Hartford Public Schools is looking somewhere new to bolster its teaching staff: Puerto Rico.
The school district has hired more than a dozen teachers from the island territory for the upcoming school year through a program called “Paso a Paso.”
More Spanish phrases will be heard in classrooms this school year thanks to the teacher recruitment program.
“Right now, being bilingual, it's kind of like the new superpower!” Emily Bellon, a “Paso a Paso” kindergarten teacher, said. “ I plan to offer them that as much as I can.”
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The recruits are getting settled.
“I see the city is amazing, beautiful, clean. This is my second day,” Ray Luna, a “Paso a Paso” elementary art teacher said.
Although Connecticut is new to them, teaching is not.
“I’m going to be teaching kindergarten, this is my third year,” Bellon said.
“Ten years teaching elementary school, my class is art class. Creativity is very important,” Luna added.
They are now ready to share their skills with local students.
“I love to be adventurous. I love to improvise on the spot,” Bellon said. “Most importantly, I want to become the teacher that I always wanted to have when I was a kid.”
Twelve teachers have already made their way from Puerto Rico to Hartford, taking part in a welcome event at Parkville Market on Wednesday. Another three will also be setting up classrooms, making a total of 15 new teachers in Hartford Public Schools.
Paso a Paso is part of larger hiring efforts to address teacher shortages driven by the pandemic.
“The staffing shortage is real, we feel it deeply, we're still actively recruiting,” Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, said.
The school district has brought on 190 teachers since late spring when it kicked off a hiring campaign, but there are still vacancies.
“Any effort that we can expand is truly goes a long way, because we want to make sure that each and every one of our students experiences high-quality teaching and learning, and at the center of that are our teachers,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
She adds that the program will help students connect culturally.
With more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans, Hartford has one of the most concentrated communities in the country. That is reflected in the city’s public schools, where 56% of the student body is Latino, and the majority of that Puerto Rican.
The school district also got an influx of students from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.
"We had to welcome hundreds of students into Hartford Public Schools, and we thought about, how can we create this opportunity, where they're having to leave their homeland and, you know, come into a new space and new community, and how do we create this system of support?” Torres-Rodriguez said.
Now, the new teachers are taking steps to connect cultural ties.
“Paso a Paso” was first funded by The Travelers Foundation as a pilot program before the pandemic. Three Puerto Rican teachers hired since then are still working in Hartford schools.