Aileen Mercado, the Filipina teacher I profiled throughout the 2005-2006 academic year, completed her three-year commitment to the Baltimore schools in June. By that time, she was well-established here, not only as a special education teacher, but also as the elected leader of the organization representing all the city's Filipino teachers and as an elected member at large of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Her husband and three young children joined her here two years ago, and her children were thriving at their schools in Perry Hall.
As a result, Aileen was one of many Filipino teachers from the first batch Baltimore hired who decided they wanted to continue on. But now, she and at least four other teachers are caught in a bureaucratic entanglement that has left them unable to return to the United States and left their classes staffed with substitutes. (An earlier version of this entry erroneously reported that all five teachers were working in Baltimore; in fact, the other four work for schools in California.) In the Philippines waiting for word on the government's processing of her paperwork, Aileen is home-schooling her two daughters while her son is attending school with a cousin, even though schools there are on a different calendar.
The bureaucracy here is complicated. Aileen and the other four teachers came to the United States on international exchange visas that require them to return to their home country for two years afterwards — or to obtain a waiver of that requirement. Before they can obtain new work visas, the teachers must present proof of that waiver.
The Philippine government has already issued Aileen a statement that it does not object to her returning to the United States, which is necessary for her waiver to be processed. Other teachers were granted visas to return to Baltimore while their waivers were still pending because they had those non-objection statements.
But when Aileen and her four collegues were interviewed at the U.S. embassey, they were told they had to wait until the waiver process is complete, an undetermined number of weeks. The reasons: All five teach special education, and special education teachers are needed in the Philippines, too. The embassy representative told Aileen he was concerned that, if he let her go, she'd stay in the United States illegally in the event her waiver is not approved. That doesn't make sense, given that she already has the document she needs to get it; it's just a matter of waiting for the processing to be complete. E-mails from school system officials attesting to her honesty (which I can also vouch for) have been sent to no avail.
After working in two city middle schools that shut down, Highlandtown and Canton, Aileen is supposed to start teaching this year at the new Afya Public Charter School. I asked Will McKenna, Afya's principal, how her absence is impacting the school. "Not having Aileen is immensely disappointing to us," he replied in an e-mail. While he said the school has been lucky to pick up a good substitute to cover her assignment for the short term, "we’re trying to build a great program for the long term and Aileen is such an important part of that work," he wrote. "The other thing that’s hard is being in limbo. I’ve worked on this now for about a month, talking with Senator Mikulski’s office, working with Dr. Alonso, etc.; and there were times when I thought her return was imminent and times, like now, when I have no idea. That’s hard for sure — the waiting and not knowing." He said he and Aileen talk regularly, and she's done a great job sending back lesson plans. "I know this hurts her as much as it does us — more so, probably."
For the first story in the series I wrote about Aileen, published back in August 2005, keep reading. The picture above was shot by Sun photographer Chris Assaf at Highlandtown.
THE BALTIMORE SUN
Filipino teachers learn life lessons in Baltimore
Recruited overseas, dozens of teachers will work in some of the city's toughest schools.
Date: Sunday, August 28, 2005
Series: SERIES -- First in a series of occasional articles
Source: SUN STAFF
Byline: Sara Neufeld
Graph Source: CHRISTOPHER T. ASSAF : SUN STAFF PHOTOS
CHRISTOPHER T. ASSAF : SUN STAFF PHOTOS
Caption: 1. CITY OF OPPORTUNITY: Aileen Mercado, one of 58 Filipinos who have arrived to teach in city schools, chooses paper to decorate her Highlandtown Middle School classroom. The hardest part has been living without her husband and children.
2. HUGS AND LAUGHS: Aileen Mercado (front) and her fellow Filipino teachers gather each Friday evening at their apartment building to share prayers, food, challenges and celebrations. With school not yet in session, their conversations have focused on the logistics of life in Baltimore and coping with the separation from their families.
3. IN SEARCH OF A CHALLENGE: Aileen Mercado decorates her room at Highlandtown Middle School, one of six city schools deemed "persistently dangerous." Though she didn't know that when she took the position, she accepts it.
4. PRAGMATIC MOVE: In an apartment building where most of the Filipino teachers live, Aileen Mercado (right) reviews paperwork with school system administrator Cheryl Curtis. The teachers will earn about $45,000 a year, compared with less than $10,000 at home.
5. A LEADER: To distract her from homesickness, Mercado has become the Filipino teachers' representative.
To get to Highlandtown Middle School, Aileen Mercado left her husband and three young children a half a world away.
She left a good job and a comfortable home.All to teach in the United States.
Tomorrow, as students around the Baltimore region return to school, the heart of her journey begins.
The 34-year-old Filipina is headed to one of six city schools recently labeled "persistently dangerous."
As the state assumes control over Baltimore's troubled special education program, Mercado will teach language arts and math to students with disabilities, in classes with their non-disabled peers.
She and 57 other Filipino teachers who arrived in Baltimore this summer know they're in for a challenge. And though some are nervous, they can't wait.
"Right now we're very idealistic," says Mercado, a petite and religious woman who loves malls and movies. "We're hoping we can make a difference in our own little way."
Hiring foreign teachers is a phenomenon that has swept the United States as school systems struggle to meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act's requirement of "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom. Critics say schools should instead fix the classroom conditions that make it hard to attract and retain American teachers, but urban systems aren't having much success in meeting that goal.
The Philippines, which has long supplied the United States with nurses, has emerged as a recruitment hub, because of its surplus of education majors and its English-speaking population.
In addition to the 58 teachers already in Baltimore, 51 - held up because of visa problems - are expected to arrive this fall. Sixteen more will begin teaching tomorrow in Baltimore County.
The Filipino teachers in Baltimore will fill openings in "critical shortage areas" such as math, science and special education. And they will take on assignments in some of the city's toughest schools.
Some came for the money, others for the learning opportunities, and to experience America. Mercado came for all those reasons.
She is one of many who left young children at home. A few even left infants.
The teachers' international exchange visas will allow them to stay three years. Several, including Mercado, hope their spouses and children will be able to join them for years two and three.
A birthday from afar
Of all the cultural adjustments faced by Mercado, being away from her husband and kids is the hardest.
On Aug. 7, they celebrated her daughter Adrienne's third birthday in Marikina City without her. At her apartment on Park Avenue, Mercado wept.
She talked to the little girl on the phone, which was passed around to her husband, her parents, her siblings and her two older children, ages 4 and 10.
The conversation wasn't as hard as earlier ones.
"The hardest part was when I was very new here, and [Adrienne] said, `Mama, you come home,'" Mercado recalls. "She has no concept of time. She was asking me, `Are you going to stay there for two nights?' I said, `No, 200 nights.'"
The daughter of a high school principal and an insurance agency manager, Mercado grew up in the Pampanga province of the Philippines, the eldest of four children. Her native language is Filipino, and she learned English in school.
From an early age, she found herself drawn to children with disabilities, influenced by a mentally retarded uncle. At the University of the Philippines, she earned a bachelor's degree in special education in 1991.
During her last year of college, she was assigned to work in a center for juvenile delinquents as part of her studies. There, she met another worker, Isagani Mercado. They married in 1993.
Mercado spent 11 years at a private school for disabled children, most from well-to-do families. She was a teacher, a program coordinator and an administrator. During those years, she had three children: Andrei, Andrea and Adrienne.
Drawn to the U.S.
When her friends, one by one, began leaving to teach in California, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Nevada, she never thought she'd be one of them.
But in time, her curiosity grew.
Naturally, the money would be nice. Public school teachers in the Philippines earn around $3,500 a year. Private school teachers earn a few thousand dollars more. As a private school administrator, Mercado earned around $10,000.
To get to Baltimore and Baltimore County, the teachers paid a recruiter $5,000 each to cover their visas, plane ticket and an undisclosed fee. Now that they're here, the city teachers will earn around $45,000 a year.
Money, though, wasn't the only reason for coming. Mercado was done having babies. She felt that she had reached a plateau in her career, and she longed for an experience to push her mentally. She read The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream.
"I started wondering, what's in the U.S. that everybody wants to go there?" she says. By October, she'd decided, "I won't have peace until I find out."
After that, she spoke with her husband. "My husband is so wonderful. He told me, `Whatever makes you happy, I will support you.'"
Two Baltimore school recruiters traveled to Manila in November and again in January, when they interviewed Mercado. Each time, they met with 20 candidates a day for five days at the Manila Peninsula Hotel. All the applicants - prescreened by an outside agency - had substantial teaching experience and strong knowledge in the city's shortage areas. Most had master's degrees. The main criterion used to weed people out was English fluency.
By the end of January, Mercado had a job offer.
`Where will Mom go?'
Then she had to tell her kids. It took almost a month for the message to sink in.
Every day, she'd show them the United States on a map and ask, "Where will Mom go?"
"U.S.A.," they would answer.
"What will Mom do?" she would ask.
"Get snow, buy chocolates, buy house" came the reply.
As departure day, June 23, approached, Mercado and her husband made a pact: "If you want to cry, cry here in the [bed] room," away from the kids. They somehow managed to keep that pact when they said goodbye at the airport.
Mercado's mother moved in to care for the children.
Mercado, on the plane with other teachers, flew from Manila to San Francisco, San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake City to Baltimore.
School system officials were at the airport to pick them up and bring them to their new home: the Symphony Center apartment and office complex near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
A new home
Of the 58 Filipino teachers, 44 are living at Symphony Center in furnished, two-bedroom apartments, with four teachers to each. The complex, brick with emerald green awnings, is steps from the light rail, an important factor, given that none has a car.
Mercado chose to share a bedroom with Penny Piñeda, headed to Chinquapin Middle, because they speak the same dialect of Kapampangan.
In their apartment, one roommate is the "treasurer," in charge of keeping up with bills. Mercado does all the cooking, posting menus on the refrigerator listing a week's worth of such Filipino dishes as adobo and sinigang. The three others take turns dishwashing.
On her first day, Mercado and other teachers went to Lexington Market. They saw abandoned buildings and a man they thought was high on drugs.
"I was a bit scared," Mercado says. "We were in a foreign country. This was the first time we went out. People were shouting in the street."
In the two months since, the teachers have taken public transportation to the malls - Owings Mills, Towson, the Gallery at Harborplace and Mondawmin - and Goodwill, in search of winter clothes and gifts for their families.
School system officials took them by school bus to Han Ah Reum Asian Mart in Catonsville. Mercado was especially impressed by a day trip to Washington, where they saw the Senate in session.
On Sundays, area Filipinos from the River of Life International Christian Fellowship church drive the teachers to and from services in a movie theater. On weekdays, the teachers have been busy training.
The school system organized a "cultural transition week," during which the teachers learned about different family structures. Watching a video, they learned about families in which both parents are gay - a foreign concept in their Roman Catholic, conservative culture.
They attended a summer institute open to all 700 new city teachers, and they assisted veteran teachers in summer programs. Mercado was assigned to a program for incoming sixth-graders at Pimlico Middle. She noticed that far more children were enrolled than were attending.
Those who were there were well-behaved, she says. "That's why the teachers kept telling us, `This is not the real picture.'"
When she asked the kids why they seemed so tired, they told her they stay out until midnight. She told them about her son, who is their age. They didn't believe her when she said he's in bed each night by 10.
Finding a school
In early July, the teachers attended a placement fair. Highlandtown Middle was not among Mercado's top five choices. But she was waiting for an interview near the Highlandtown table and learned that the Southeast Baltimore school - which, like most city middle schools, has among the state's lowest test scores - needed special education teachers.
The principal, Veronica Dixon, and an assistant principal began interviewing her. Mercado thought Dixon seemed supportive. Dixon offered her a job, and, after about a half-hour of thought, Mercado accepted.
Two weeks later, some Filipino teachers saw a television news segment about the schools being named persistently dangerous. They rushed to tell Mercado: Highlandtown was one of them.
"I didn't know until I was signed up, but it's OK," she says.
At orientation at Highlandtown last week, Mercado was struck by the size of the school, which has about 1,100 students. Her old school has 70.
Soon after the teachers' arrival in Baltimore, they decided to elect a representative, someone to work with the school system administration whenever a problem arises.
They chose Mercado, giving her a role that has distracted her from her homesickness.
As the teachers' representative, Mercado has taken on planning a weekly meeting.
Each Friday - supposedly at 8 p.m. but really closer to 9 - the teachers meet in one of the Symphony Center apartments. They begin with a prayer service, where they discuss their challenges. Then they eat and celebrate the past week's birthdays. Their self-imposed curfew is midnight.
One teacher thanks everyone for praying for her 10-year-old daughter back in the Philippines. A suspected case of typhoid or malaria turned out to be nothing more than the flu.
The sharing continues. One teacher who tried taking the light rail to the bank ended up at the airport. "I had a nice ride," she says.
`Opportunity to grow'
Another has overcome his initial fear of being at a school labeled persistently dangerous: "I have accepted as a challenge that it's one of the most dangerous schools in Baltimore City in the eyes of some. In our eyes, it's an opportunity to grow."
The service concludes with "Lead Me Lord" on a karaoke machine. Then the music turns to Gloria Estefan and Ace of Base. Mercado, in black jeans and a University of the Philippines T-shirt, takes the microphone for ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
Two nights ago, Mercado came to the prayer service with exciting news: An American teacher at Patterson High has agreed to drive her and two other Filipinas to and from school. Each will pay $40 a month, but it will save them 90 minutes a day on buses.
Tired from training and classroom decorating, many teachers straggle into the service late. A whiz at text messaging, Mercado takes notes on her cell phone about what they're missing. Once the group swells from nine to 24, she asks for the teachers' attention.
Monday, she tells them, will be "a very, very tough day." As they go forward into the school year, she urges them to keep something in mind.
"We should always remember," she says, "we prayed for this, we asked for this. Now that we're here, we should be grateful. And we should deliver."
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