Pupils in Maria Rodriguez's third-grade class at Mill Creek Towne Elementary School near Rockville learned how to count and say simple expressions in Spanish last school year. They tasted pilones, which are cone-shaped Puerto Rican lollipops, and they learned about the Puerto Rican tradition of parrandas, small groups that serenade friends before dawn during the Christmas season.
Rodriguez, 24, who was born in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and taught there for several years before coming to Montgomery County, also shared her Hispanic background with the four other third grade teachers at the school. For Christmas, she gave them each a bottle of coquito, a potent holiday concoction of rum and coconut milk. During a lesson on Mexico, she corrected their Spanish pronunciation.
The ethnic flavor brought to Montgomery County classrooms by teachers like Rodriguez is becoming more commonplace as school officials embark on the second year of an aggressive program to recruit more minority teachers. Twenty-two percent of new teachers last year were minority group members, nearly double the percentage of recent years.
The county's push to hire more minority teachers is especially keen now because Montgomery's minority student population has dramatically increased in recent years to about 30 percent of the 94,000 students. A growing number of new arrivals are poorly educated Central American refugees who need special help, according to county officials.
Montgomery County has been slower than some area jurisdictions in recruiting minority teachers, who compose 12.7 percent of the 6,725-member teaching staff. But as a result of the intense minority recruitment effort, the first ever in the school system, 117 of the more than 500 new teachers hired last year were black, Asian or Hispanic.
School officials believe the minority recruitment drive, which included intensive recruiting trips to San Juan and to New York City, has worked well -- with some caveats.
Seven of the 21 teachers recruited in Puerto Rico last year, for example, either turned down the job offer at the last minute or returned home when they discovered the high cost of living in the Washington area.
Except for such disappointments, James Shinn, director of personnel services for the school system said, the minority hiring plan has had positive results because the school system has not had to cancel the contracts of any of the newly hired minority teachers.
Encouraged by what they see as a successful program, a team of three recruiters repeated last year's effort, visiting predominantly black colleges, attending minority job fairs and returning to New York and San Juan, where they place ads in local newspapers and interview applicants in hotel suites.
Other area school districts also are trying to woo minority teachers, with varying degrees of success.
Alexandria has had a minority recuitment plan for more than 10 years and 31 percent of its 850 teachers are members of minority groups, most of them black. Nearly 25 percent of Arlington's 1,000 teachers are minorities and school officials hope to increase that. In Fairfax County, where 9 percent of the teachers are minority, school officials are aiming at an 18 percent minority target. In Prince George's, 60 percent of students and 38 percent of teachers are minority.
And, in the District, where 97 percent of the students are minority, 91 percent of the school system's teachers are minority.
In Montgomery, some of the Puerto Rican teachers, especially those who had not been to the mainland before, have had a difficult time adjusting. Although Montgomery's starting salary of more than $19,000 a year is far higher than Puerto Rico's $7,000, many teachers were shocked at the high cost of rent and utilities here.
Some of the new arrivals had family problems. The married teachers brought their spouses, many of whom had a difficult time finding jobs because they were not fluent in English.
Eva Diaz-Cabrera, a teacher at Montgomery Knolls Elementary, said she and her husband Juan and three children are returning to Puerto Rico because her husband could not find a good job here.
"I'm not happy about leaving," Diaz-Cabrera, 44, said, "but I have no choice unless I divorce my husband, and that's not a good idea."
Edwin Natal and his wife, Carmen Guzman, who have education degrees from universities in Puerto Rico, taught here last year and now plan on making a long-term commitment to Montgomery, he said, mainly because of their salaries (he is paid $24,000 and she is paid $27,000) and because he plans to pursue an engineering degree here.
But there have been some rough spots, said Natal, who teaches math and science to disabled students at Walter Johnson High School.
Language was a problem for Natal who spoke halting, broken English at the beginning of the school year. "On the first day of school they told me 'Go to the learning center and see this person,' " he recalled, speaking slowly but clearly in English. "I went there alone and I introduced myself. I was very scared and the words were hard to find."
A teacher was assigned to guide Natal until he could become fluent enough and familiar enough with the materials to take over the class. That took three weeks, he said, and then he was fine.
Maria Rodriguez speaks flawless English, something she attributes to the three years she lived on the mainland when her father served in the Army, and to her brief stint in an exchange program for teachers at Trenton State College in New Jersey.
Mill Creek Towne Elementary has only about 15 Hispanic pupils, and Rodriguez has tried out some new ideas on her students and fellow teachers. Last year, her pupils got a daily 15-minute Spanish lesson, and a slide show and music from Puerto Rico. She talked about her birthplace and encouraged the students to do the same.
The other third grade teachers, a tight-knit group that team-teaches third grade, have been especially kind to Rodriguez, who does not have any close relatives on the mainland, she said. She has had invitations to dinner, to a ski trip, and even to the bar mitzvah of a colleague's son.
Although her long-term goal is to teach at a county school with a large Hispanic population, Rodriguez sees her current assignment as a blessing in disguise.
"I had a guilty conscience about it because I didn't think that's what I was brought over here for," she said. "But it was good for the kids, because there is an image of Hispanics that they can't be professional people and bilingual.
"I don't have an accent and it shocks everyone. They often say, 'Oh, you can't be Puerto Rican' and I say, 'Yes, I am.' "