When Africa Dutor and Susanna Benites came to America five years ago to teach in the Spanish two-way language immersion program at Southwest Elementary School, they only planned to stay three years as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by Chapel Hill-based Participate.
But after three years at Southwest, Benites, a first-grade teacher from Peru and Dutor, a pre-K teacher from Spain, requested and were granted two-year extensions for a total of five years in the U.S., under the J1 Visa program, which allows cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the U.S. through programs overseen by the U.S. State Department.
Now the J1 Visa extension is set to expire but Benites and Dutor want to remain at Southwest to continue their work.
“When I came here, I came thinking three years, but once we got here and we learned the system and we learned the community and started working, here, we want to stay here and continue working with the community,” Dutor said following a recent Durham Public Schools Board of Education meeting attended by more than a dozen Southwest parents who spoke in support of the two exchange teachers.
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Benites said she fell in love with the school, the students and the program after only one year.
“I think there are a lot of things left to do and we want to stay here and keep doing what we are doing,” Benites said. “The program is growing and a lot of kids are getting the benefit.”
In email messages and phone calls, Southwest parents have asked the school board to assist the teachers by sponsoring H1B visas, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations such as biotechnology, chemistry, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, law, accounting, business specialties, theology, the arts and others.
At Thursday’s school board meeting, Karla James Noland, whose five-year-old son is in Dutor’s class, told the board that Dutor is more than a Spanish teacher. Noland said intervention strategies Dutor developed have helped her son overcome severe behavioral problems and depression.
“Ms. Dutor is not just another teacher nor a revolving door in a cultural exchange program,” Noland said. “We see her as a compassionate teacher.”
Katherine Kizzie, a teacher’s assistant and the parent of a fourth-grader at Southwest, said losing the two teachers would deal the two-way language immersion program a huge setback.
“These teachers are highly qualified and possess a unique skill set that results from just as much as their teacher training as their own individual cultural experiences,” Kizzie said.
But the DPS administration is recommending against sponsorship of HB1 Visas for the teachers, contending that the district’s contractual agreement with Participate “strictly prohibits” DPS from assisting teachers with H1B sponsorships.
“The teachers’ contractual agreement with Participate also strictly prohibits them from seeking sponsorship,” said Arasi Adkins, DPS assistant superintendent of human resources services.
Adkins said DPS’ ability to recruit cultural exchange teachers in the future — there are currently 18 Participate teachers working in DPS — is contingent on the district’s “compliance with the spirit and intent of the law and the program.”
“The program is only mutually beneficial to both the United States as well as the J1 Visa holder’s home country only if they’re truly sharing what they learned back in their home country,” Adkins said. “That’s the promise that they’re making.”
Adkins said she is concerned about creating inequities among the other Participate teachers and the possibility of spending $5,000 to $10,000 to sponsor each teacher.
“We have many teachers working toward licensure in some of our most challenging schools where teacher turnover is high,” Adkins said. “For the cost to sponsor even just a few teachers, we could be providing tuition assistance or other financial support for many more teachers working toward licensure.”
Adkins worked for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) when that district sponsored a former Participate teacher who worked in its dual-language Mandarin Immersion Program. She said CHCCS only sponsored the teacher after she returned to her home country for the two years that is required in such cases.
Adkins said that while it’s difficult to find elementary education licensed teachers fluent in Mandarin and English, finding teachers to work in a dual-language Spanish immersion program will not be a problem.
“This is not to diminish the stellar work of the teachers we heard about tonight, I’m strictly talking about recruitment and our ability to fill the vacancies,” Adkins said.
Southwest Principal Nicholas Rotosky said the program would be harmed even if DPS found “highly qualified” candidates to replace Dutor and Benites.
“Even if I get a highly qualified person in that classroom, I’m starting over,” Rotosky said. “I’m starting over from where they’ve already gotten this program and it’s hard just to think about not having those two teachers as part of this program.”
The two-way language program enrolls students in grades K-4. Rotosky said 22 kindergarten students — 11 English speakers and 11 Spanish speakers — are chosen through a lottery each year to participate in the program.
During the first year, Spanish is spoken in class 90 percent of the time. By the time students reach fourth-grade, they speak Spanish half the time and English the other half.
The board took no action on the parents’ request to sponsor the two teachers, but some like school board member Matt Sears appeared to be in favor of taking steps to keep the teachers at Southwest.
“For me, I feel like there is a little bit of a debt to be paid to a school that has created a program by themselves that is a spot of excellence in this district,” Sears said. “It doesn’t feel good to talk about one school because I’m also worried about Holt (Elementary School) and if this jeopardizes our ability to get great teachers at Holt. They deserve those great teachers too.”