HARTFORD—The Paso a Paso and new Caribbean Connection programs at Hartford Public Schools have brought in and retained a total of 25 bilingual teachers for the 2023-2024 school year, amid state-wide teacher shortages.
About nine teachers have been recruited through the brand-new Caribbean Connection initiative—four from the pilot program last winter and an additional five beginning this fall—according to the Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Office.
While about 500 people had attended virtual information sessions on both programs and the Superintendent’s Office had received more than 330 applications in January, limited funding and the complex process of obtaining J1 Visas for hires from Caribbean nations meant that the district could only recruit a certain number of teachers.
“I think in terms of the recruitment and also the retention…that speaks to the support systems that the teams internally here have developed and also that the cohort has developed amongst themselves… So I would say it has been very successful,” shared HPS Executive Director of Communications and Marketing Jesse Sugarman.
However, the Superintendent’s Office shared uncertainty on whether both programs will continue next school year due to a lack of funding. These initiatives have been supported by American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds, which expire in September 2024.
Connecticut schools saw hundreds of vacancies this past school year—especially in areas such as bilingual education, special education, world languages, math, and science. Large, urban districts including Hartford, New Haven, and Meriden have been experiencing acute shortages.
Currently, Hartford’s public school district has 64 classroom vacancies but a spokesperson for Hartford Public Schools said that number is expected to change as new hires and late resignations are still being processed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged teachers and young students in ways most of us have never experienced. Research confirms that educators have felt intense levels of stress and burnout, resulting in waves of retirement and large numbers of resignations across the country.
Amid these shortages, students require robust support from faculty they can trust and relate to, shared Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez of Hartford Public Schools.
About 57 percent of Hartford students identify as Hispanic-Latino and 30 percent of students identify as Black or African American, while 25 percent of instructors identify as people of color. More than one in five Hartford students are also English Language Learners (ELL).
“Though we have the highest rate, compared to the state, in terms of educators of color, we still have a significant gap. So, every opportunity that we get to be intentional, as to not only our recruitment but also our retention efforts, we’re going to double down on that.”Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez
In the 2022-2023 school year, seven teachers from the Paso a Paso program supported about 230 multilingual learners. Research has shown that English Language Learners typically perform better academically when they are first taught in their native language.
“What helped with Paso a Paso, there’s an already thriving Latino, Puerto Rican community here and there’s a West Indian community here,” Torres-Rodriguez told CT Latino News. “So, there are ties and community support networks that have already been flourishing for years, decades.”
Teachers in both programs were expected to fill positions in bilingual elementary education, Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL), English, special education, world language, math, science, music, and art.
Aside from recruitment efforts, Connecticut educators have emphasized the importance of retaining faculty to resolve the state-wide and nation-wide shortage.
“We can keep hiring the new folks who are coming out of teacher prep programs, but if we’re losing teachers who are 10 years in, 15 years in, it’s not going to solve the problem,” Leslie Blatteau of the New Haven Federation of Teachers told CT Insider.
During informational sessions for both programs, candidates asked about potential opportunities for further education and professional development. In January, Torres-Rodriguez knew of at least two teachers in the Paso a Paso program who were interested in pursuing doctoral degrees.
“These are individuals that are coming here not just because they’re here to serve, and they find a connection to this community, but they also want to continue to grow, and grow the profession, and continue to give back, which is in alignment with our value set,” she said.
Central Connecticut State University had shared a strong interest in partnering with the school district to support Paso a Paso teachers interested in pursuing advanced studies, shared Torres-Rodriguez.
At the same time, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) has been working with Hartford Public Schools in reviewing candidates of both programs to determine their eligibility for Connecticut Teacher Certification.
“We truly believe that having high-quality educators [who] our students can identify with is a benefit not just for students of color, but for all of our students,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “We know that there’s a society that is not a monolithic society—that it’s representative of so many things, whether it’s ethnic and cultural and gender and abilities. And that is what we’re aiming for…that every one of our students feel that they are seen, that they are heard, that they matter.”