David Colon of Puerto Rico teaches at Beltsville Academy. Hes working on… (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON…)
The surge in Hispanic students across the nation is forcing schools to reckon with a deep shortage of teachers who share their cultural heritage.
More than 21 percent of schoolchildren are Hispanic, experts report, compared with 7 percent of teachers. No other racial or ethnic minority group has such a wide disparity. In the struggle to close this gap, the stakes are high: Research suggests that a more diverse faculty might lead to better attendance, fewer suspensions and higher test scores.
This month, the left-leaning Center for American Progress reported that almost every state — including Maryland and Virginia — has a large need for more minority teachers.
Beltsville Academy was so desperate for a Hispanic teacher that it hired one who is still learning English.
“Today, we’re doing things we like and things we no like,” David Colon told sixth-grade Spanish students at the Prince George’s County public school one recent day. He directed them to a fill-in-the-blanks exercise with the verb “gustar” — to like. “Me gusta, no me gusta.”
Prince George’s, like many school systems, faces several challenges in finding Hispanic teachers in tight budget times. Many of its Hispanic residents are immigrants and lack college degrees. County recruiters have tried several strategies: word of mouth, e-mail blasts, going to Puerto Rico, recruiting from colleges with many Hispanic students and offering to cover job prospects’ relocation costs to sweeten the deal.
“If we hear of a Hispanic teacher who is qualified, we are going to go after them,” said Robert Gaskin, the county’s recruiting director. “Everyone is.”
Gaskin said Colon’s assets as an educator outweigh the challenges of his limited English.
Of 126,000 students in Maryland’s second-largest system, 21 percent are Hispanic. But among teachers, the share is 2 percent.
Hispanic families have established enclaves in the northwestern part of the county, sending children to schools such as Beltsville. Driven in part by a wave of immigrants from Central America, the number of students at the school whose parents can’t afford the full cost of lunch has climbed. So has the number learning English.
In the hallways, white walls are decorated with drawings of caterpillars turning into butterflies. Inside the cafeteria, another evolution is visible.
When the eighth-graders eat, two Hispanic students can be seen for every black student. But when pre-kindergartners take their turn, the room is almost entirely Hispanic. They are the school’s future.
The portion of Hispanic students in public schools nationwide doubled from 1989 to 2009, federal data show, and will rise further in coming years. In test scores and graduation rates, Hispanic students trail their non-Hispanic white and Asian peers.
Advocates are counting on teachers like Colon to help bridge a growing cultural gap and raise Hispanic academic performance.
“It’s a tough world out there for our county’s Latino youth,” said Enid Gonzalez, a lawyer with CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group. “They look around their school and they don’t see one person who looks like them unless they are a janitor or on the support staff. We are losing young minds.’’
Colon, 29, has small eyes, slick black hair, pale skin and animated hands. His students have taught him some good lingo — among his favorites, “Don’t go there!” He can read and write in English, but his tongue speeds through a Spanglish blend.
“My mother, her English: excellent. My father, excellent,” Colon said. “Pero me, eh, regular.”
A friend helped him translate this point: “I try to tell the kids that my English is limited, so I hope you don’t judge me. In this class, we don’t judge each other — we help each other.’’
Most of the region’s large school systems say they could use a little help in the recruiting.
In Montgomery and Prince William counties, about one out of every four students is Hispanic. But the share among teachers is one in 20. In Fairfax County, the gap is 20 percent (students) to 3 percent (teachers).
In the District and Anne Arundel County, the gaps are much smaller.
Schools have long faced racial, ethnic and other imbalances in the teacher workforce. Prince George’s has been relatively successful at recruiting black teachers by marketing itself as one of the country’s best-known centers of black affluence. Half of its teachers are black, more than five times the national average.
The system benefits from a pipeline of black alumni who return to teach. There is no pipeline among Hispanics yet.
For out-of-town hiring, competition is stiff. School systems comb through the private sector, looking for professionals in search of a higher purpose. They battle at job fairs at Hispanic-serving colleges.