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Why in Alaska foreign teachers can make up more than half the staff

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's hard to hire and retain teachers. So some school districts rely on special visas to bring teachers from other countries into American classrooms. In Alaska's rural school districts, foreign teachers can make up more than half the staff. Emily Schwing with member station KYUK reports.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: Western Alaska's Kuspuk School District is about the same size as the state of Maryland. While the region is large, the student population is small, only 318 kids. They're spread throughout more than a handful of roadless communities. And half the staff traveled 5,000 miles to teach here.

DALE EBCAS: I'm Mr. Dale Ebcas. I am from the Philippines, in Cagayan de Oro City. It's located in the third island chain, Mindanao.

SCHWING: Every year, it's a struggle to fill nearly 40 teaching positions here. Epcas has been teaching special education in the village of Upper Kalskag since December 2020.

EBCAS: I still remember, like, I was wearing a trench coat because I was imagining a weather like, you know, Korea. You know, because I am a fan of watching Korean movies, and it's like, oh, they're just wearing trench coat and it's like, oh, it seems like it might work.

SCHWING: Ebcas is from an island in the Philippines with a population of more than 26 million people. The average temperature in the country's coldest month - just about 78 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, there are just over 200 people in Upper Kalskag, where the climate is semi-arctic and snow can blanket the ground for more than half the year. Teachers like Epcas often come to the U.S. on short-term J-1 visas because they can make a lot more money in addition to benefits, and they have access to teaching tools and technologies that aren't as readily available in the Philippines.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHWING: During a short afternoon recess, second grade teacher Vanessa Carbon, who is also from the Philippines, plays tag with a rowdy bunch of students. She's been pleasantly surprised by life in Upper Kalskag, where the population is predominantly Indigenous.

VANESSA CARBON: The people here are also like Filipinos, so their culture is somehow the same in terms of close family ties, being together when there are occasions and helping each other.

SCHWING: J-1 visas have had a dramatic positive impact in this school district, where 20% of teaching positions were never filled this year. A teacher shortage across the U.S. is especially pronounced in rural areas. Nationwide, there are more than 5,700 teachers in the U.S. on J-1 visas. Madeline Aguillard is the Kuspuk School District's superintendent.

MADELINE AGUILLARD: We went from having zero applicants for positions for a yearlong posting to having, you know, over 100 applicants of extremely qualified people with experience and they're wanting to come teach our students.

SCHWING: Now the Kuspuk School District is looking at ways to utilize the H1B visa, which paves the way for immigration. Other remote school districts in Alaska are also using J-1 and H1B visas to draw qualified foreign teachers. And in at least one case, they are even hosting their own job fairs in the Philippines. Dale Ebcas' visa expires at the end of next year, and he's disappointed he can't continue teaching special education in Upper Kalskag.

EBCAS: I consider this already as my family - the community here, the kids here that I have worked with.

SCHWING: Ebcas is confident his fellow Filipino teachers will continue the work he started for his students after he heads home.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Upper Kalskag. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Schwing comes to the Inland Northwest by way of Alaska, where she covered social and environmental issues with an Arctic spin as well as natural resource development, wildlife management and Alaska Native issues for nearly a decade. Her work has been heard on National Public Radio’s programs like “Morning Edition” and “All things Considered.” She has also filed for Public Radio International’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and various programs produced by the BBC and the CBC. She has also filed stories for Scientific American, Al Jazeera America and Arctic Deeply.