Teachers displaced from Puerto Rico finding jobs in Polk County

By Stephanie Claytor, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, November 17, 2017, 5:31 PM EST

As students from Puerto Rico continue to enroll in Polk County Schools by the hundreds, teachers from the island are also finding work within the school district.

  • 464 students from Puerto Rico enrolled in district schools since Maria
  • District currently has 30 teacher positions, 22 support staff positions open
  • District hosting job fair for Puerto Rican arrivals Dec. 9

Sylvia Mejias Ortiz came to Lakeland with her fiance and their two-year-old son on Oct. 8. She left behind her home in Caguas, Puerto Rico after she realized it’d be a long time before the lights came back on, and the hurricane left her fiance without a job.

“All of my family is there. I miss them so much. But I am ok here,” said Ortiz.

Now, more than a month later, the expectant mother is comfortable knowing that she won’t have to give birth to a baby boy in a hospital running on a generator. A lot of her friends left, too.

“I have a lot of friends that moved to California, New York, Florida, so, it’s hard, it’s hard," Ortiz said. "You can ask every Puerto Rican that moved here. It’s hard."

Life got easier when she learned she got the job at Garner Elementary in Winter Haven to teach students with special needs. It’s the same job she had in Puerto Rico.

“People here, they welcome me so well," Ortiz said. "The teachers, the principal. During the interview, she was so nice."

“After speaking with her for about 30 minutes, I knew that she was special," said school principal Qvonda Birdsong. "More than that was in a very tough situation. I was glad I was able to help her.”

Ortiz isn’t alone here. Within the past month, the principal said 20 Puerto Ricans students have enrolled at the school.

“Some kids that moved here, they’re struggling too because of the language barrier," Ortiz said. "I try to make them comfortable. But, it breaks your heart when they start crying because they miss the island and they don’t understand anything here."

In addition to her teaching duties, Ortiz is helping the school by interpreting, and assisting Puerto Rican students and families make a smooth transition to the area.

Polk County is holding a job fair catering to Puerto Rican arrivals from 9 a.m. to noon on Dec. 9 at Lake Marion Middle School. The district has more than 30 teacher jobs open, as well as 22 support staff openings.

Applicants are asked to bring their Puerto Rican teaching certificate and transcript or a copy of it, and a resumé.

According to district statistics, since Hurricane Maria, three Puerto Rican teachers have been hired. More than 464 Puerto Rican students have enrolled.