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New Hernando teachers bring worldly perspectives

Through a U.S. State Department-associated program, Hernando schools have eight new teachers from India, Ghana, Jamaica and the Philippines.

SPRING HILL — There are few ways to look at a globe and see both Hyderabad, the 430-year-old Indian city of nearly 7 million people, and Spring Hill, the 52-year-old Hernando County community of about 100,000. To travel between the two places — nearly halfway around the world — takes almost a day.

In India, Vandana Kapilesh was a principal with 18 years of teaching experience. Now, she’s among the newest faces in Hernando County schools as one of eight teachers hired this year through TPG Cultural Exchange, a U.S. Department of State-designated program that recruits teachers from around the world.

But Kapilesh, a little more than a month into the job, said that her eighth-grade math students at Fox Chapel Middle School aren’t much different than the 10-graders she taught back home.

“Students are students, and kids are kids,” she said. “Anywhere.”

Vandana Kapilesh, a math teacher from India, works with her students during class at Fox Chapel Middle School Oct. 31 in Spring Hill. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

The TPG program — in its first year in Florida — has helped the district fill jobs in hard-to-fill subject areas, such as math, said Michael Maine, the district’s head of recruitment. The district has had about 65 instructional vacancies for the past few years, Maine said, but this and other efforts had dropped that number to 38 by mid-October.

And the eight teachers from abroad cost a bit less. The district pays salaries and recruitment fees, but TPG covers most benefits, according to the contract.

Teachers typically stay in the program for three years, the length of most J1 visas for teachers, but can be extended for to up to five years, a TPG representative told the School Board in July.

Beyond providing staffing stability, Maine said he hopes the new teachers’ cultural perspectives open the minds of students, many of whom may have never left the state or even the county, and of their coworkers.

“I think it’s powerful for a bunch of math teachers from the United States to hear the perspective of two math teachers from Jamaica,” Maine said.

Kapilesh and two of her colleagues at Fox Chapel, math teacher Francis Sakada of Ghana and science teacher Jewell Pelobello of the Philippines, said the support they’ve received since arriving has helped offset the challenges of life far from home. Kapilesh, who’s struggled to find restaurants that suit her vegan diet, cooks at home with her three roommates, all teachers from India. Teachers and principals have offered rides to and from school.

The mechanics of teaching are much the same — Maine described math as a “universal language" — but the teachers have noticed differences in their new classrooms. They were excited to see class sizes of 20-some students, compared to 45 or 50 in their home countries. And here, students shift classrooms throughout the day, while in some other countries, teachers move around the school while students stay put.

Sakada said he worries that some U.S. students aren’t actively invested in their education. In Ghana, he noted, secondary education is a privilege, not free or compulsory.

Francis Sakada, a math teacher from Ghana, talks with his students during class at Fox Chapel Middle School on Oct. 31 in Spring Hill. Hernando County's school district is one of the first in the state to participate in a U.S. State Department-sponsored program to bring in teachers from all over the world. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

“When your parents send you to school, they expect so much from you,” he said. “Here, education is free, but I think some students don’t see the need for school.”

However, he and his colleagues have been heartened by how students have responded to their presence. Sakada’s students have taken an interest in his native language and culture, making them more engaged in class. Kapilesh’s students made her proud with high scores on a recent test, and she gets hugs from some of them.

During her first week on the job, Pelobello said, the kids had to adjust to her as she had to adjust to a new school and a new country. By the following week, everyone had settled in.

“This is a good Monday,” one told her. That’s when she knew she was on the right track.

“We have to inspire them,” she said.