How are some districts responding to the teacher shortage? With H-1B visas

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Juliana Santos listens to a student in her classroom at Potter Road Elementary School in Framingham. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Juliana Santos listens to a student in her classroom at Potter Road Elementary School in Framingham. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Juliana Santos has been a teacher in her native Brazil for 10 years. Last fall, she moved from São Paulo to Framingham, Mass., with her husband and young son to use her Portuguese language skills to teach in a bilingual classroom at Potter Road Elementary School.

Santos is one of eight new teachers Framingham Public Schools recruited from Brazil this year by petitioning for an H-1B visa, a work authorization that allows U.S. employers to hire qualified foreign professionals in specialty occupations.

H-1B sponsorship is the latest recruitment strategy by this school district to not only plug a teacher gap in high-needs areas like bilingual education, but also to try and keep instructors long term. The H-1B visa offers three years of stay with the opportunity to extend for another three years and it opens the door to possible permanent residency.

Everton Vargas da Costa, Framingham’s talent acquisition coordinator, said while the school system would like to hire locally, it’s been increasingly difficult.

"If teachers are hard to find nowadays, bilingual teachers are harder," he said. "So when we started expanding our dual language programs we realized we’re going to have to recruit overseas. Because we cannot find the talent here."

Framingham's two-way bilingual program incorporates native English and Portuguese speakers in academic instruction starting in elementary school, according to the program’s website. It requires teachers be fluent in both English and Portuguese, and it requires them to be knowledgeable of how learning a new language impacts students' understanding of new materials.

Framingham is home to the largest Brazilian community in the state and is among the largest in the country. About a quarter of its students speak Portuguese at home with their families, a district official said in an email. This made the cultural transition surprisingly easy for Santos who noted, for example, that her favorite Brazilian foods are readily available in the city.

During a recent visit to Santos's fourth grade classroom last month, she seemed right at home with her students, moving fluidly between English and Portuguese.

During a lesson on similes and metaphors, Santos pointed out some differences with figures of speech between the languages. "Busy as a bee, sparkle like a diamond," she said in English. She then switched to Portuguese and said, “In English you have the words 'as' and 'like.' But in Portuguese you also have other options like 'such as.' "

A volume control sign in Juliana Santos's bilingual classroom at Potter Road Elementary School in Framingham. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A volume control sign in Juliana Santos's bilingual classroom at Potter Road Elementary School in Framingham. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Even with the eight teachers Framingham Public Schools has managed to hire for its bilingual program, the district still has seven open teacher positions, Vargas da Costa said.

District leaders in just over half of U.S. public schools said they felt they were understaffed heading into the 2022-23 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That percentage was slightly lower — 48% — in the Northeast, and slightly higher — close to 60% — in the western U.S.

In Massachusetts, widespread teacher shortages are relatively new. That's a big reason why districts are starting to consider sponsoring longer term work authorizations. While hiring foreign teachers isn't a new concept in state schools — many have participated in what's called the Exchange Visitor Program to work with teachers in Spain and Portugal — sponsoring H-1B visas for teachers is relatively new.

The Exchange Visitor Program uses J-1 visas, which allows licensed teachers to teach full-time at a Massachusetts K-12 school for three years, with the option of extending for up to two years. If the teacher wants to return to the U.S. after that they must live in their home country for a minimum of two years before they can reapply.

School officials say the H-1B visa has proven to be more difficult to procure, but it promises longer, if not indefinite, stays in the U.S. It can be renewed for up to six years and opens the door to green card eligibility and permanent residence. It's the option that has enabled many U.S.-based employers to hire workers with specialized skills in fields such as tech, the life sciences and higher education.

Vargas da Costa says for Framingham Public Schools, the application process typically takes about six months, lots of paperwork, around $5,000 from the district budget, and the assistance of an attorney.

Despite the complexity, Potter Road principal Larry Wolpe said it’s a worthwhile investment.

"When you're thinking about hiring for a language immersion program, you're thinking to yourself, 'Who really has the cultural background and really understands one of the countries where the language is spoken,' " said Wolpe. "And coming into the classroom with that incredible knowledge to fully understand the language and all of its intricacies is huge."

Framingham hopes to bring more teachers from Brazil to its schools with H-1B visas.

"It’s about the students, right? How to give them the experience of having bilingual education of high quality," Vargas da Costa said. "So we need to make those efforts."

Other municipalities have come to rely on visa holders to fill essential jobs with an eye toward expanding existing programs as staffing shortages persist.

Teachers from overseas who currently work in Boston Public Schools may soon get a chance to apply for a longer-term visa under a city-run pilot program aimed at retaining employees in hard-to-staff positions. City leaders say those staff include people who work in Boston's streets department, transportation, information technology and education.

"It’s a win for the city because our residents expect excellent services," said Yusufi Vali, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff. "And we can’t deliver excellent services when we have a labor shortage."

Boston has occasionally sponsored H-1B visas for teachers placed in specialized subjects like Advanced Placement-level sciences. But the pilot is a more organized push that's open to teachers in any subject.

"It’s quite competitive, normally, to get a position in Boston Public Schools," said Jessica Tang, president of Boston Teachers Union. "But I think in this current climate where we have a staffing shortage — and we’re not even talking about just educators — we’re in a very different kind of context right now."

Tang stressed that sponsoring longer term work visas should be one of many strategies to bolster teaching staff. She added the district should also focus on programs aimed at building up a local pipeline of teachers.

City and school officials in Boston and Framingham agree, and they say shoring up teacher vacancies is a multi-pronged effort.

School leaders hope that — combined — these programs can put qualified teachers in every classroom.

This segment aired on May 18, 2023.

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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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