Dallas relies on international teachers more than any other school district in the U.S.


Thousands of Dallas students come to school from homes that speak languages other than English, but a nationwide shortage of bilingual educators has DISD relying on international teachers.

Dallas ISD sponsors the largest number of H-1B, or specialty-occupation, visas among public school districts in the United States, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.

In the 2022 fiscal year, the district sponsored 234 workers on such visas, nearly four times more than Houston, which has 59 workers using them, the second-highest total in the United States.

Hiring international teachers can cost districts more and is a cumbersome process, but it’s worth it so that “the students have a teacher in front of them on the first day of school,” said Michele Andreason, DISD’s executive director of human capital management.

Across Texas about a fifth of public school students are learning English as a second language.

The state had 38 districts participating in the H-1B program, hiring a total of 486 workers with specialty-occupation visas in the last fiscal year. Although the vast majority of people with H-1B visas hired by districts are teachers, some fill other high-needs areas, such as in technology.

DISD has hired teachers through the H-1B program for 25 years, said Steven Jackson, the district’s director of recruitment.

Like many Texas school districts, Dallas is in dire need of bilingual teachers.

About 48%, or 69,427, of DISD’s students do not speak English as their primary language, according to DISD data. The district has 1,752 bilingual teachers, about one teacher per 39 students who need them.

Most of the H-1B holders in the district are bilingual teachers.

Such shortages are not unique to Dallas or Texas. Many districts nationwide struggle with recruiting, training, certifying and retaining teachers, especially those with specialized skills, such as bilingual and special education.

Texas has struggled to fill bilingual teacher positions since 1990, according to a 2021 University of Houston report.

Over the past decade, the number of Texas students who speak a language other than English has grown by about 40%. But the number of teachers serving them has grown by only 30%.

The biggest challenge bilingual teacher candidates face is the certification process, said Luis Rosado, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Candidates must pass five exams. Each exam costs over $100 and tests would-be educators on core subjects, such as math and science, as well as fluency in the targeted language and teaching strategies.

“I don’t know any profession in the United States that requires five tests to become certified,” Rosado said.

Rosado said enrollment in his department of bilingual education is declining, and the rigorous certification process leads some students to choose a different profession that does not require the same amount of testing, Rosado said.

A 2023 state teacher vacancy report recommended that Texas subsidize certification exam fees and provide hiring incentives for bilingual teachers as a way to fight shortages.

Rigorous process

Maria Avila, originally from Bogotá, Colombia, teaches second grade at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School.

She grew up dreaming about living abroad and experiencing new cultures.

Avila studied English and French in college and a few years after graduation, her dream became a reality: she moved to the United States to become a bilingual educator.

Maria Avila teaches a class at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in Dallas, TX, on Sep 14, 2023. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

But the process was not easy.

Interested candidates must have a bachelor’s degree and pass the certification tests before the often lengthy visa process can begin.

Dallas ISD has virtual informational sessions to ensure prospective teachers know what is needed to obtain a certification and a visa and that current teachers are in compliance with immigration regulations.

Avila struggled with the social studies part of the exam, which covered the history of a country not her own. Candidates are allowed to retake each test up to five times.

“I knew near to zero about the Constitution, the amendments, the presidents,” Avila said.

But she studied and passed it the second time.

Before coming to the United States, Avila was a teacher in her home country for a few years after her college graduation. She first came to the United States on an exchange visitor visa to teach in North Carolina for four years before coming to Texas through the H-1B visa program.

Andreason noted that teachers who come to the district through the H-1B program tend to be experienced educators with many years of classroom experience under their belt.

School districts must go through a rigorous process with the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services to seek H-1B visas for prospective workers.

For each worker, the employer must pay a $460 application fee. Most employers are required to pay additional fees based on the number of people they employ, but school districts are exempt. Employers often pay lawyer fees related to the visa application.

It is the districts’ responsibility to follow immigration regulation and pay workers the same salary they would pay an American citizen.

Beyond language

When bilingual teachers aren’t available, children who don’t speak English well can struggle.

More than half of Texas’ 5.4 million public school children are Latino, and about 20% of students don’t speak English as their first language.

The majority of Avila’s students predominantly speak Spanish at home, she said. More than 70% of Dallas ISD students are Latino.

She teaches reading and helps them with grammar and vocabulary in their native language.

Maria Avila teaches a class at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in Dallas, TX, on Sep 14, 2023. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

For Avila, experiencing American culture is both the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of teaching in the United States.

There’s a lot of “cultural shock” when going to a new country where the education system is completely different, such as varying approaches to grading, she said.

But it’s also rewarding when she can bring her culture to the classroom. For instance, although she speaks Spanish like her students from Mexico, words or phrases can be vastly different.

“It’s raining cats and dogs. Well, in Colombia, you don’t say it’s raining ‘perros y gatos,’ but you say it’s raining ‘buckets,’” she said as an example. “That would be the translation.”

International teachers add value to the district and the lives of students, said Shirley Dolph, assistant principal at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School. Nearly three-quarters of students at her campus are learning English as a second language, according to state data.

The educators inspire students to dream big, Dolph said.

“These teachers decided to go outside the bubble” by teaching in a foreign country, she said. “And just like they went outside the bubble, [students] can do that also. The world is their oyster.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.


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