Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque Public Schools, like districts across the country, is facing a teacher shortage.
Superintendent Raquel Reedy gave the Board of Education a report recently, saying there were 427 total vacancies including teachers at the time, 10 more open positions than last year, with fewer candidates wanting the jobs.
“APS and other districts have a supply and demand problem,” she said.
To spur recruitment, the district looked outside the U.S., including to the Philippines for the first time, in order to fill empty spots. That resulted in about 60 Filipino teachers hired by APS, which has been working on the transfers since early May, according to Stanley Keith, APS personnel analyst and recruiter.
The transfers were part of the J-1 educator exchange program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of State, billed as a way to promote cultural exchange.
APS said the teachers are then assigned to schools with the greatest need based on vacancies, particularly for special education.
While a glitch in visa processing delayed about half of the hires for at least a semester, more than 30 Filipino teachers are now in APS classrooms.
“We had hired 58 teachers and only 32 were able to get through the pipeline, if you will,” Keith said.
And he said the district is still recruiting, looking to hire more Filipino teachers in the future.
Districts across New Mexico have been using the J-1 teacher program to fill vacancy gaps.
Some districts go through private firms, which recruit the teachers and assist in obtaining visas.
APS uses recruiting firm Teach Quest USA, which does not charge the school district; instead the company charges the teachers, usually a percentage of their salaries.
But Icela Pelayo, the state Public Education Department acting deputy secretary of teaching and learning, said that’s not the intent nor spirit of the program. Rather, the point of the program is to contribute to and support a cultural exchange between countries, she said, adding that it’s concerning that districts are using the exchanges as a vacancy solution.
The Filipino teachers can be in the states for a total of only five years, including extensions, according to APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta. She also noted that it’s not a long-term solution but said it helps as the teaching field as a whole struggles to attract professionals.
Pelayo emphasized the program is supposed to focus on cross-cultural interchange.
“The federal government had to update its regulation for the teacher program specifically and in 2016 added additional language to strengthen the cross-cultural component,” she said.
The State Department also highlights this on its J-1 visa website, saying “all exchange visitors are expected to return to their home country upon completion of their program in order to share their exchange experiences.”
But nearly half of the Filipino teachers given a job offer by APS have to wait until January to start.
Emails obtained by the Journal – from a public records request in August – show that’s due to a visa processing holdup, which one of APS’ recruiting firms says was exacerbated by the PED.
“The J1 sponsor that we are working with in Atlanta, Georgia, was able to process about half of the teachers that we had sent them,” Roy Tipgos, CEO of the teacher-recruiting firm Teach Quest USA, said in an email. “We contacted another of the J1 sponsors located in Seattle, Wash., who was eager to help us … An official at NMPED refused to honor our request for using this other sponsor.”
Obtaining sponsors, which are designated entities by the U.S. State Department, is required to start teaching under the J-1 program. Those sponsors must secure “a letter of no objection” from the PED.
Peter Perkins, who is in charge of logistics and placement at Teach Quest, said PED did not give the firm a reason why the sponsor was denied. He said that decision has been appealed and he expects the other teachers to begin next January regardless, even if he has to use a different sponsor.
Pelayo said PED was “not comfortable” that the J-1 sponsor from Washington could meet its full requirements but did not provide details. She said PED can work with and re-evaluate companies after they were denied a letter of no objection.
Even after teachers get a job offer and are able to get through the visa process, they often face financial burdens.
Teach Quest charges up to 10 percent of a teacher’s salary for recruitment and placement fees, according to Perkins.
For a Level 1 teacher making $36,000, that translates up to $3,600 for the new hire.
Perkins said Teach Quest adheres to a 10 percent cap in place by the Filipino government.
When coming to APS, the teachers also have to pay for their license, transportation to the states and visa costs, according to the district.
APS human resources documents show the PED licensure application fee is $125 and $95 to add endorsements to a license. The district also charges a $44 fee for background checks.
Still, Keith said the teachers from the Philippines have more financial opportunities in the U.S. than their home country, and that’s part of the reason they’re recruited there.
“The majority of the teachers (in the Philippines) are getting paid peanuts for what they can make here,” he said.