Given the economy, some question Washington schools' hiring of foreign teachers, typically to fill math and special-ed shortages. The practice has had mixed results.

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Francisco Size came to Washington from the Dominican Republic last year on a type of work visa that each year draws thousands of other foreign professionals into the state.

But the 42-year-old is not a computer programmer or software engineer for the typical high-tech companies using these visas.

Rather, Size works as a math teacher in the Highline School District — one of scores of teachers across the state hired on the H-1B visa.

While use of the visa in the private sector at companies like Microsoft is well-known and hotly debated, less is known about school districts’ use of the program. In fact, at least 40 Washington school districts have applied for H-1B visas to employ teachers and staff over the past five years.

For example, Puyallup hired a high-school English teacher from Jamaica, Seattle hired a special-education teacher from India, and Bellevue hired a parent-outreach coordinator from Chile.

Districts say they use H-1B workers to fill teaching positions with long-reported shortages in such areas as special education and math. Districts also have hired foreign nationals as English, elementary-school and substitute teachers. Like any employer using the H-1B program, schools do not have to show a lack of qualified U.S. teachers before they hire foreign workers.

Schools have had mixed results with the visa workers. Some districts have not renewed the visas for certain teachers, while others decided to keep these workers long-term by helping them get permanent residency with employer-sponsored green cards.

Faced with laying off hundreds of teachers and staff this summer, Washington public-school officials may find it harder to support hiring new foreign workers.

Lori Simmons, employment director for Federal Way Public Schools, said “in this kind of climate” she doubted her district would hire an H-1B teacher.

“Districts all up and down the I-5 corridor are laying off teachers, and so we have experienced teachers looking for jobs,” she said.

Each year, the U.S. government issues at least 85,000 visas to foreign professional workers who have at least a four-year degree. The process begins with an employer petitioning on a worker’s behalf for a visa, which is valid for three years and can be renewed for another three. Ultimately, most workers hope an employer will sponsor them for the coveted green card that allows them to work permanently in the U.S.

Obtaining the temporary work visas may be more difficult before long. At a time when so many people are out of work, members of Congress have introduced a bill that would force employers to seek out U.S. residents first before employing H-1B workers.

Cultural differences

Due to limited budgets, school districts such as Seattle and Federal Way recruit teachers and recent college graduates with teaching degrees from within the state. Other districts send recruiters to job fairs across the country.

Highline School District is one that goes overseas. It sought teachers by going to Spain through a teacher-exchange program and to Jamaica through an agency that links districts with teachers wanting to come here on H-1B visas. Highline’s trips were paid by either the country’s program or a private agency.

Last year, the district hired Size, from the Dominican Republic, at a minority-educators job fair in New York. “He was a viable candidate,” said Don Waring, the district’s human-resources director. “There aren’t enough American math teachers to go around.”

After spending $3,500 on attorney and visa fees, Size landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport two weeks before he was to begin teaching several classes of remedial math. Despite some teaching experience in his home country, Size said he had trouble setting rules in the classroom and disciplining students.

“I think I really maybe don’t know the culture of the students, how they think, how high school [is] like here, what they expect from the teachers,” said Size, interviewed in his utilitarian classroom at Mt. Rainier High School.

Size said he became depressed, which he brought into the classroom. Highline will not renew his contract for next school year.

Now Size must scramble to find another employer willing to hire him, or he must return home. Last month he interviewed for a math teaching position at a Houston school that hires H-1B workers.

Surprise: visa’s needed

Seattle Public Schools has employed a dozen H-1B workers over the past decade, many of them hired as special-education teachers.

The district usually doesn’t know if potential employees will need to be sponsored for H-1B visas until after they are hired, human-resources director Brent Jones said.

The Pullman School District got surprised, and stung, when it hired a graduate from Washington State University several years ago, not knowing he was a foreign national.

Garren Shannon, director of information systems for the district, said at least four people applied for an entry-level job as a computer systems administrator. In March 2006, he hired Zhengmao “James” Yan, who he said was highly qualified and enthusiastic about the job.

“[He was] different from the typical applicant — the standard American kid isn’t as aggressively eager to work,” Shannon said.

Two weeks into the job, Yan told the district he needed a visa to continue to work legally in the country.

Shannon told Yan the district would sponsor him, but he’d have to pay for the filing fees and his own attorney to handle the paperwork.

But both were unprepared for the laborious H-1B process. “It’s not for the meek and mild,” Shannon said.

Fearing deportation, Yan quit after three months. The district had to start the hiring process over again.

Had he known the district would need to sponsor Yan for the H-1B visa, Shannon said he wouldn’t have hired him: “I had other candidates that weren’t as qualified but didn’t come with the costs and work.”

For the Issaquah School District, the hiring of Bettina Gehle of Germany on an H-1B visa several years ago was positive.

Gehle, who teaches sports medicine and other classes, has strong skills and a passion for the job, said Kathy Miyauchi, the district’s personnel director. The district will sponsor Gehle for a green card, with her paying the costs.

“We are looking for qualities of a good teacher and that’s the same whether the person is a citizen or someone going through the immigration process,” Miyauchi said.

Christine Willmsen: or 206-464-3261. Lornet Turnbull: or 206-464-2420.