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.'"