Though he’s an accomplished educator with eight years of experience in Puerto Rico, Emil Rivera was a little nervous when he came to Buffalo to be a high school bilingual special education teacher.
“I had my doubts,” said Rivera. “I was prepared to be all on my own.”
Instead, just five days after arriving from Puerto Rico in late August, Rivera was pleasantly surprised — and immensely grateful — for the immediate support from Gliset Colón from the Buffalo State College bilingual education program and Judith Harris, a faculty member and director of the Tonawanda-Grand Island Teacher Center. It was exactly the kind of welcome wagon he needed.
“I feel like a little boy starting school,” said Rivera, as he picked up an Acer tablet and teacher education textbook provided through a regional teacher center grant. He also listened intently as teachers from last year’s program described how the emotional, instructional and technical supports they received were nothing short of “lifelines” for their success.
Rivera is one of 20 teachers from Puerto Rico who were recruited by Buffalo City Schools to fill much-needed bilingual educator positions. While Buffalo has historically had a large Spanish-speaking population, the numbers have grown dramatically since last year’s Hurricane Maria. In 2017–18, more than 500 students from Puerto Rico enrolled in Buffalo schools, with many more arriving over the summer. Statewide, as of the end of last school year, more than 2,500 students from Puerto Rico relocated to New York schools. As a result, districts around the state are struggling with a severe shortage of bilingual educators.
While the New York Board of Regents approved one-year emergency certification for teachers from Puerto Rico and the state had allowed in-state tuition for SUNY and CUNY students from Puerto Rico, these newcomers face a number of challenges to becoming permanently certified teachers.
“It’s a very complicated process, with varying individual circumstances,” said Colón, who coordinates the college’s bilingual graduate certification program.
Educators with less than three years of teaching in Puerto Rico public schools (or those from higher education or private schools) must pass all of New York’s certification exams, including the edTPA portfolio assessment — all while settling into a new home and teaching full time. Educators with more experience are exempted from those requirements but need to complete a bilingual extension certificate and, in many cases, earn a master’s degree.
“While many of these teachers are highly qualified educators, they are English language learners themselves and the challenges are great,” said Harris, who worked with Colón to provide a crash course on edTPA requirements for the newcomers. “They have to work even harder.”
Stefany Arce, who is starting her second year as a bilingual kindergarten teacher, said the tablet the program provides is like a lifeline. She uses it to translate her college textbook readings, discussions at faculty meetings and for classroom learning center activities.
Then there are the emotional supports.
“The traumainformed care we provide to our students is to some extent what we need to provide for these teachers,” Harris said. “Just like the students, these teachers are displaced, too.”
Colón, whose own family emigrated from Puerto Rico, said many of these teachers faced difficult decisions to leave their homeland and they are separated from their family. That’s why she tries to create a family-like support system and connect the newcomers with essential community-based groups.
Colón and Harris, who are both members of United University Professions at Buffalo State, said the retention rate for the program has so far been promising, with all eight of last year’s cohort returning to teach in Buffalo and taking courses at the college this fall. Under School of Education Dean Wendy Paterson, Buffalo State works closely with area teacher centers, building bridges between higher ed and P-12 educators.
“The support system is working, but continued funding is uncertain,” Colón said, noting tuition assistance and state Teachers for Tomorrow grants are in question. While the $2,200 teacher center grant provided books and tablets for this group, the state cut teacher center funding for this school year.
“These teachers need our help,” Harris said. “If we don’t support these teachers, we will never be able to meet the needs of these children who are growing in numbers daily.”