AIKEN--- Despite cutting 126 teaching positions in the past two years, Aiken County schools are still relying on foreign teachers to fill critical needs.
Facing a shortage in special education, the district hired 13 teachers this year from Foreign Academic & Cultural Exchange Services Inc., of Columbia. The agency has 90 teachers in classrooms statewide.
Aiken County School Superintendent Beth Everitt said she feels lucky to have a program that can provide quality teachers, especially when the number of applicants can't meet demands
"The first thing we do is try to hire anyone in the United States, but if you have no applicants, you have to have a way of placing teachers in the classroom," she said. "In this case, it's teachers from abroad."
Everitt said the district also rehired several retirees who were let go after 2008 budget cuts, including those in special education, to fill needed positions on a one-year contract basis before considering the agency's teachers.
"The school board and staff agreed that those high need areas is where we would focus on rehiring (retirees) first, which is what we did," she said.
Last year, South Carolina employed 96 teachers from outside the U.S., a big drop from 254 in 2008. About 3,600 teachers were hired in 2009 to staff South Carolina classrooms, and 1,180 of those teachers were from South Carolina programs, according to the Center for Education Recruitment, Retention & Advancement at Winthrop University.
Rick Palyok, the cultural exchange agency's executive director, said South Carolina's international teachers often take roles in math, science and special education departments in rural schools.
"A teacher in Columbia may not be able to find a job, but they're not willing to relocate to somewhere like Allendale," Palyok said.
Foreign teacher hires aren't negating graduate placement either, especially in special education, according to Dr. Windy Schweder, the University of South Carolina Aiken special education director.
Schweder has spent the past seven years developing the college's special education program to recruit teachers. All of last year's graduates had contracts in hand months before their last classes ended because special education is in such high demand, she said.
After settling home in Romania for less than a month, Ana-Maria Nastase was called back to Aiken County to fill a position at Leavelle McCampbell Middle School.
"I have a decent life at home and we're on an annual contract, so it isn't like they have to employ us if we're not needed," she said.
A 2009 American Federation of Teachers report estimated that 19,000 foreign teachers were employed in the United States on temporary visas in 2007. During that time, Georgia was ranked with Texas, New York, Maryland and California as the top applicants for foreign teacher visas.
Since 2007, Georgia's reliance on foreign teachers has taken a steep decline as the state's demand for new hires has dropped from about 15,000 teachers in 2008 to about 6,000 for this school year.
Last year, Georgia employed 385 non-U.S. citizens in classrooms, but that number dropped to about 150, according to Rick Eiserman, the policy and communications director for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. Georgia hit a high in 2008-09 by employing 483 teachers with international exchange certificates.
Eiserman said some districts might use the international program to fill teaching voids, but that ut overall, it is more about exposure to other cultures.
"Using international teachers to get around and work through shortages is not the answer," he said. "But sometimes the trade-off, especially in more rural districts, may be whether you can employ an international teacher when you have folks in your community who are unemployed.