The federal government has agreed to grant special six-year visas to foreigners to teach math, science and foreign languages in public schools, for the first time putting educators in the same class as computer programmers and other high-tech workers.

The Chicago public school system is recruiting teachers abroad and bringing them to the city under special visas issued by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, in a new approach that could be copied by other cities.

As part of a "global educators outreach program," the INS will issue 50 work visas a year to foreign nationals to help fill 400 teaching vacancies in the Chicago system, which, with 20,000 teachers and 431,000 students, is the nation's third-largest school district.

Public education thus becomes the latest job sector, after high technology, scientific research laboratories and universities, to be given access to special work visas to meet staff shortages. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 2.2 million teachers will be needed to meet enrollment increases in the next 10 years and to offset the large number of baby boomer teachers who are approaching retirement.

Gery Chico, president of the Chicago Board of Education, said this week the way was paved for the recruitment of foreign teachers when the Labor Department certified the existence of a critical shortage of educators with certain specialties and agreed to approve candidates for special work certificates.

"It's a hugely important program for public school education," Chico said in an interview. "My hope is other cities will follow Chicago when they see that this kind of program can help fill the gap in the supply of teachers coming out of colleges in this country."

He added, "We must find more teachers in our critical areas. If they are not available in the United States, we need to reach out to other countries." In addition to instructors in math, science and foreign languages, teachers are desperately needed in bilingual education, particularly in multicultural cities such as Chicago, Chico said.

Brian Perryman, INS district director here, emphasized that Chicago was seeking only the most highly qualified foreign teachers and that expansion of the program would depend largely on how school districts evaluate its progress.

"This is not a dumbing-down of teachers. This is raising up the standards," said Perryman. He said that other districts could gauge Chicago's success and "then take it to Congress and say, 'Look, this is how this critical shortage needs to be addressed.' "

Chico said the recruitment effort is focusing on countries with sizable English-speaking populations, including Britain, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Israel, Latin America and some Arab countries. He said the first three recruits are a Chinese scientist, a physics teacher from the Palestinian West Bank and the head of a British school in Colombia.

School officials said recruiters will use the Internet, advertisements in foreign newspapers and contacts with universities abroad. Foreign nationals attending U.S. colleges on student visas also will be targeted.

Chico said recruits will be given lodging and a stipend during six weeks of training here. After being assigned to classrooms, they will be allowed to borrow as much as three months' salary to meet travel and housing costs. The starting salary for Chicago teachers is about $35,000 a year.

The school system will apply to the Illinois Education Department for temporary teaching certificates for all approved applicants, who will be expected to complete the requirements for a standard state teaching certificate within four years, officials said.

Officials said the school system will act as sponsor for the recruits' work visas, and that at the end of the first, fourth and fifth year of service will decide whether to continue sponsorship. At the end of six years, school administrators will decide whether to sponsor the recruits for permanent visas.

INS officials said the agency's quota for the special H1-B critical need work visas is 115,000 a year, raised from 65,000 annually largely because of a shortage of workers in high-technology industries.

Normally, employers advertising positions abroad are required to demonstrate to the Labor Department on a case-by-case basis that the job will pay the prevailing wage and that the employer was unable to fill the job domestically. The new program allows the Labor Department to certify a bloc of positions, and then the INS grants the special visas individually, officials said.

Chico said that Chicago hires 1,500 to 2,000 new teachers a year, and that as the pool of applicants shrinks, the quality of teachers is likely to suffer.

"Like other big school districts facing this critical shortage, we have some student teachers and some unqualified teachers," the board president said. "We want to go out and hire better-qualified teachers, and if foreign countries are the only place we can find them, then we have to look there."

Educators say the problem is national in scope. In a recent speech to the President's Conference on Teaching Quality in Washington, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said, "The squeeze has gotten so tight that some schools have been forced to put any warm body in front of a classroom." He estimated that 250,000 teachers are working without proper preparation in course content "or without any kind of training in how to teach."

Erica Lepping, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the global outreach program is a locally initiated effort, but that the department will closely monitor its progress to decide whether to try it nationally.

In the last school year, the New York City school system hired 31 math and science teachers it recruited in Austria under an arrangement with the Austrian-American Education Cooperation Association, and this year it added 24 more, according to Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the New York Board of Education.

Feinberg said the first year's experiment proved to be so successful that the school system is conducting a large-scale advertising campaign in Austria for more teachers. The New York recruits are being certified for work visas on a case-by-case basis instead of under the bloc certification approach being taken in Chicago.