The surge in Hispanic students across the nation is forcing schools to reckon with a deep shortage of teachers who share their cultural heritage.
More than 21 percent of schoolchildren are Hispanic, experts report, compared with 7 percent of teachers. No other racial or ethnic minority group has such a wide disparity. In the struggle to close this gap, the stakes are high: Research suggests that a more diverse faculty might lead to better attendance, fewer suspensions and higher test scores.
This month, the left-leaning Center for American Progress reported that almost every state — including Maryland and Virginia — has a large need for more minority teachers.
Beltsville Academy was so desperate for a Hispanic teacher that it hired one who is still learning English.
“Today, we’re doing things we like and things we no like,” David Colon told sixth-grade Spanish students at the Prince George’s County public school one recent day. He directed them to a fill-in-the-blanks exercise with the verb “gustar” — to like. “Me gusta, no me gusta.”
Prince George’s, like many school systems, faces several challenges in finding Hispanic teachers in tight budget times. Many of its Hispanic residents are immigrants and lack college degrees. County recruiters have tried several strategies: word of mouth, e-mail blasts, going to Puerto Rico, recruiting from colleges with many Hispanic students and offering to cover job prospects’ relocation costs to sweeten the deal.
“If we hear of a Hispanic teacher who is qualified, we are going to go after them,” said Robert Gaskin, the county’s recruiting director. “Everyone is.”
Gaskin said Colon’s assets as an educator outweigh the challenges of his limited English.
Of 126,000 students in Maryland’s second-largest system, 21 percent are Hispanic. But among teachers, the share is 2 percent.
Hispanic families have established enclaves in the northwestern part of the county, sending children to schools such as Beltsville. Driven in part by a wave of immigrants from Central America, the number of students at the school whose parents can’t afford the full cost of lunch has climbed. So has the number learning English.
In the hallways, white walls are decorated with drawings of caterpillars turning into butterflies. Inside the cafeteria, another evolution is visible.
When the eighth-graders eat, two Hispanic students can be seen for every black student. But when pre-kindergartners take their turn, the room is almost entirely Hispanic. They are the school’s future.
The portion of Hispanic students in public schools nationwide doubled from 1989 to 2009, federal data show, and will rise further in coming years. In test scores and graduation rates, Hispanic students trail their non-Hispanic white and Asian peers.
Advocates are counting on teachers like Colon to help bridge a growing cultural gap and raise Hispanic academic performance.
“It’s a tough world out there for our county’s Latino youth,” said Enid Gonzalez, a lawyer with CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group. “They look around their school and they don’t see one person who looks like them unless they are a janitor or on the support staff. We are losing young minds.’’
Colon, 29, has small eyes, slick black hair, pale skin and animated hands. His students have taught him some good lingo — among his favorites, “Don’t go there!” He can read and write in English, but his tongue speeds through a Spanglish blend.
“My mother, her English: excellent. My father, excellent,” Colon said. “Pero me, eh, regular.”
A friend helped him translate this point: “I try to tell the kids that my English is limited, so I hope you don’t judge me. In this class, we don’t judge each other — we help each other.’’
Most of the region’s large school systems say they could use a little help in the recruiting.
In Montgomery and Prince William counties, about one out of every four students is Hispanic. But the share among teachers is one in 20. In Fairfax County, the gap is 20 percent (students) to 3 percent (teachers).
In the District and Anne Arundel County, the gaps are much smaller.
Schools have long faced racial, ethnic and other imbalances in the teacher workforce. Prince George’s has been relatively successful at recruiting black teachers by marketing itself as one of the country’s best-known centers of black affluence. Half of its teachers are black, more than five times the national average.
The system benefits from a pipeline of black alumni who return to teach. There is no pipeline among Hispanics yet.
For out-of-town hiring, competition is stiff. School systems comb through the private sector, looking for professionals in search of a higher purpose. They battle at job fairs at Hispanic-serving colleges.
In the last year alone, a dozen systems visited Florida International University, a Hispanic-serving institution in Miami, according to its dean, Delia Garcia. But a place such as Prince George’s can be a hard sell for students who have no roots in the county.
“We tend to be a family-based group and want to remain close to our families,” Garcia said.
Colon came to Prince George’s because he had roots here. When his health-education position in Puerto Rico was cut in 2009, his godmother — a teacher at Charles H. Flowers High School — referred him.
He took an exam to demonstrate proficiency for teaching Spanish. The questions were in English, and he responded in Spanish.
Last school year, Beltsville Principal Rashida Edwards invited him to teach Spanish. She has 80 teachers on staff, but she can count on one hand the number who speak the language.
An interpreter helps Colon speak with parents who don’t know Spanish. Like some parents, he also has discovered the challenge of dealing with a central office that doesn’t understand him.
“He’s been a jewel to the school,” Edwards said. “He’s great at communicating with parents, and the kids love him.”
In the hallway between classes, Hispanic students give Colon hugs and fist bumps and share stories.
“I got a new pollo at home,” Ashley Recinos, a sixth-grader who is lobbying to be in his class next year, tells him about her pet chicken. “He’s so cute. But he broke his pata,” she said, pointing to the back of her ankle.
“A real chicken? Here?’’ asked Colon, shocked that the pet could withstand four seasons. “Oy, hace frio” — it’s cold.
In an eighth-grade class, he teaches nine native Spanish speakers the finer points of reading and writing in the language. They teach him, too.
“Es un beso,” an eighth-grader says, pointing to a tear-dropped candy wrapped in silver foil.
“No,” Colon corrected. “Es chocolate.”
“No, in English,” the student said. “They call this candy a ‘Kiss.’ ”
Another recent day, a sixth-grader pulled Colon aside. The student said his family was undocumented, and he was terrified that police would take him away.
Colon had a ready answer.
“Don’t worry about that,” the teacher said. “Focus on your class and your [grade point average] and don’t waste the opportunity that your parents have given to you to learn here. People with good GPAs get help.”