School board approves teacher exchange program

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County School Board approved an agreement with TPG Cultural Exchange LLC to bring teachers from India, Jamaica, the Philippines, Spain and other places to Okeechobee.

Teachers will be brought into the country on a J-1 visa and given a three-year contract with the school district. Under the J-1 visa requirements, all teachers must have two years’ minimum teaching experience, a bachelor’s degree or equivalent in education, be fluent in English and commit to one to three years of teaching in the U.S., with the possibility of a two-year extension. The teachers would be able to teach subjects like math, science, special education, foreign languages including Spanish, Chinese, etc., English, ESOL or social studies.

Board member Melisa Jahner brought the idea to Superintendent Ken Kenworthy to help with the teacher shortage the county is facing. There are currently 23 teacher vacancies in the Okeechobee County School District, which will have to be filled with a permanent substitute for the 2019-20 school year.

Okeechobee isn’t the only county facing a teacher shortage.

Statewide, counties are facing teacher shortages as graduates are avoiding Florida districts due to the lower rate of pay combined with the higher costs of living.
Florida ranks 45th in the nation in teacher pay with salaries $10,000 less than the national average. Meanwhile, the average cost of living in the state is 10 percent higher than in the rest of the United States.

School districts in Dixie, Levy, Marion, Duval, Manatee and others already use the cultural exchange program in those counties.

The approval of the contract with TPG Cultural Exchange doesn’t mean new teachers are already on their way to Okeechobee, however. TPG would interview candidates and then the Okeechobee County School District would select from that pool of candidates. The school district would then interview candidates they’ve selected and put them through the regular hiring process for all teachers. If approved, the candidate would then arrive in Okeechobee six to eight weeks afterward.

The teachers would also work under the current collective bargaining agreement, meaning their first year in the district would be probationary. If it wasn’t working out between the two parties, the school district would be able to let that teacher go at any time during that first year and they would return to their home country.

“I had a friend who was an excellent physics teacher from India a few years ago that we tried to find a way to bring into the district,” said board member Joe Arnold after hearing the proposal. “We didn’t have that opportunity, so they ended up going to teach in Orlando. I think this will be a good opportunity. I’d rather have someone in the classroom who is certified and has expertise in an area.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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