For Filipino educator, a switch to tough love

City teacher with soft touch learns that her pupils need healthy doses of discipline, too


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.

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