DORCHESTER — Simona Bireescu wants her Woodland High School students to see the world beyond their rural community.

They don't have to look far. Bireescu, a special education teacher from Romania, is one of five international exchange teachers working at the school this year, joining colleagues from Jamaica, India and Colombia to address a chronic teacher shortfall in school districts across South Carolina.

Bireescu, known simply as "Ms. B" to the students who struggle to pronounce her last name, was a psychologist by trade. In the United States, she works with students during a daily "resource" period to keep them on track. She recently ran into a former student working at a drug store who said Bireescu was the only reason she graduated.

"Especially in this area, you don't give up — ever, ever, ever," Bireescu said.

South Carolina schools employed 546 foreign exchange teachers in the 2016-17 school year through a state-run program and a few private agencies. They're doing jobs that native South Carolinians couldn't or wouldn't do.

The state's teachers are leaving in droves, and not enough graduates are replacing them. A fall 2016 Supply and Demand Survey conducted by the Center for Educator Recruitment Retention and Advancement found nearly 6,500 teachers did not return to their previous jobs that school year. The survey predicts worsening teacher shortfalls in in subjects including special education, Spanish and math.

Not coincidentally, those are the top three specialties of international exchange teachers in South Carolina.

Richland County School District 1 used 75 international exchange teachers in the 2016-17 school year — more than any other district. But the large Columbia-centered district isn't typical of those leaning most on exchange programs.

School districts in Greenville and Charleston counties used relatively few such teachers last year, while the third-largest district, Horry County, used none at all.

As a percentage of their workforce, rural districts like Dorchester 4 depend on international teachers the most. In the tiny Hampton County School District 2, 19 international exchange teachers accounted for about one-third of all its teachers last year.

A temporary fix

Teacher exchange programs were never meant to solve teacher shortages in South Carolina: These teachers can only stay for three to five years under the terms of their J-1 visas.

"It's not a recruitment effort. It is for the purpose of cultural exchange," said Sherry Schneider, who works in the S.C. Department of Education Office of Certification.

That's the theory, but in practice, exchange teachers act as a short-term patch for a long-term problem. In Dorchester School District 4, home of Woodland High, Superintendent Morris Ravenell said, "Most folks we brought in were just for shortages."

But sometimes, the teachers still manage to become a cherished part of the community, if only for a season.

This is Bireescu's second stint teaching in Dorchester County; she first came here in 2005. Last spring, she was named Woodland High's Teacher of the Year.

Under the terms of her visa, Bireescu can only stay for two more years. But she wants to stay. She loves her school, living in Summerville, and the schools her daughters attend.

Bireescu portrait.jpg

Simona Bireescu, from Romania, is in her fourth year of teaching at Woodland High School Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. Bireescu, is part of an international exchange program that helps fill vacant teaching positions. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Before her J-1 visa ends, Bireescu will apply for an H-1B visa, a more permanent worker's permit. Due to a nationwide cap on those visas, a national lottery will determine her family's fate.

"I have the advantage of having the same kids since ninth grade. ... It breaks your heart," Bireescu said. "You know, I have my group of freshmen from last year, and I'm thinking if I have to leave next year, they're going to be juniors. ... Not seeing them graduate is going to be so hard for me."

'Here it's more equal'

Fran Welch, dean of the College of Charleston School of Education, said she understands the plight of the school districts, particularly in small towns.

"The teacher shortage is a crisis now, and when it’s a crisis, people don’t think about it as an opportunity but as ‘How am I going to get a warm body who’s credentialed in the classroom?’" Welch said.

Welch signed a joint letter Sept. 18 with counterparts from around the state calling for a united front to tackle the crisis. They recommended pilot certification programs and expanding programs that have proven effective, such as Call Me Mister and Teaching Fellows.

They also want higher teacher pay. South Carolina ranks 38th in the country for average teacher salary. International exchange teachers are paid on the same salary scale as other teachers, and recruiting agencies charge the district a fee for arranging a visit.

Meanwhile, some school districts are using teacher exchange programs as they were intended. In Beaufort and Richland counties, schools depend on agencies like Education Partners International, Participate, TPG Cultural Exchange and Foreign Academic and Cultural Exchange Services (FACES) to staff language immersion and global studies programs. 

Sometimes, those teachers become leaders. In Richland 1, for example, Ernesto Bernal came to work on a J-1 visa before earning more permanent status. He currently serves as the district's foreign language coordinator.

A more recent arrival from China, Peng Ting, teaches in the Mandarin language immersion program at Carver-Lyon Elementary near downtown Columbia. Peng said she shares her language and culture with the students every day — and learns from them in return.

"In China, the teacher is the authority, and students just obey. Here it’s more equal," Peng said. "They will challenge you, and they will ask you a lot of questions. I need to learn to give them some freedom."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.