Foreign Teachers Favored in S.C. K-12 Hiring, Recruiter Claims

December 20, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveDespite the loss of thousands of teaching jobs in South Carolina in recent years, some public school districts in the Palmetto State have been hiring foreign teachers over American applicants, a teacher recruiter claims.

J. Renee Gordon, who runs an educator recruiting firm in Thomasville, Ga., called E Squared, told The Nerve that she has experienced difficulty in placing American applicants mainly in predominantly rural K-12 districts that, according to state records, have a proportionally higher number of foreign teachers.

“I went to Lee County and pitched it (her company’s services), and I didn’t get my foot in the door, but they’re hiring Indian teachers,” she said. “If I’ve placed five teachers in Williamsburg County, they have placed 25 Indian teachers.”

“Are Americans not getting jobs because of this? Absolutely,” Gordon contended.

But Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, told The Nerve that she has not heard of any complaints about the situation; and officials in several rural school districts contacted by The Nerve last week denied they were discriminating against American applicants.

“When people come out of college, they don’t want to come to small, rural areas,” said Thelma Sojourner, the Bamberg 2 superintendent. “We are forced to go to international teachers.”

School officials interviewed by The Nerve said there typically are shortages of math, science and special education teachers in rural districts.

Asked about foreign teachers in public schools, Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, told The Nerve in a written response last week:  “For many years, particularly in the early 2000s up until very shortly, there were many districts that could not find applicants for open positions. There was a tremendous shortage. These international teachers filled a great void.”

Spearman said the association’s position on teacher hiring is to “have the best teacher possible in each class.” She did not respond, however, to a follow-up question about whether that specifically meant school districts should hire foreign teachers over American applicants.

Jay Ragley, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education, told The Nerve last week that his agency has not surveyed any districts about whether foreign teachers have been given preferential treatment in hiring.

“Teacher hiring decisions are between the school district and the potential teacher,” he said. “SCDE does not directly hire teachers with one exception: the South Carolina Virtual School, and I can confirm there are no (international) teachers in that program.”

School district officials interviewed by The Nerve said foreign teachers employed in S.C. school districts typically are in the country through the U.S. Department of State’s “J-1” visa program. That program allows foreign teachers to stay in the United States for up to three years, though the stays can be legally extended, district officials said.

Ragley said foreign teachers participate in the state’s teacher certification system and receive an “international certificate,” which is good up to three years.

“After three years, they return to their home country,” he said.

During last school year in South Carolina, there were 115 foreign teachers working in 28 mostly rural school districts and the state charter school district, according to state Department of Education figures provided to The Nerve. Those numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years, from 428 in the 2008-09 school year to 208 in 2009-10.

Ragley said he couldn’t explain the decrease, though Maness attributed it in part to the loss of approximately 4,000 teaching jobs statewide since the Great Recession. She also said she believes that organizations geared toward encouraging Americans to become public school teachers have provided competition to companies that recruit foreign teachers.

When informed of the number of foreign teachers working last school year in South Carolina, Gordon, who noted she was a corporate head-hunter for 20 years before starting her own recruiting company five years ago, replied, “Could I find 115 teachers in the U.S. to teach in South Carolina? In a New York minute.”

Small Districts Hiring

The Williamsburg County School District led all districts last school year with 16 international teachers, followed by Richland 1 (14), Colleton (10), Orangeburg 3 (9), and Clarendon 2 (8), DOE records show.

In comparison, Richland 1 led all districts in 2009-10 with 22 foreign teachers, followed by Williamsburg, Sumter 2 and Jasper (13 each); Charleston (12) ,  Colleton (10) and Sumter 17 (9) records show. In 2008-90, the five districts employing the most foreign teachers were Richland 1 (58), Williamsburg (36), Greenville (25), Sumter 2 (22) and Sumter 17 (21).

As a percentage of all teachers, a number of smaller, rural districts had proportionally more foreign teachers compared to larger, urban districts, according to The Nerve’s review of DOE records. Last school year, for example, the Hampton 2 and Bamberg 2 districts, which had five and four international teachers, respectively, led all districts in the percentage of those teachers at 6 percent each.

Those districts were followed by Williamsburg (5 percent) and Clarendon 2 and Orangeburg 3 (4 percent each), records show.

Williamsburg County Schools Superintendent Yvonne Jefferson-Barnes, whose district led all districts last school year in the number of foreign teachers, did not respond to written and phone messages last week from The Nerve.

Contacted last week, Colleton County Schools Superintendent Leila Williams told The Nerve that her district this school year employs the same number of international teachers – 10 – as last year, adding that they are from India, Romania and the Philippines. Those individuals teach special education, or math or science courses at the elementary or secondary levels, she said.

Williams said her district has been using foreign teachers for more than six years.

“Being a rural district and being able to expose the students to other cultures – that has really helped our students,” she said.

Williams said she has not turned away American applicants in favor of international candidates, noting that her small district has unsuccessfully tried to recruit U.S. candidates in math, science and special education through in-state or out-of-state job fairs.

“What we find out at these job fairs is that it’s so competitive,” Williams said, explaining that her district typically can’t offer the “largest jewels” in terms of pay to candidates.

Foreign Teachers More Expensive?

Gordon,  who runs the educator recruiting company in Georgia, said hiring foreign teachers often is more expensive for taxpayers, noting that recruiting fees paid by school districts to companies that supply international teachers can annually run as much as $10,000 per hire, compared to her one-time per-hire fee of about $6,000 for a similar American candidate.

But Williams said a firm known as the Teachers Placement Group, which supplies her district with foreign teachers, charges 5 percent of that teacher’s salary, which is far less than the $10,000 figure cited by Gordon.

Williams could not provide The Nerve with specifics for any of the 10 teachers in her district, though when asked for an example, she said the district would be charged $2,100 in recruiting fees for a teacher earning $42,000 yearly and having a master’s degree and at least six years’ experience.

Besides the Teachers Placement Group, other companies that have recruited foreign teachers in recent years for S.C. school districts included the Amity Institute, Foreign Academic and Cultural Exchange Services (FACES), International Teacher Exchange Services (ITES), the Visiting International Faculty (VIF) program,  and Educational Partners International (EPI), according to information provided by DOE spokesman Ragley.

“There are six companies the agency has reviewed for quality,” Ragley said. “There are others that operate in the state that have not been reviewed by (DOE), but there is no law requiring a review.”

An advantage of hiring foreign teachers is that they typically stay for the full three years of their J-1 visas – and beyond if the visas are extended – because their salaries often are far higher than what they would earn in their home countries, and the teachers often send money home to support their families, said Gardner Johnson, human resources director for the Marlboro County School District.

That cuts down on turnover costs, Johnson said, noting his district’s overall annual teacher-turnover rate is about 11 percent.

Marlboro County employs two chemistry and biology teachers – both from the Philippines – at the secondary-school level, Johnson said.

“That is a critical-needs area,” he said. “That is a difficult position to fill.”

‘A Global World’

Sojourner, the Bamberg 2 superintendent, said her district employs six foreign primary and secondary school teachers who originate from countries that include India and the Philippines.

She said the district has used international teachers for the past five years, adding that most of them have stayed the full three years of their visas.

“If they’re doing a good job, the district will keep them for the three years,” Sojourner said.

The only problem she said she is aware of with foreign teachers is that “in some cases, it’s difficult for our students to understand what they’re saying.”

But despite potential language barriers, foreign teachers are an asset in the classroom, says Vamshi Rudrapati, the curriculum coordinator for the Mary L. Dinkins Higher Learning Academy, a charter school in Bishopville, Lee County.

In an interview last week, Rudrapati, who is from India, told The Nerve that he was a special education teacher for three years in Lee County Public Schools through the J-1 visa program before joining the charter school. He said he is legally working in the country under a different visa program.

Rudrapati also is the president of a recently created company called the Professional Consulting and Placement Group, described on its website as “an evolving placement group, placing professional teachers from India that fit specific needs of each school district.”

“They’re really dedicated to the job,” Rudrapati said about foreign teachers, explaining that they typically are more focused on their work because they usually have no relatives in the United States and are not as burdened by immediate family responsibilities.

An added advantage of having foreign teachers in the classroom is that they can enlighten students about their respective cultures, Rudrapati said.

“This is a global world,” he said. “If you have a dream in this global world, you need it (experience with foreign teachers).”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.