GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In Charlotte Cabello-Rivera’s classroom at Grand Rapids Southwest Academy, the lessons are about science.

The application of those lessons goes beyond what happens in a lab. She tells her students it’s about problem-solving.

“We have serious problems and you are here because you need to learn how to solve those problems. We need people that solve the problems,” Cabello-Rivera said. “Science is something we need to use to help our community.”

Charlotte Cabello-Rivera in the classroom. (Sept. 20, 2022)
Charlotte Cabello-Rivera in the classroom.

The students from the largely Latino neighborhoods served by Southwest Academy have formed a special bond with Cabello-Rivera.

“I don’t know how to describe that connection. I feel like they are my kids, like my son or daughter. It’s something you can’t describe — something special,” said Cabello-Rivera.

About 40% of GRPS’s student population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

Recruiting teachers is tough for any school district. Recruiting Spanish-speaking teachers is even more of a challenge. A few years ago, GRPS leaders devised a new strategy — go to where the Spanish-speaking teachers are.

In 2019, the district’s director of immersive learning, Mayda Bahamonde-Gunnell, along with others from the district went to Puerto Rico to recruit teachers.

“We made connections and we networked with the area universities there, building relationships is key to recruitment,” Bahamonde-Gunnell said.

Recruiting from the American territory of Puerto Rico avoids immigration problems. The recruit’s ability to speak Spanish helps them connect with Spanish-speaking students, many of who are learning English as a second language. 

“But also, the culture is important. We have teachers now that can relate not only by speaking Spanish, but they know the culture,” Bahamonde-Gunnell.

Not all of the recruits stay in the classroom. One is now assistant principal at Dickenson Elementary. Cindy Rivera had never heard of Grand Rapids before she opened up a Facebook message about a recruitment event in her native Puerto Rico.

Cindy Rivera, assistant principal at Dickson Elementary in Grand Rapids, ties a student's shoe. (Sept. 22, 2022)
Cindy Rivera, assistant principal at Dickson Elementary in Grand Rapids, ties a student’s shoe.

Rivera, who taught for 21 years in Puerto Rico, is in her first year as number two in charge at Dickenson Elementary. She says the decision to move some two thousand miles away to Grand Rapids had much to do with the district’s commitment to Spanish-speaking students.

But perhaps more important was an opportunity to inspire the next generation.

“Yes, because they know, hey, I’m here,” said Rivera. “If I am here, you can be a principal, whatever you want to do… it is up to them. They can do it.”