Eye on Education

Fresno Unified recruits educators from Starbucks to Mexico

More than 300 new teachers will join the Fresno Unified School District this year, some who have been recruited while waiting tables or bagging groceries, others who have been recruited from as far as Mexico.

As of Aug. 8 – one week before Monday’s start of the school year – nearly 50 Fresno Unified classrooms were still without a teacher, in part due to California’s teacher shortage. Fresno Unified is now recruiting far and wide, tapping into programs that allow alternative teaching certifications and admittedly getting creative.

“We’ve recruited from the dog park, from The Cheesecake Factory and Starbucks. Wherever we go, we recruit constantly,” said Cyndy Quintana, human relations administrator for the district. “There is a teacher shortage, but Fresno Unified is alive and well and being creative. Everyday is an interview.”

Crossing borders

In the past year, Quintana has traveled up and down the state and flown to New York, Texas and New Mexico in search of teachers to bring to Fresno Unified – California’s fourth-largest school district. And she has good selling points: You can afford to live here on a teacher’s salary, unlike educators struggling to make ends meet in the Bay Area. Yosemite National Park is within a reasonable drive, she tells them. And a beach isn’t too far away, either.

Quintana has become a walking, talking billboard for the city of Fresno, and is willing to do what it takes to fill classrooms. This summer, she had three teachers from Mexico living in her home to help them get on their feet. She recently traveled to Mexico to recruit and came back with five new teachers – the first time the district has tapped that country for educators in 20 years.

The teachers were hired as part of a California Department of Education program that helps districts find qualified candidates from other countries and fronts the costs to sponsor them, while also assisting incoming teachers with their work visas and other paperwork.

Lucero Escareno, 28, is from Coahuila, Mexico, and taught there for six years. She starts at Sunset Elementary School this week, a bilingual school in Fresno, and sees her own learning experiences during her first trip to the United States as a connection with her future students.

“I think it’s going to be a real challenge. As you can see, I’m struggling right now with my English, so maybe those students are also struggling,” she said. “I’m here to help them and connect with them and to learn, too.”

For Mexican teachers like Escareno, teaching in the U.S. is an upgrade, often meaning more resources, more professional development and better pay. In Mexico, Escareno made about $700 a month as a teacher. On average, teachers in Fresno County make between $65,000 and $80,000 annually, according to 2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The state of teachers in Oaxaca made international headlines earlier this year as protests and strikes over classroom conditions led to clashes with police – and even deaths. “In all of Mexico, the situation with teachers is really critical. They haven’t given us the opportunity to grow,” Escareno said. “In Mexico, education is not at grade level, and here, it is. So for us to come here and be selected by the district is really important.”

Aaron Faz, 38, of Monterrey, Mexico, will teach math at Yosemite Middle School this year, and is wide-eyed when he talks about the technology he has here to help kids learn.

“One of the biggest problems in Mexico is we don’t have technology in the classrooms in public schools. No computers, no smart boards, nothing,” he said. “I had two jobs. In the morning, working at a public school without technology, and in the afternoon, working in a private school with the highest technology. And you could see the difference – the struggling.”

Escareno, Faz and others are following a path blazed by teachers like Rogelio Hernandez. He was recruited from Mexico in the mid-’90s and has taught for Fresno Unified for 18 years. He’s now an instructional coach for teacher development and says it’s not just about what Mexican teachers can do for the district’s large Latino student population.

“It’s good for all of the kids. They can see how it’s different – the diversity that we have here – and how we are all connected,” Hernandez said. “We’re trying to get to kids in whatever ways they need to succeed. And for us, Fresno Unified is a great district. They are worried about our needs.”

Alternative routes to teaching

Right now, 449 teaching in Fresno County schools are not fully credentialed – about 5 percent of the county’s total teachers.

Many did not go to college with the intention of becoming teachers, and they are part of programs that allow bachelor degree holders to receive teaching credentials in about a year’s time. Fresno Unified teachers who are still going through the process receive mentors and get help preparing for the tests that will determine if they can receive their credential.

One is Corina Lacy, who used to work in human resources in the district and help recruit teachers, but found herself taking her own advice. With a bachelor’s degree in business administration, she’s taking courses at National University’s Fresno campus to receive her teaching credential, and has been teaching at McLane High School for two years.

“Right now I’m an intern, so I’m not fully credentialed, but I’m working my way toward it,” Lacy said at a teacher training session this month. “It was a big career change for me. Ever since I was younger, I loved to inspire children. And seeing the need for teachers and the excitement on their faces when we recruited them  it made me think about what I really wanted to do.”

It may not be the traditional path to becoming a teacher, but it’s become the norm. The number of the state’s teachers hired with temporary or intern permits has doubled in the last two years, totaling nearly 8,000 in the 2014-15 school year, according to a report released this year by the Learning Policy Institute. That’s a third of all the teaching credentials issued that year.

“While alternative certification is never the best way to put a teacher in front of a kid, right now, that’s how we’re filling our positions – as is every other district. It’s a great way to get second-career folks into the profession,” Quintana said. “But we’re not going to just put anyone in a classroom. The last thing you want to do is put someone in front of a group of kids and have them fail.”

Fresno Unified is also reaching out to retirees to substitute teach because those numbers are hurting as well. While the district has had a 99 percent fill rate in the past six years, that’s still a shortage of teachers.

“If you’ve got 20 classrooms empty, that’s 180 kids affected by not having a teacher,” Quintana said.

Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, knew the shortage was bad when the school district asked her, too, to help recruit.

“How often does a labor group get asked to do that?” she said. “They’re trying to pull from everywhere. We’re on the cusp of it. This is not ending, it’s just beginning.”

Rice has been tracking young teachers who choose to leave the district, finding out why they left and seeing what the district can do to get them to stay.

“We need to look at how we’re retaining people and supporting them,” she said. “It’s a perfect storm. You’ve got all of these Baby Boomers retiring at the same time, coupled with young people not going into the profession. These folks in college don’t look at teaching as a viable career.”

Teaching teachers

While traveling this summer, Susan Schlievert passed a billboard in Monterey County advertising for teachers, and she shook her head.

Schlievert has worked at Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development for nearly 20 years and leads introduction to teaching classes. Like many universities, Fresno State’s number of aspiring teachers is also on the decline.

Schlievert says a combination of many concerns have young people rethinking the profession. Some haven’t forgotten about the teacher layoffs that came with the Great Recession. Some are fearful of the pressures of high-stakes testing. Some are swayed by more and more stories of students attacking teachers in Fresno Unified.

“Teachers are blamed for a lot of society’s ills. I think the public perception and the disrespect  You don’t see that in a lot of other countries. Some of my students get a lot of hassle from family members, saying, ‘Why do you want to go teach?’ like it’s not a good job,” Schlievert said. “But the people who want to do this really want to do this. They see themselves as an agent of change. They figure the students that they would get in their classrooms are going to be making the decisions for them as they get older. They’re really quite philosophical about it. There’s a good bunch of them out there, we just need to get them.”

One of those new teachers is Thomas Williams. A graduate of Fresno Unified himself, Williams will teach for the first time this year at Ahwahnee Middle School, after first working as a campus safety assistant at the school. Williams, who is teaching math – one of the subjects hardest hit by the shortage – said he faced a lot of resistance from his peers when he decided to go into teaching.

“There are a lot of teachers, even in our district, that will tell you that you don’t want to be a teacher. They said if you want to teach math, go into engineering instead. But I had teachers that didn’t give up on me. How could I give up on these students?” Williams said. “It’s a great thing when you get something through to a student or athlete for the first time and you see that light bulb go off. You see them push through a wall they couldn’t get through.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

Upcoming first days of school across the Valley

Monday: Fresno Unified

Tuesday: Washington Unified, Washington Colony, Sierra Unified, Fowler Unified, Cutler-Orosi

Wednesday: Alvina Elementary Charter, Big Creek, Clay Joint, Coalinga-Huron Unified, Monte Vista School, Kings Canyon Unified, Laton Unified, Monroe, Pacific Union, Parlier Unified, Pine Ridge, Chawanakee Unified, Alta Vista, Hot Springs, Kings River, Central Union, Lemoore Union Elementary School District, Reef-Sunset Unified

Thursday: Kingsburg Elementary Charter, Orange Center, Sanger Unified, Pixley, Terra Bella

Aug. 22: Clovis Unified, Kingsburg Joint Union High

Other districts opened last week.