Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

This city is short of teachers. It’s tapping immigrants to help.

Why We Wrote This

As many small cities see growing racial diversity and shortages of professionals – including teachers – local governments are asking: What role might immigrants play? 

Noble Ingram/The Christian Science Monitor
Francois Agwala and Raquel Molina Fernández relax after a résumé-writing workshop at Portland Adult Education in Portland, Maine, on Feb. 25. Mr. Agwala and Ms. Molina taught in their home countries – Congo and Spain, respectively – before arriving in the U.S. Now, the city is helping them apply for teacher certification in Maine.

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In January, Maine’s largest and most diverse city, Portland, began an initiative that helps foreign-trained teachers find jobs in its schools. Classes and mentorship help any resident trained abroad – even those with pending asylum cases – earn teacher certification. The city’s Education Academy is an example of a broader cultural shift, one that has many small cities looking for ways to support and nurture diverse populations while facing a dearth of experienced workers.

New arrivals to the United States encounter steep barriers when looking for professional-level jobs, but teaching is especially complicated since each state writes its own requirements. Portland officials are helping these teachers prepare to apply for local certification.

It may be several months before any are ready to teach in the U.S., but the initiative’s existence sends a message to many participants that their experiences as immigrants are valuable. Raquel Molina Fernández, a teacher from Spain, says it is “an opportunity for all the people like us to know that there’s support for our skills and our preparation.” She adds, “It’s another view of our lives.”

The small class sizes, the lack of uniforms, the heightened security – there’s a lot that feels different to Francois Agwala when he steps into a public school in Portland, Maine. The former teacher and principal spent years as an educator in Kinshasa, Congo. Now he’s picking up the chalk again, more than 6,000 miles from where he started. 

Mr. Agwala is enrolled in the Education Academy, an initiative which helps foreign-trained teachers find jobs in Portland schools. In January, the city began offering classes and mentorship to help any resident trained abroad – even those with pending asylum cases – earn teacher certification. 

Similar efforts across the country help employ immigrants and refugees in science and health care, but the focus on teaching is relatively new. It’s also a marker for a broader cultural shift: As many small cities see growing racial diversity and shortages of professionals – including teachers – local governments are turning to experienced recent immigrants to fulfill civic duties.

“Across the country fewer and fewer people are going into teaching,” says Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana. “Unless we figure out how to maximize the potential of our immigrant population, we’re looking at a demographic reality where there just aren’t enough people to fill the jobs.”

Specific needs, specific solutions

For Portland Public Schools, the demographic reality is already skewed. In 2015, students of color made up 41.1 percent of the district’s total enrollment and 65.7 percent of preschool enrollment. About 23 percent of students were listed as having limited English proficiency.

In contrast, the teacher workforce is about 97 percent white, says Dr. Botana. Few teachers come from a home where English isn’t the only language spoken.

“We’re very diverse,” but “our faculty and staff in general do not reflect that diversity,” he says. A persistent challenge for the district is changing an environment where “kids are looking around and saying, ‘Look I don’t see myself here.’ ”

It’s a problem that goes beyond Maine. Despite research suggesting having teachers of different races can benefit students, the profession nationally is still about 80 percent white. By some indications, though, incorporating immigrants into skilled jobs might be shrinking that disconnect. 

“In the last 10 or so years of research we’ve seen a number of really good initiatives that tackle one or multiple barriers” to helping trained immigrants find professional jobs, says Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

“And now state governments and state agencies are ... really trying to figure out how can we meet the specific needs of communities,” she says.

Dr. Botana borrowed from successful programs he saw in Chicago and Portland, Oregon, in which targeted teacher training and certification resources in communities of color helped bolster a nonwhite workforce.

For Portland, Maine, he thought, the same approach could work with growing immigrant groups – especially as native-born population growth in the state slows.

In a classroom at Portland High School, Dani Scherer, curriculum designer and program navigator for Portland Adult Education, projects the word “scaffolding” on the chalkboard. The term describes the support teachers give students to tackle new topics. Her students, a half-moon of multinational adults, each explain how the idea might apply to lesson plans they’re developing. To grasp the visual of a building with support scaffolding, they translate the word into Arabic, French, and Spanish.

Mr. Agwala, who hopes to teach history, views education as a way to improve civic engagement, and he saw a more sustainable future in the United States when he moved in 2011. His assistant teaching practicum in a local high school U.S. history class might also help him prepare for a citizenship test, he says. 

“Teaching is a very important tool for our community,” he says. “We have to do a good job to train good citizens.”

Felling steep barriers

But when he arrived, Mr. Agwala didn’t meet Maine requirements for teacher certification. New arrivals to the U.S. face steep barriers when looking for professional-level jobs, but teaching is especially complicated since each state writes its own certification requirements. Maine, for example, asks most prospective teachers to complete state-specific special education training.  

“It’s not a straightforward process for an American-trained or an American-born teacher to move between states so it’s not a straightforward process for immigrants either,” says Dr. Batalova, of the Migration Policy Institute.  

Instead, often immigrants face so-called brain waste, in which the talents and experiences they accrue elsewhere aren’t put to use in their new American context.

“These college-educated people come to a country like the United States and then end up not working or they work in jobs that are significantly lower-skilled,” she says.

For several years, Mr. Agwala faced that scenario in the U.S., unable to draw on his teaching experience from Congo. But while taking English classes with Portland Adult Education last year, he heard about the Education Academy and jumped at the chance to join its pilot program.

And he wasn’t alone – the district saw a surge of interest from immigrant teachers.

“[W]e realized people didn’t understand the process by which they need to become certified as teachers,” says Sally Sutton, program coordinator for the New Mainers Resource Center, a division of Portland Public Schools.

In addition to courses covering American education concepts, the Education Academy provides major administrative legwork. Ms. Sutton and her colleagues send foreign transcripts and résumés to the Maine Department of Education to determine what standards, including tests and coursework, students still need to meet.

Seeking an entirely new U.S. teaching degree is out of the question for most participants since applying for asylum or already having a bachelor’s degree disqualifies them from federal financial aid. Taking a few additional classes at a community college as needed is a much cheaper alternative – for which the Education Academy helps students with scholarship applications

‘Another view of our lives’

Portland Public Schools doesn’t yet have a goal for how many teachers it hopes will graduate the program, and it may be several months before anyone in Ms. Scherer’s class is ready to apply for certification, says Dr. Botana. Even so, its existence sends a message to many participants that their experiences as immigrants are valuable.

“Integration is always a two-way street,” says Dr. Batalova. Successful organizations working to employ immigrants say, ‘You have a problem and we have a solution.’ And that solution is immigrants.”

Raquel Molina Fernández, another Education Academy student, moved to the U.S. last August after teaching and working in an education nonprofit for more than a decade in Madrid. She prizes being part of a solution for her new city.

The program “is an opportunity for all the people like us to know that there’s support for our skills and our preparation,” she says. “It’s another view of our lives.”

Correction: This story and its photo caption have been updated to reflect the correct full name of Raquel Molina Fernández.

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