Struggling to fill vacancies, the Camden school district plans to search abroad to hire teachers for its bilingual and English as a Second Language classes for the 2022-23 school year.

“We have to do something different,” said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. “Yes, we are desperate.”

Like school districts around the country, Camden has experienced a teacher shortage worsened by the pandemic, with positions from bus drivers to substitute teachers difficult to staff. This year, Camden has been unable to fill 28 of nearly 700 teacher positions, said McCombs, which include three bilingual and one ESL position, she said.

In a district where 53% of its 6,800 students are Latino and 14% are English-language learners, the school board last month approved a pilot program to begin exploring recruitment internationally.

Details for the program are still being worked out, and specific countries have not been determined, McCombs said, but the district would assist candidates with their applications and temporary visas to work in the United States and would cover fees and application costs, roughly $2,500 per person. The new hires would be responsible for their transportation and housing costs.

The district plans to collect names of potential applicants and hopefully make hires for the next school year, she said.

”Our goal is to make sure the process is seamless so we can bring these teachers in as soon as possible,” McCombs said. “You never know who may want to come to this country and teach.”

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Camden hopes it could fill more vacancies eventually, but the priority is for the four bilingual and ESL positions, where a certified teacher is required. The district may also consider hiring paraprofessionals, or support staff, who would have to obtain teacher certifications later, she said.

Keith Benson, president of the district union, the Camden Education Association, said he supported searching abroad only for those four positions. The union has offered to help the district recruit at local colleges, he said.

”I’ve heard about the need for years,” Benson said. “We have to give these students what they need.”

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McCombs said the district has managed the shortage by getting substitute teachers when possible, or asking teachers to cover two classes. In grades K-2, where there are co-teachers in every classroom, the district has, when needed, pulled one of the teachers to cover another classroom, she said.

”It’s almost like you have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “It doesn’t come without a cost.”

McCombs said the district has “doubled down” on recruitment in recent years, attending more college job fairs and advertising online. “It’s still not filling our vacancies.”

In addition to bilingual and ESL education, New Jersey has also reported shortages of teachers in science, math, special education, world languages, and career and technical education. The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.

The Millville school district in Cumberland County switched to early dismissal for its high school and middle schools for the month of February because it didn’t have enough teachers to cover classrooms.

“The teacher shortage is very real and it’s not going away any time soon,” said Catherine Michener, an assistant professor in the college of education at Rowan University and coordinator for its undergraduate bilingual and ESL certification program. “We’re not graduating enough teachers.”

This is not the first time Camden has taken a different approach to recruiting teachers.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Camden recruited Black teachers from historically Black colleges, especially in the South. Among the hires was legendary former Camden High basketball coach Clarence Turner, who played for Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C.

Former school board member Theo Spencer, who graduated from Camden High in 1994, said the majority of his teachers came from HBCUs in the region — Cheyney University, Lincoln University, or Delaware State University.

“It was just a pipeline,” Spencer said.

In 1970, Camden officials traveled to Puerto Rico to recruit teachers. Ivy Rios, then 21, interviewed with the district at a San Juan hotel and welcomed the chance to come to Camden.

“I saw the ad, so I applied,” she said. “It was something different to try.”

Rios said nine other teachers were hired with her to come to Camden. Most were not very proficient in English, had difficulty managing students, and eventually left the district, she said. Camden also recruited teachers from Mexico, Costa Rica, and Cuba, she said.

Rios, though, enjoyed the kids and stayed. She taught ESL and Spanish to elementary and middle school students for five years and then became an administrator and expanded the bilingual and ESL programs. She eventually joined the state Department of Education and retired to Puerto Rico in 2000.

Rios, 77, said she believes some teachers there would be interested in relocating to Camden, where the pay is better. But she said the district needs to clearly explain what they will face here: individualized teaching expectations, state requirements, a longer school year.

”They need to understand it will be completely different from what they’re used to,” she said. “I think it’s a nice experience for people to try if they’re brave enough.”