Crossing the Pacific to teach

SUN JOURNAL

Shortage: Recruiters plan to place thousands of foreign instructors - many from the Philippines - in U.S. classrooms in the coming years.

August 30, 2002|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The new teacher struggles to keep the algebra lesson on track. An eighth-grader is fiddling with a broken pencil sharpener. Another sneaks out of the Compton, Calif., classroom. "Please be good," the teacher begs in accented English.

"Mr. Banas, where are you from?" one pupil asks.

The teacher smiles.

Relson Banas points to a spot on a classroom map, and a collective gasp goes up. "You mean you came all the way across the Pacific to teach us?" another asks.

Who would cross the ocean to teach middle-school math in one of Southern California's lowest-performing school districts? Who would leave behind a 2-year-old daughter to share a house with four other adults in South-Central Los Angeles?

Banas did. And many of the Philippines' best teachers are about to follow his lead.

Banas, who arrived in the United States in January, is at the forefront of a wave of experienced, English-speaking foreign teachers about to land on U.S. shores. With school districts needing to hire 200,000 teachers a year amid a national shortage, private recruiters plan to place at least 15,000 foreign teachers in American classrooms over the next five years.

"It won't be long before people will be saying, `Relson, you brought along the whole island,'" Banas says.

The recruiting agencies also are eyeing India and China. But the Philippines - with an English-speaking school system founded by colonizing Americans - is emerging as the chief source of recruits.

The recruiting companies, once devoted to bringing nurses to the United States, are switching to teachers. Central to their success is putting the financial burden on the job seekers, not the schools. Foreign teachers pay the job agencies about $7,500, which covers the costs of passage and recruitment - and provides recruiters with a profit of up to $1,000 a head. With foreign teachers picking up the tab, their recruitment is a boon for U.S. school districts.

These pipelines are so new that they have gone unnoticed by many U.S. educators. Nevertheless, recruiters have found customers in the Boston and Houston school districts. Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City have made inquiries. But the strongest market has been midsize school districts in Southern California.

The story behind this new phenomenon began three years ago, when a Los Angeles couple read a newspaper article on the teacher shortage in Compton.

Randy Henry, a Xerox engineer, and his wife, Susan, whose company had been bringing Filipino nurses to staff U.S. hospitals and nursing homes, decided that a private company could find teacher applicants at no cost to the schools.

To recruit teachers, the couple traveled to Susan Henry's hometown of Cebu, the Philippines' second-largest city.

The response was overwhelming. At a seminar for Cebu teachers, the Henrys had planned for 200 to show up; 1,500 did. The lure was clear: Many American teachers receive starting pay of $30,000 or more, while their most experienced counterparts in the Philippines are lucky to earn $5,000 a year.

The Henrys culled the applicants by demanding five years' experience and requiring a passing grade on a test based on one that California teachers must pass to earn their full credentials. Worried that applicants might have too rosy a view of U.S. education, Randy Henry screened The Substitute 2, a movie about a violent inner-city high school.

Armed with teachers' resumes, the Henrys began to receive a few bites from school districts. San Bernardino, Calif., the first to call, had planned to hire 20 teachers. It ended up with twice that many, including the former dean of education at a Cebu university. A month later, the school district in Boston hired nine teachers from Cebu. In the spring, Inglewood, Calif., hired 50.

Officially, the Philippine government is "flattered" by the recruiting but worried about the effect it could have on education in that country.

"It is definitely a brain drain," says Erlinda Alburo, head of the Cebu Studies Center at the University of San Carlos, where some of the recruited teachers taught. "They take the best teachers we have."

Compton was desperate for qualified teachers - particularly in math and science. In spring of last year, Compton officials, working with the Henrys, took a recruiting trip to the Philippines. At one interview site, a line of 300 applicants stretched around the block.

By May of last year, the district had made offers to 58 teachers. They all accepted.

Relson Banas was one of them. The 31-year-old had grown up in a rural community outside Iloilo as the son of a successful rice farmer. Single and living with his mother, Banas had adopted a relative's baby daughter. He did not have the $7,500 fee required by the recruiting program.

He took the offer anyway, scrounging half the fee from friends and relatives. He would pay them back, and the other half to the Henrys, once he was on the payroll in Compton. "This was the chance to practice my vocation in the land of milk and honey," Banas says.

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