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Little Rock Board opens hiring to foreign teachers

by Cynthia Howell | January 27, 2023 at 3:46 a.m.
Little Rock Superintendent Jermall Wright (left) and Greg Adams, who has served as the Little Rock School Board president, are shown in Little Rock in these 2022 file photos. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe; right, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Little Rock School Board on Thursday opened the door for the hiring of teachers from outside the United States to work in the capital city school system.

The board voted 5-4 to authorize a partnership 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.

"With the teacher shortage we are experiencing in our district, I feel we need every tool available at our disposal to mitigate these challenges," Superintendent Jermall Wright told the board.

The agreement with the alliance group would obligate the district to pay the company only in the event that one or more international teachers are hired.

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. Data provided to the Little Rock board as part of the presentation in early January 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.

Wright acknowledged concerns expressed about the possible hiring of teachers from outside the nation's borders but he said he believed most concerns -- such as potential cultural and language barriers -- can be mitigated when applicants are screened and interviewed.

District leaders don't want to hire teachers who would present more barriers than benefits to students -- particularly to students in low-achieving schools, he said.

He added some of the teachers available through the partnership are teachers of English to students who do not speak English as their first language, which is a need in some of the Little Rock schools.

Board member Greg Adams made the motion to authorize the partnership, saying that the district won't have to hire anyone it doesn't feel good about. Those voting for it were board President Michael Mason, Adams, Norma Johnson, Leigh Ann Wilson and Joyce Wesley.

Wilson noted that the district is not bypassing domestic teachers who want and are applying for the jobs. She said the district is competing not only locally but also nationally for teachers in some academic fields.

"I absolutely support this as an option because I trust our human resources department to do their due diligence, and if we have a good candidate in front of us, that is who we are going to select," Wilson said.

Those against the proposal were Vicki Hatter, Ali Noland, Sandrekkia Morning and Evelyn Callaway.

Noland said she understood the plan to be a good faith effort to fill hard to fill jobs, but she would prefer to use the money that would go to the alliance group to go directly to teachers as incentives to fill the vacancies.

Callaway said the partnership and international teachers "will open a can of worms," and that other options for filling the jobs have not been exhausted.

Earlier this month, Wright proposed the partnership to try to fill more than two dozen teaching jobs -- many of them in special education as well as in math and science -- that have been vacant this entire school year. 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.

"Isaiah Thaler, vice president of marketing and partnerships for the alliance organization, previously told Little Rock School Board members 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 more visas available for international teachers to work in the United States 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 eligible 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.

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.

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