And we should deliver


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.
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. 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.

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.

Cultural Adjustment

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.'"

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.


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.

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.

After that, she spoke with her husband. "My husband is so wonderful. He told me, `Whatever makes you happy, I will support you.'"


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.

Brand new life

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 PiƱeda, 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, 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."

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.'"


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.

Camaraderie

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.


'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."

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."

At Highlandtown Middle, which has some of the state's lowest test scores, she is thriving. She inspired a boy who usually ignores directions to do his homework and helped teach an immigrant girl to count in English.

She has also been thrust into something of a second job, as the elected coordinator of 58 Filipino teachers who arrived in Baltimore in June and a group of 48 just arriving. The majority, including Mercado, live in the same downtown apartment building. She spends hours there listening to other teachers' troubles adjusting to American classroom life.

Many have been stunned by the lack of student discipline, and some have contemplated going home. So far, none has. To inspire them, Mercado has been renting movies like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver.

"The No. 1 problem is culture shock," she tells the teachers at the end of the first week of school. "We're not used to being disrespected."

She often wonders why she has not had as much trouble as some of her friends. She has a good relationship with her principal and her American colleagues, but so do the majority in the group.

A key difference, she's decided, is class size. There are about 20 children in each of Mercado's classes. Some other Filipino teachers have classes of 40 and more. Classes are smaller at Highlandtown because many pupils transferred after it was hit last school year by fires and vandalism, and the state put it on a list of "persistently dangerous" schools.

The next morning, Mercado rises before dawn and sends a cell phone text message to the group, quoting a verse from Deuteronomy: Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the one who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.

Mercado is one of three Filipinos who get a ride from a Patterson High School teacher, an American. The car is packed with classroom decorations they've purchased with their own money.

Arriving more than an hour before the kids, Mercado fills a basket on her desk with mints, lollipops and strawberry chews. On the wall of her classroom, which she will use only to test pupils and give them extra help, she hangs stenciled letters to spell out words such as respectful and safe.

For sixth-graders and their teachers, the day begins in the auditorium, where the assistant principal goes over the school rules. Uniforms must be worn at all times. No cutting class. No food or drink outside the cafeteria. No cell phones. No fighting in school, on the way to school, on the way home from school or at any time on school property.

At the end of the day, Mercado has a few observations: the large number of police officers and hall monitors ("I'm wondering, how can it be a dangerous school with all these people here?") and the African-American girls' hairstyles ("I really like their hair and the way they put it up.").

Her first week at Highlandtown brings challenges, as all first weeks do. She's trying to track down copies of pupils' individual education plans. A few of her pupils have yet to show up. The classrooms are hot and stuffy, and the kids are often thirsty. Mercado fans them with paper. With the water fountains shut down because of lead contamination, there's supposed to be bottled water, but the cooler in the sixth-grade office is sometimes empty.

Some are staying up much of the night preparing lessons they don't get to deliver because their classes are out of control. They've been called Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Miss Hong Kong and Miss Japanese, cursed at by students for the first time in their lives. The children in one middle school locked a mentally retarded boy in a cabinet.

During lunch breaks and evenings, teachers are calling the Philippines crying. A few would go home if they could afford it, but they've each spent $5,000 to get here.

We like to be sweet teachers," Mercado says. "We like to hug. I think we have to be a little tougher." As she closes the service, she tells them: "I believe in you, teachers. I hope when we meet again next week, we will have more good stories."

And they do, thanks largely to intervention from Cheryl Curtis and George Duque, school system administrators who look after the Filipino teachers and regularly attend their Friday-night services.

The second week, one teacher is transferred to a more manageable assignment at her school. Another has her class of nearly 30 children with behavior problems split in half and gets to pick which ones she'll keep. (That setup will prove unsuccessful, and the teacher will move to another school.)

Curtis and Duque also arrange for extra training in classroom management.

Still, there are new problems. A teacher's cell phone stolen, a bulletin board defaced. At the second week's prayer service, one teacher asks how she can teach her students not to use vulgar language when their mothers do.

Week three, Mercado asks the teachers to pray for one of her pupils. He just showed up to school a few days earlier. "Whenever I approach him, he says, `I don't need you. I know what to do,' and when you look at his paper, he has no answers," she says.

But for the most part, the kids at Highlandtown want Mercado's help and are eager to learn more about her. One asks whether she knows karate, another whether she goes home to the Philippines each night.

Mercado is spending hours to keep up with the paperwork associated with special education, and she's seeking extra training in the system's language arts and math curricula.

Her responsibilities as the Filipino teachers' coordinator are growing, too, as 45 teachers held up on visa problems start arriving and three Filipino teachers in New Orleans relocate to Baltimore.

"I have to be honest," one of the "veterans" tells the new arrivals. "Brace yourselves."

"I cannot think of any way to handle the classes you are describing now," a new arrival says.

Mercado's advice is to "expect the worst but hope for the best."

"Don't fear," she says. "We have each other."




By the third week in November, Aileen Mercado and her Highlandtown Middle School pupils and colleagues were ready for a break from their daily routine.

They were trying to adjust to a new school schedule that nearly doubled class sizes and resulted in the transfer of some teachers to other schools. Mercado, who left her husband and three young children in the Philippines to teach special education in Baltimore, had just observed her first classroom fistfight.So they were grateful for a last-minute opportunity to spend five days and four nights in Cecil County at an outdoor education program.

Mercado was excited to get to know the children and the American teachers better. She accomplished that goal, but something else happened during the week as she stayed in a cabin with nine girls and confronted disciplinary problems that are foreign in her Filipino culture.

The sweet teacher toughened up.

Mercado, 35, is one of 106 Filipino teachers brought to Baltimore this year to fill vacancies in some of the city's toughest schools. As the elected coordinator of the group, she has spent dozens of hours since the start of the school year listening to tearful stories from teachers overwhelmed by classes that are too big and out of control. But until this month, she was largely sheltered from those problems herself.

As an "inclusion" teacher, Mercado is one of two adults in language arts and math classes. She aids children with disabilities working alongside their nondisabled peers and a general education teacher. The classes were especially manageable because each had only about 22 pupils.

Some Filipino teachers at other schools have classes of 40 and more, but Highlandtown had small classes. That was particularly the case in sixth grade, which Mercado teaches, because so many children entering middle school went elsewhere after the state this summer labeled the school "persistently dangerous." Enrollment is 878 despite a projection of 1,146.

Then, this month, administrators from the city school system's central office discovered a problem with Highlandtown's schedule, and class sizes grew as a result.

In middle schools citywide this year, the school system is requiring that children spend 90 minutes a day in language arts and 90 minutes a day in math, an attempt to focus on the subjects of the state's standardized tests. City middle schools must raise their scores on those tests to avoid sanctions such as staff replacement.

At Highlandtown, pupils were taking each of their classes for 90 minutes every other day.

To meet the city's requirement, the school had to cut the number of sixth-grade homeroom classes from five to three, and average class sizes increased from 22 to 38. In eighth grade, rosters show, some classes have as many as 49 pupils.

Mercado's pupils stopped going to social studies to spend more time on language arts and math. Next semester, they will take social studies in place of science. Some who were taking French were switched to art. Reading classes were abolished, and instead the reading teacher started pulling pupils out of their science classes to give them extra help.

For Mercado, the new schedule means she must work with more special education pupils at the same time. And one period a day, she is supposed to be in two places at once because one of her homerooms is in language arts and the other is in math. Her job calls for her to be with her pupils in both subjects.

"Maybe happy days are over," Mercado says with a giggle on the night she learns of the changes. She is trying to keep a positive outlook, viewing the larger classes as an opportunity to touch more lives.

After all, pupils gravitate toward her. Last month, when the children had to write about their experience in middle school, they complained about the lack of heat and toilet paper, mice in the building and bad cafeteria food. And dozens of them wrote about their affection for Mercado.

But the class atmosphere changed overnight, and Mercado realized that she would have to change her demeanor.

"It's wild," she reports a few days after the schedule change began. The children are "just really playful. They like to chase each other, touch each other. It's hard to settle them down."

At the end of that week, Mercado observes her first classroom fight.

It's the beginning of language arts class, and Mercado has asked a boy to help her pass out notebooks. He sets a stack down on the desk of another boy, who pushes them off. It's unclear who pushes whom first, but within a few seconds, the boys are punching, swinging, wrestling. As Mercado stands speechless and the language arts teacher yells, other children pull them apart.

With no one hurt, Mercado remains calm and compassionate as she walks the boys to the office, two girls holding one of them back to prevent him from attacking again. Though she never saw a fight at her private school for special needs children in the Philippines, Mercado knows from other Filipino teachers that they are common at other Baltimore schools.

-
t was 2:30 a.m. when Aileen Mercado was awakened by her roommate, crying, feverish, unable to breathe.

Mercado called upstairs to one of the few of the 72 Filipino teachers in her apartment building who has a car so they could take their stricken friend, PeƱafrancia "Penny" Pineda, to the hospital.She was in the intensive-care waiting room at Maryland General Hospital. And she was calling around the world to alert Pineda's fiance and parents that she was critically ill with pneumonia.

But those were also days that underscored the value of the community that the Filipino teachers have found during their months in Baltimore, where they were recruited to fill vacancies in some of the city's toughest schools.

At Maryland General, which has turned to the Philippines to find nurses just as the city schools have looked for teachers, Filipino nurses doted over Pineda, a sixth-grade science teacher at Chinquapin Middle. They brought snacks and sodas to Mercado and others in the waiting room. After Pineda was released from the hospital the next week, a member of a local Filipino church drove twice in one day from Harford County to bring her fish soup and rice.

City school officials are so happy with the Filipinos hired for this school year that they've signed up 74 to start in the fall -- among them Mercado's sister -- and the system plans to do more recruiting abroad.The success of the experiment hinges largely on the foreign teachers' ability to adjust to life outside the classroom. Some say the system would be better served by recruiting at home because U.S. teachers are more likely to stay for the long haul.

There are days when it is too painful for Mercado to look at the family photos on her desk at Highlandtown Middle, where she teaches sixth-grade special education. She always carries an international phone card in case she needs to hear her husband's voice.

As the Filipino teachers' elected coordinator, Mercado has gained a sense of independence in Baltimore. She and other teachers are taking driving lessons. While in the Philippines, she only had a learner's permit. Whether tracking down lost paychecks or renting movies from Netflix, Mercado has taken the lead in navigating a foreign culture and bringing the group of teachers together.

Two-thirds of the 109 Filipino teachers live in the same apartment building, the Symphony Center apartment and office complex near Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. On Friday nights, Mercado leads a prayer meeting where they share their challenges and victories from the week. She hosts a Bible study session in her apartment each Wednesday and on Sundays her routine includes church, lunch at a buffet and shopping.

Now, the first teacher in the Baltimore group -- one of the few who lives alone -- is leaving.

The San Diego-based Amity Institute, which sponsors visas for Filipino and other foreign teachers around the country, estimates that one in 10 nationwide doesn't fulfill their three-year commitment. Tiffany Bettencourt, Amity's director of programs, calls the retention rate in Baltimore so far "just astounding."

"They have amazing support networks," she said.

An area Catholic church has lent similar support to other Filipino teachers.

-


n September, to ease the pain of separation, Mercado bought a computer with a Web camera. Since then, she's seen her husband and children -- Andrei, 11; Andrea, 5; and Adrienne, 3 -- online almost daily.

One Saturday morning, she held up for the camera a small red-and-white umbrella she bought for her daughters, asking Adrienne to identify the colors. "When I left home, we were studying colors," she explained. "I just want to check if she knows."

Mercado keeps her family abreast of all her life's developments. Still, it's no substitute for being together. When Andrei didn't make the honor roll as he normally does, she felt her absence was to blame.

"It is ironic that I can help American children when I can't even help my son do his homework," she said at church in November, speaking to the congregation about her experience in Baltimore. "My little girls, they're so innocent and so cute, and it just pains me to think that their yaya [nanny] knows them more than I do right now."

Mercado was one of only a handful of teachers who returned home over winter break. She brought with her a video of 17 teachers sending holiday greetings to their families.

Mercado's trip home strengthened her resolve to bring her husband and children to Baltimore for the next two school years. She's overwhelmed thinking of the logistics, from visas to a house to a job for her husband, Isagani, who works with juvenile delinquents in the Philippines.

She has mixed feelings about whether she wants to try to stay in Baltimore beyond three years. She recently said she'll be happy anywhere as long as she's with her family.

During her trip, Mercado kept in her wallet a letter written by one of her special education pupils, to motivate her to come back: Ms Aileen Mercado, I will miss her when she go back home. ... I now you is gon to miss us to. I will feel mad because I do not have no one helping me whit my work. I will all was remember you.

Then, on Jan. 5, Pineda woke up sick. Soon, Mercado found herself consulting with doctors and fielding phone calls from teachers and relatives. When Pineda was released from the hospital the following week, Mercado set strict restrictions on visitors, brought her meals in bed and accompanied her to follow-up appointments.

Pineda, who has since returned to school, was overwhelmed by the support she received from "the new community."

"I never felt so much love," she said.

Classroom trials, triumphs
A Filipino teacher completes her first year in a city public school

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At Mercado's school in Baltimore, there was no such closure.During the Filipino teacher's final weeks at Highlandtown Middle School, the children just stopped coming. Some already knew they had failed. Others were tired of sitting in the heat, tired of school in general.

On the fifth-to-last day, only 11 sixth-grade pupils showed up for a language arts class with 37 on the roll. On the second-to-last day, the two kids present helped Mercado pack. On the final day, about a dozen wandered in and out.

It was a cultural adjustment Mercado had been bracing for since early on in her year at Highlandtown, where she started last summer as part of a corps of 109 teachers recruited in the Philippines to fill some of the city's toughest teaching assignments.

She was stunned in November when a Somali girl she was helping with English left without a goodbye. By spring, so many pupils had come and gone that she treated every day as though it could be their last together.

"You never know the last time you will see these kids," she said in April. "I always think, I should give my best to these kids because this could be their last day."

Student transiency was one of many surprises awaiting Mercado, 35, a year ago when she left her husband and three young children seeking a professional challenge. When city school administrators waving red, white and blue flags greeted her at the airport, her only impression of American schools was what she'd seen in the movies. She figured kids might talk back to teachers more than in her country, where she taught in a private school for the disabled. Maybe they'd throw food in the cafeteria.

Meanwhile, the presence of Filipino teachers in Baltimore will continue to grow. While about 100 from the first batch plan to stay for a second year, the city school system is planning for at least 120 more to start this summer. The hires come amid a wave of international recruitment as American schools, particularly urban ones, struggle to find enough qualified teachers in math, science and special education. The Philippines has a teacher surplus.

Mental toughness

For Mercado, the past year has been a time for gaining independence and developing mental toughness. She learned to tune out the constant noise of running in the halls, and of interruptions on the loud speaker. She got used to broken heat and no air conditioning in classrooms. She learned she could raise her soft voice and yell when kids misbehaved, and she learned how to break up fights. She learned to dull her homesickness by throwing herself into her work.

Mercado signed up to go to Highlandtown, in southeast Baltimore, last summer after hitting it off with Principal Veronica Dixon. Then in January, Dixon left for medical reasons. An assistant principal filled in for the rest of the year.

As a special education "inclusion" teacher, Mercado's job was to work with children with disabilities in regular language arts and math classes, alongside a regular language arts teacher and a regular math teacher.

Shortly after Dixon's departure, a girl with behavior problems accused the math teacher of hitting her. The teacher spent the next four months sitting in city school system headquarters waiting for his case to be investigated. He was eventually cleared and permitted to return to Highlandtown for the final seven days of school. But in the interim, Mercado worked with a string of substitutes and, sometimes, did both jobs herself.

She adjusted to a midyear schedule change that resulted in class sizes nearly doubling and a new language arts curriculum after the city scrapped the one it was using.

----------------


Early in the school year, Mercado was baffled that Highlandtown was one of six city schools labeled "persistently dangerous" by the state. The atmosphere was remarkably calm.

But after the increase in class size and the departure of the principal and the math teacher, things got rowdier.. There were three fights in Mercado's classes in a single day. At first, when kids would fight, she recalled, "I wanted to throw up. But I got used to it."

When she was the only adult in a math class with 30 regular and special-education pupils, classroom management was a challenge. (Though nearly 40 kids were enrolled in each class, rarely did more than 30 attend on any given day.) On a morning in April, kids threw a plastic bag filled with water - a melted ice pack for a girl's sprained ankle - back and forth across the room as Mercado tried to teach about negative integers.

On a morning in May, a group of girls from another class banged on the door in the back of the room. As Mercado rushed to the door to keep the kids from opening it, they ran to the front of the room and opened a second door there. One boy wrote "kill" on the chalkboard, erased it and wrote it again. Another threw a notebook.

From the beginning, though, kids were drawn to Mercado, who has a gentle demeanor and is always quick to giggle or smile. She would put stickers on their papers, write them notes of encouragement, and give them candy to reward good behavior and mark their birthdays.

Late last fall, a boy with an unstable home life confided in Mercado that he felt he had no choice but to be in a gang. Before she left to visit her family in the Philippines in December, he hugged her tightly and begged her to take him with her. When she got back, he was gone. Some other kids thought he'd gone to jail for stealing a bike. She made several calls but couldn't find him. She dreamed about him and prayed for him, but never saw him again.

Many of the 20 special-education pupils assigned to Mercado drastically improved their behavior under her tutelage, even as non-disabled peers acted out.

She opened their eyes to the world outside Baltimore. When Filipino rebels attempted a coup in February - down the street in Manila from the hotel where city school system recruiters were staying that week - some of Mercado's pupils followed developments in the news.

When it came time for Mercado to choose a new school for next year, she toyed with the ideas of going to an elementary school or of going somewhere in the northeast part of the city, closer to where she'll be living. But she chose Canton, one of three schools receiving Highlandtown pupils, so she can work with some of the same kids. A key factor, again, was that she was drawn to Canton's principal. But three days after she'd committed to go, the school system announced the principal was being replaced in response to low test scores.

As school let out for the summer Tuesday, pupils hadn't yet received their new school assignments. So Mercado doesn't know which ones she might see again.

During a year filled with daily frustrations and triumphs, culture shock and homesickness, the Filipino teachers turned to each other. Mercado was the elected leader of the group, organizing weekly Bible study sessions and prayer meetings.

In the teachers' personal lives, a lot happened in a year. Three couples in the group fell in love, with one marrying at Baltimore City Hall. One teacher spent six weeks in the hospital before giving birth to a premature baby. One was unable to return home for her mother's funeral. Mercado's roommate nearly died of pneumonia.

Mercado saw her family on a Web camera almost daily, but her absence clearly took a toll on her children, particularly 3-year-old Adrienne, who started crying a lot and throwing tantrums. Earlier this month, when Mercado told her over the phone she'd be home soon, Adrienne ran outside and looked to the sky for her plane. She sobbed when she learned her mother wasn't coming that day.

Mercado's husband, Isagani, and the three kids are awaiting word, expected to come next month, on their visas. Then Isagani, who works in a prison in the Philippines, will have to look for a job in Baltimore. Mercado is confident that things will work out, because she can't bear to think of the alternative. Though many of the Filipino teachers will be apart from their families for all three years in Baltimore, a year was as much as Mercado could handle.

At the same time, she was sad for the year to end, sad for the built-in community of friends living together in one apartment building to disperse around the metropolitan region. The teachers marked the conclusion of their chapter together Monday night at a Filipino restaurant. Like students on the final day at Mercado's old school, they dressed up and sang and danced for an audience: the American principals, central office administrators and colleagues who have supported them.

One last fight

The next morning, Mercado went to Highlandtown Middle School for the last time. She broke up one last fight and let a few girls braid her hair. She asked the kids stopping by her classroom to write their best memories of the school, which invariably involved having her as their teacher. She hugged them, gave them a final handful of candy and told them to be good. She passed out scraps of paper with her cell phone number and new home address.

When the clock struck 12:30 p.m. and the children were officially seventh-graders, two girls stayed behind for Mercado to walk them outside. As they reached the sidewalk, Mercado noticed that one had tears rolling down her cheeks.

"Don't cry," Mercado said, stroking the girl's arm. "It's OK."

But she was crying, too. As the girls walked away, Mercado sat alone on the steps outside the school, her wet face in her hands, and reflected on the end of her journey.

Return to America
Filipino woman who teaches in Baltimore brings her family

As her plane touched down outside Baltimore this week, Aileen Mercado felt overcome with gratitude.

A year ago, she arrived in this airport on her own, having left her husband and three young children in the Philippines to teach in one of the city's toughest schools. This time, her family was at her side.They entered the United States on Thursday, the day of a high-risk terror alert. Before takeoff on their connecting flight from Atlanta, Mercado would recall, a man who appeared to be Middle Eastern was asked to leave the plane and he quietly complied. Blissfully unaware, her daughter Adrienne, 4, bounced into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The child was looking for the snow her mother had seen for the first time during the winter.

On Aug. 28, Mercado will begin her second year teaching in Baltimore. So will another 104 Filipino teachers who were among those recruited last year when the city schools first turned abroad to fill classroom vacancies. A new batch of 120 Filipino teachers, Mercado's sister among them, has been in training since early last month.

Mercado, 35, is one of the lucky ones. While many of the teachers went home to the Philippines for the summer, some can't afford to have their families join them in the United States. Others are single. And still others tried to get visas for their families, only to have their applications denied.

But for Mercado, the subject of a yearlong series inThe Sun, an agonizing period of separation is over.

"It seems like a dream," she said as she and her family ate their first American meal, fried chicken at Popeye's on U.S. 40. In the turquoise booths next to them were three of her closest Filipino teacher friends, who came on the same flight with their husbands and children. They have all rented townhouses in the same complex in Perry Hall to be near good public schools for their kids.

Dubbing themselves the "Desperate Housewives," the four women were among 72 Filipino teachers who spent their first year in Baltimore living in the same downtown apartment building. Most teachers from the second batch are now living in that building or another one in North Baltimore, colonies of support for those who are alone and far from home.

When Mercado left for the Philippines seven weeks ago, she didn't know whether her family would be returning with her. But she couldn't bear to think of coming back without them.

Last year, Mercado spent Adrienne's third birthday in her apartment weeping, listening to the celebration over the phone. This year, she was with her family Aug. 7, as her daughter turned 4. They spent the day bidding farewell to friends and preparing for a long journey. A few days later, they boarded the plane together.

Now Mercado is realizing the dream she had when she first applied to teach in Baltimore: to expose her children - Adrienne; Andrea, 5; and Andrei, 11 - to life in the United States. She committed to teach special education in the city schools for three years, with the hope of having her family with her for the second two years.

She will work this year at Canton Middle School. Highlandtown Middle, her first assignment, has been closed.

"Hello," Andrei said into the camera. "This is Baltimore."

Driving through Catonsville, Andrea was impressed by the "pretty houses." Andrei was excited to pass a Wal-Mart, which he had heard about on the television show South Park.

The bus's first stop was at Popeye's, where the kids swatted an "American fly." Andrei was surprised at the size of a regular Coca-Cola, the smallest available.

"This is a big size in the Philippines," he said.

After lunch, the four families continued to their new homes. The Mercado kids promptly jumped, fully clothed, into the bathtub, and Adrienne turned the water on and off. They unloaded boxes and suitcases filled with Filipino seasonings, dried mangoes, a tub of powdered milk, and corn and garlic snacks called Boy Bawang.

In the coming days, Mercado needs to apply for an American driver's license, buy a car and register her kids in school. Her husband, Isagani, who worked in a prison in the Philippines, must start a job search, though he has to wait three months before he is permitted to begin work.

As the family unpacked Thursday afternoon, Mercado's friends from a Filipino church went to a storage facility to collect the rest of her belongings. The kids, exhausted, sprawled out on the carpet and began work on a puzzle.

"We made it," Mercado said as she watched them. "It's a new beginning."

1 Komento ng Ulirang Guro:

There is an organization called "ITES" (International Teacher Exchange Services) - they do similar work for oher school districts and provide an absolute first class level of service for all their exchange partners - the district, the school and of course the teachaers they sponsor. Check them out at www.itesonline.com