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Little Rock School District eyes foreign teacher partnership

Program offers way to fill vacancies by Cynthia Howell | January 17, 2023 at 5:33 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

Ongoing vacancies -- particularly in special education jobs -- are causing Little Rock School District leaders to consider looking beyond the nation's borders for experienced, certification-eligible teachers.

The Little Rock School Board is expected to vote later this month on whether to partner with the International Alliance Group to give the district access to a pool of practicing teachers from other countries -- brought to the U.S. on J-1 visas -- for classroom jobs that have been difficult to fill locally.

Some board members said last week that they were hesitant to approve a model that will result in the cost of an international teacher being greater for the district than a U.S.-citizen teacher.

Board members also questioned the plan at a time when district leaders are considering combining high school classes with small numbers of students as a way to save staffing costs next year.

Superintendent Jermall Wright has proposed the partnership as a possible way to fill the kinds of openings next school year that the district has been unable to fill this year.

The capital city district has about two dozen teaching jobs -- nearly half in special education and others in math and science -- that have been vacant this entire school year, he said. Several of the positions are in schools that Wright has designated as "priority schools" because of low student achievement and their need for more support.

"Even if the board approves the partnership, the district is not guaranteed of hiring" one or more international teachers, Wright said, but he called the alliance group a potential resource for filling hard-to-fill jobs.

This is at least the second initiative proposed by Wright for staffing classrooms.

Last summer, the board agreed to a contract with Proximity Learning of Austin, Texas, to put online teachers in some science, algebra and Spanish classes as a pilot program at Mabelvale Middle School.

Isaiah Thaler, vice president of marketing and partnerships for the alliance organization, told Little Rock School Board members last week that the company recruits, screens, trains, mentors, supports and coaches international teachers for the partner school systems.

The alliance organization, started in 2020-21, is currently working with about 300 international teachers from about 60 countries in more than 100 schools in 28 states. Thaler said that includes the Hope School District in Arkansas. The company anticipates having some 500 visas available for international teachers in the coming 2023-24 school year.

The J-1 visa for the visiting teacher is issued by the U.S. State Department. The visa-holder is then able to teach in this country for three years with the potential for a two-year extension. After that, a teacher must return to their home country for at least two years, Thaler said.

The model is not intended to be a pathway to U.S. citizenship but a cultural exchange, he said.

"It's not a longtime solution but ... an opportunity to bring great new cultures into the partner schools as well as alleviate some staffing needs," he said.

To qualify for the U.S. jobs, the international teachers must be currently teaching full time and have at a minimum a bachelor's degree and two years of teaching experience, and show a high degree of proficiency in the English language. Additionally, the international teacher must have three letters of recommendation, successfully complete a criminal background check and participate in a visa interview at a U.S. consulate office.

The alliance group, an affiliate of Arizona-based Educational Services Inc., helps with the visa process as well as foreign transcript evaluation, housing, transportation, banking, licensing and the acquisition of a Social Security number.

Training in classroom readiness and other job-related skills is also provided.

Little Rock School Board member Vicki Hatter questioned the success of the model in other school districts and its potential cost to the Little Rock district.

Thaler said the 70 teachers placed in the operation's first year of 2020-21 continued a second year in the program and the approximately 300 teachers on board this year are expected to continue a third year. There is a process for transferring a teacher to another location if there is not a good fit in the initial placement, he said.

A partner school district is asked to pay a fee to the alliance of 20% or 25% of the international teacher's district-paid salary.

The higher percentage would apply to the teachers in high-demand fields of math, science and special education. That cost is offset somewhat for the district, Thaler said, by the fact that the alliance group subsidizes part of the health insurance costs for the international teacher and the district doesn't have to initially pay federal payroll taxes for the teacher.

Data provided to the Little Rock board as part of the presentation showed that an Arkansas teacher with two years of experience would cost the district a total of $62,829, including a salary of $48,000 and benefits. The international teacher would cost the district $68,757, including the $48,000 annual salary, benefits and a $9,600 fee to the alliance.

Thaler said charges to the district would not start until an international teacher is selected by the district.

Board member Ali Noland said that the classroom vacancies can't go unfilled, but she would prefer that extra money to pay for any international teachers be used instead for recruiting and filling the jobs with Arkansas or other U.S. teachers.

Board member Norma Johnson said the district is obligated to provide special education services to students.

Board member Greg Adams said he was attracted to the proposed partnership because of the need to fill the long-term vacancies in the system.

Developing a district plan to offer incentives to some teachers and not others would take time, he said.

"That would be a paradigm shift," Adams said of an incentive plan for some jobs. "This could help us with our big needs right now."


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