To keep our classrooms staffed amid an ongoing national teacher shortage, Polk County Public Schools will go to great lengths — even 1,200 miles due southeast to Puerto Rico.
Five years ago, we recruited our first cohort of teachers from the U.S. territory. More than 20 educators signed on, and all these years later, several of them are still working for the district. One has even become a school administrator.
“It makes me extremely proud to know that the vision was carried out successfully,” said Annissa Wilfalk, PCPS’ director of recruitment and educator quality, who credited Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd (who was deputy superintendent at the time) and former School Board member Debra Wright with the idea to recruit from Puerto Rico.
Recruiting from Puerto Rico not only deepens the diversity of the district, it also enhances the services PCPS is able to offer its students, Wilfalk said.
“Aside from their wealth of teaching experience, our Puerto Rican teachers add to the body of cultural experiences across the district,” she said. “That is to the benefit of all students, regardless of race, color, language or ethnicity. All of the Puerto Rican teachers we recruited are fully bilingual. This has been an additional asset to the schools where they went to work.”
The teachers changed PCPS, and coming to PCPS changed the teachers’ lives.
“Several members of the first cohort have been instrumental in assisting us with recruiting additional teachers to Polk,” Wilfalk said. “I’ve maintained contact with several, and been fortunate enough to witness their children grow up, hear about their home purchases, promotions, marriages, and the births of their firstborn children.”
PCPS recently caught up with several of our first Puerto Rico recruits to see how their careers and lives have taken shape in Polk County.
A Home and a Whole New Life
As a teacher in San Juan, Yara Suarez was making $21,000 and having a difficult time financially.
PCPS could offer her the chance to continue doing what she loved, and also increase her income. Even new teachers with no experience start at $40,972, one of the highest starting salaries in the state.
“I went to a job fair and the district really opened its doors to me,” Suarez said. “They made it feasible to transition here. They offered me a job on the spot.”
Suarez came to PCPS in 2014. From 2014 to 2017, she worked as an ESOL teacher at Crystal Lake Middle. Since 2017, she’s worked at Kathleen High, first as a testing coordinator and now as an ESOL teacher.
Her background helps her to connect with her Hispanic students, but she’s also enjoyed the challenge of teaching more diverse students than she would have in Puerto Rico.
“I teach students from Vietnam, Mexico and Guatemala. I’ve had to grow as a teacher to be able to assist them better,” she said.
Suarez added that she taught all grade levels in Puerto Rico — experience that has enabled her to assist English language learners at all levels of proficiency.
Looking back at the progress she’s made professionally and personally, Suarez said she would count her move to Polk County as among the best decisions she’s ever made.
“Now I own my own home,” she said. “I’m very blessed.”
From Teacher to Assistant Principal
Dagmariel Perez Maldonado had taught English in Puerto Rico for 14 years when she learned Polk County, Fla., was hiring teachers. The opportunity presented itself at a time when Maldonado knew she had to make a change.
“The area where I was working started getting really rough. My spirit was being broken,” she said. “I decided to get my master’s degree and leave the island.”
Shortly before completing her master’s degree in educational leadership from Caribbean University, Maldonado interviewed with Wilfalk and Wright.
“They told me to finish my master’s degree, and that they would be back in a few months,” Maldonado said. “I knew my heart was in Polk County, and this is where God wanted me to go.”
A few months later, the PCPS recruiting team returned. Maldonado interviewed with Julie Grice (now principal of Lake Alfred Polytechnic) and got the job.
In the years since, she’s worked at Eastside Elementary and Lake Marion Creek Middle. She taught kindergarten and fourth grade, and worked as a reading interventionist and science coach. This school year, she became an assistant principal at Lake Marion Creek.
Her ability to grow within the school district has been made easier by the variety of professional development opportunities PCPS offers, and the support she’s received from many within the organization.
“We are a big familia here,” Maldonado said.
Though she left Puerto Rico five years ago, she still uses her experiences on the island to connect with her students.
“Sometimes I make mistakes conjugating my verbs. I can relate to students whose first language isn’t English; I’m able to put myself in their position,” she said.
She’s also able to relate to newly hired teachers who aren’t from Polk County.
“The advice I can give to other teachers who are thinking of relocating to Polk County is to get organized, plan ahead, establish a budget, and most of all, come with an open mind and be willing and ready to learn,” she said. “I came here broken. Now I wake up in the morning and I love coming to work.”
A Chance That Paid Off
Rebecca Coriano has always been the type to try new things. After more than 20 years of teaching English in Puerto Rico, she attended a job fair where she learned about the opportunities in Polk County.
“I’ve always been the kind of person to take a chance. I’d never thought about coming to Florida, but the Human Resources representatives made a great impact on me. I felt like I could make a difference here,” she said.
Coriano now teaches intensive reading at Haines City High. During her five years with PCPS, she’s been thankful for the professional development and support she’s received from throughout the school district.
“I can pick up the phone and get whatever I need,” she said.
For instance, early in her time at PCPS, Coriano requested more mentoring from more experienced teachers. Not only did she get it, she now makes it a point to give back to those who are new to the district.
“You need tips and feedback. That’s what I needed when I first came here,” she said.
Like Maldonado, Coriano will never forget the kindness that was shown to her when she first came to Polk County. That’s why she goes out of her way to extend the same goodwill to her students and new teachers who come to HCHS.
“The community is only as good as teachers feel,” she said. “I want everyone to say, ‘This is awesome.’ I want to keep them happy.”
Love and a New Life
Frances Ortiz knew when she interviewed for a job with PCPS that the district and area had captured her heart — but she had no idea how much love she would eventually find here.
Five years ago, she was teaching first grade at a bilingual school, when she heard about the opportunity to interview with PCPS.
Like other members of the cohort, she was struggling financially. She made enough to pay for her car, but at 25 years old, she still couldn’t afford to move out of her parents’ house.
“I knew I needed a change. I always wanted a better opportunity. If I had stayed, I would have been stuck and not grown like I wanted to,” said Ortiz, who teaches ESE pre-kindergarten at Jesse Keen Elementary.
“As soon as I interviewed, I just fell in love.”
Ortiz, who previously taught at Crystal Lake Elementary, has discovered a passion she never knew she had prior to joining PCPS.
“I love ESE,” she said. “These kids need help, and I feel like I’m built to help them. I feel like they need me. I have a lot of patience, love and compassion. They’re my babies; I treat them like my own.”
Ortiz said her background helps her connect with students who don’t feel like they belong, be it because of a disability or because they are from other parts of the world.
“I can definitely relate,” she said. “When I got here, I didn’t know anyone.”
Ortiz did eventually find friends — and so much more. She met her fiancé while working at Crystal Lake Elementary. The two own their own home, have a son, Jorah, and they’ll be married next month.
“I got everything I ever wanted when I came to Polk County,” she said. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
Giovani Ortiz knew his aspirations outgrew the opportunities in Puerto Rico, so when PCPS came to hire, he didn’t hesitate.
Since coming to work for PCPS five years ago, he’s taught language arts at Kathleen Middle, and currently, ESOL and reading at Southwest Middle. He’s also earned his reading endorsement and finished his master’s degree in ESOL at the Tampa campus of Ana G. Mendez University (he was studying at the same university in Puerto Rico). Two evenings a week, he teaches English at the university.
His personal life has improved since coming to Polk County, too. The increase in income has allowed him to travel throughout the United States and frequently attend major league sporting events, which he would not have been able to do back in Puerto Rico.
Ortiz has since helped to recruit other teachers from Puerto Rico, and he’s looking forward to a long career with PCPS. Ultimately, he hopes to earn his doctorate and work in ESOL at the district level.
“I feel like a leader here,” he said. “I feel like part of the family.”
A New Start for her Son
Sonia Leon dreamed of a better life for her then 3-year-old son. She wanted him to have a higher quality education and a more comfortable lifestyle, but she wasn’t sure how to make it happen — until PCPS came to interview prospective teachers.
“I had been an English teacher at the high school level for seven years in Puerto Rico,” said Leon, who teaches journalism, ESOL classes and English at Mulberry High.
“I went to other interviews for other counties and states; none of them ever convinced me to move. When I interviewed for Polk County, it was different. I felt how people cared for everyone and realized Polk County Public Schools would take care of me as a teacher.”
Her initial impression of PCPS has turned out to be right.
“The opportunities I’ve gotten by moving here are amazing,” she said. “First of all, I have the respect I deserve as a professional. On the personal side, I became a homeowner for the first time ever.”
Her now 8-year-old son is also thriving.
“I wanted him to receive a better education. Just by going to the interview and seeing the organization and its expectations, I knew this is where I wanted my kid to go to school. His education is in great hands,” Leon said.
“People fear the unknown and unexpected. I can assure you working for PCPS is a decision you will not have to fear or stress about.
“If I had to sum up my experience here I would say: It has been a blessing.”