Despite serving schools with large numbers of Hispanic students, Gainesville and Hall County school leaders are struggling to find and hire Hispanic teachers.
Part of the problem, according to Gainesville School Superintendent Wanda Creel, is that there has been a steady decline in minorities nationwide that are going into education fields.
Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield said his district is running into the same problem.
“One of the greatest challenges is the miniscule number of minority candidates being graduated into the profession,” Schofield said.
Creel said Gainesville is moving in the right direction with the hiring of the district’s first Hispanic administrator, Fair Street Elementary Assistant Principal Julio Cabanas.
“Sadly, I can count the number of Hispanic teachers we have here in Fair Street in one hand,” Cabanas said. “We have five tops in a school that has 60 percent or more Hispanic students.”
The son of Cuban parents and raised in Miami, Cabanas left an assistant principal position in Gwinnett County to join the Gainesville school system. Fluent in Spanish and English, he’s trying to get the Hispanic community more involved with the schools.
“We’re in talks on planning a big picnic with every school sending eight to 10 (Hispanic) families,” he said.
Cabanas is actively recruiting Hispanic teachers by pointing at the need in a city where the population is more than 40 percent Hispanic, and promoting the area as a great place to live and raise a family.
“I’ve got four friends coming up who will be interviewing with Gainesville schools,” he said. “This community has to have more Hispanic teachers and leaders.”
In the current 2016-17 school year, Gainesville schools have 23 certified Hispanic teachers under contract, less than 4 percent of the 600 teachers in the district.
Hall County school district currently has 87 Hispanic teachers, less than 5 percent of its 1,825 teachers.
Both school systems are in the early stages of hiring for the 2017-18 school years that begins in August.
Robert Wilson, the principal at Lyman Hall Elementary, is uniquely aware of the shortage of qualified teachers fluent in Spanish. About 98 percent of the more than 700 students at his school are Hispanic.
“Currently on our staff, we have about 5 percent teachers that can speak Spanish fluently,” Wilson said. “We have some who can communicate, but not really teach in Spanish.”
Wilson points to research showing that growing and strengthening the native tongue promotes second-language learning.
However, finding the right balance can be tricky, according to Wilson, because while first generation English learners are hearing English all day at school, they then go home to parents, aunts and uncles who only speak Spanish.
“We look for teachers that have a Spanish background,” Wilson said. “We try to look for those first, but ultimately we look for the best teacher because we know the teacher influence over kids is what is going to make them successful.”
To address the need for teachers fluent in Spanish, Schofield entered into an exchange agreement with the central Mexico school district of Guanajuato. Last summer, three Lyman Hall Elementary teachers went to Mexico as part of the exchange program.
Schofield said the exchange program has not changed due to politics and administration plans to build a wall at the border with Mexico.
“We have a number of our partners from Mexico wanting to come up and teach with us,” Schofield said. “The question remains whether or not they can obtain visas for an entire school year.”
In the meantime, Hall County school district uses resources such as TeachGeorgia, the National Association of Bilingual Educators, Mundo Hispanico and local colleges and universities to step up recruitment of minority teachers, according to Brad Brown, executive director of human resources for the district.
Creel said the Gainesville school district has strong student teacher placement partnerships with Brenau University and the University of North Georgia. She said a rubric-based scoring process is used for all hiring positions.
It was such a process that helped recruit Brenau graduate Ana Lopera Hortman, a native of Colombia, and UNG grad Marisela Hernandez of Mexico. They both teach at Fair Street Elementary.
Hortman said she wanted to work in Gainesville because of the demographics and her belief she could make a difference.
“I feel like the kids I teach I can inspire them to achieve the American dream the way I have achieved it,” Hortman said.
Hortman said the job is not easy and teaching in Gainesville city is not for everybody.
“You just really have to have the heart for it,” she said. “You have to be able to connect with the kids and their families.”
In her second year teaching at Fair Street, Hernandez said she can relate to her students from her own experience being raised by parents who only spoke Spanish.
“My parents weren’t able to communicate with my teachers when I was little,” Hernandez said. “That’s why I like working with my kids and the parents. I can communicate with the parent and now the parent can work with the child at home. I explain to them, this is what you can do with them and show them different strategies.”