work-based “exchange visitor programs,” such as Educational Partners International and Global Teaching Partners. The teachers are expected to take what they learn in the U.S. back to their home countries, Ellyson tells me. But CMS then has to compete with other school systems to replace highly qualified teachers.

The number of international teachers through sponsored visas has grown from around 60 to 118 over the past two years.

  • The programs only get teachers that meet high standards. The educators can relate to students of similar cultural backgrounds and communicate well with those whose second language is English.
  • But after three years, their visas run up. After that, they have to leave.

Flashback: During a discussion about Hispanic reading scores late last year, former interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh told the school board he was concerned about the district continuously losing strong, bilingual teachers while working toward closing achievement gap.

  • “They understand our practices, they understand our curriculum, they’re known to the staff, so we get a culture going,” he said. “And then, they can’t stay.”
  • CMS has set a goal of bringing half of its Hispanic third graders up to reading standards. But the latest report showed less than 3% of the students are on track. Over half of Hispanic third graders in CMS are multilingual learners.

By the numbers: Across the state, international teachers now make up 1 in 50 teachers in North Carolina, an increase from 1 in 200 a decade ago, WRAL reported.

Zoom in: On a Wednesday morning, Andrea Vargas’ students return from their special class, drop their belongings into their cubbies and gather around a colorful carpet to recite a good morning song: “Buenos Dias, Como estas, Muy bien gracias, y usted?”

  • Here at Oaklawn Language Academy, a magnet school with around 40% non-native-speaking students, the kindergarteners are fully immersed in Spanish. They’ll work on their English reading and writing as they move up grade levels.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Oaklawn Language Academy
Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios
  • “Kindergarten is the best age. They are not afraid of talking,” Vargas tells me. “They gain a lot of learning when they get into this process of kindergarten Spanish. It’s awesome the things we see here.”

Vargas teaches using her own experience learning a second language. She came to Oaklawn with 12 years of education experience in Costa Rica, teaching English after she mastered it herself in college. She said she pursued a sponsorship program because she wanted a change in her life and had heard positive reviews.

After a lengthy documentation process and interviews with the sponsor and schools, she chose CMS from a few offers, based more so on her gut feeling than any familiarity or knowledge of Charlotte. Her sons are enrolled in the school system as well.

  • When her three-year visa was up, she flew back to Costa Rica and waited until she was approved for another two years. At the end of this extension, she will have to go back to Costa Rica for two years before she can apply again.
  • “I want to go back to my home country … to bring what I learned and then probably come back,” she says. “I don’t know, I just, the future is so blurry right now for me.”

“We have had teachers that have stayed for five, gone for two, come back again and and have done it three or four times,” Ellyson says.

  • Vargas’ eventual job opening will leave the school looking for a replacement. The principal will need to start interviews for international and bilingual teachers early if she wants any chance of landing another visa.
  • “I’ve already started interviewing now (to replace a Columbian teacher) when we used to be interviewing in March,” Oaklawn principal Kristi Trangsrud says. “The demand is higher.”

The bottom line: CMS is not the only school district experiencing staffing shortages that has turned to international applicants — even if it means the hires are only temporary.

  • Each year the capped visas run out faster than the year prior, Ellyson says.

What’s next: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education on Tuesday adopted its legislative agenda, a list of requests to the municipal, state and federal government. In addition to free lunches for students and resources for refugees, it’s asking for loosened rules and regulations for visas obtained for educational purposes.

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