TAMPA — With Spanish speakers representing an ever-growing share of Hillsborough County's student population, a group from the school district will travel to Puerto Rico this week for a recruiting drive.
The fair, Tuesday and Wednesday at the San Juan Airport Hotel, is the first such venture for the district, according to spokeswoman Tanya Arja.
Three district officials will be there — two from the teacher recruiting office and Ismael Lebron-Bravo, the principal of Wimauma Elementary School, which is 80 percent Hispanic.
"We have been making efforts to hire a more diverse group of educators, as our student population becomes more diverse," Arja said.
It's not the first time recruiters have traveled out of state. And Hillsborough — with an enrollment that is more than one-third Hispanic — is not alone in scouting college graduates on the island.
District leaders from Dallas, Houston and other cities have made the trip for years, responding to estimates that the United States is second only to Mexico in its number of Spanish speakers.
A 2013 survey by the Council for the Great City Schools, an organization that serves large districts including Hillsborough, found that roughly half of its 67 member districts had a shortage of bilingual teachers and those certified to teach English language learners, or expected a shortage within the next five years.
The National Association for Bilingual Education and other advocacy organizations have called for a federal response to the problem, with limited success.
With districts competing for a limited number of capable candidates, hiring fairs can evolve into bidding wars, according to a report early this year in the journal Education Week, which described stipends and hiring bonuses as high as $4,000.
Recruiters typically look to Spain and Puerto Rico for talent. But the transition for teachers is often easier if they come from Puerto Rico, which makes them U.S. citizens who speak a form of Spanish similar to what they will find in the United States.
The Hillsborough district has 26,115 English language learner students who speak dozens of languages. State reports show Spanish is by far the most common, representing at least 75 percent.
And while the percentage of English language learners might appear relatively low, it masks a greater number whose parents hold back from communicating with school officials because of their own language barrier.
With Puerto Rico in the depths of its own economic crisis, a continued migration of Spanish-speaking families is expected throughout Tampa and Central Florida.
The greatest demand in the Hillsborough district is for teachers of exceptional student education, math, English for Speakers of Other Languages, science and Head Start; and guidance counselors.
As of Wednesday, 65 prospects had already registered for this week's job fair in San Juan.
"We are hopeful that we will not only benefit from their talent, but also build relationships with the universities there that we know will benefit Hillsborough County," Arja said.
Information from Education Week was used in this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.