Far from their homes and families in the Philippines, a group of city educators draws upon each other for support

A teacher's lesson in friendship and faith


One in a series of occasional articles It 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, PeM-qafrancia "Penny" Pineda, to the hospital.

The following days were among the most difficult Mercado, 35, has had since she left her husband and three children in the Philippines last summer to teach at Baltimore's Highlandtown Middle School. She was struggling to readjust after saying goodbye to her family again after a trip home for Christmas. Then, suddenly, 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.

On the phone, Mercado told her own husband, "I'm going to die if something happens to Penny."

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.

By recruiting abroad, the school system sought to meet its obligation under the federal No Child Left Behind Act to place a "highly qualified" teacher inside every classroom. Like urban systems nationwide, Baltimore is struggling to fulfill that requirement, with only 42 percent of its teachers currently meeting the federal criteria of certification and subject-area expertise.

The Philippines has a surplus of English-speaking math, science and special education teachers, the toughest positions for U.S. schools to fill. In Baltimore, some of the teachers need to pass Maryland's basic certification test to count as highly qualified. Others, including Mercado, may be able to have that requirement waived by submitting certification documents from the Philippines.

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.

Half of the Filipino teachers, including Mercado, have visas for a three-year stay, after which they can apply for a waiver to stay longer. (The other half can stay for six.) Most came to Baltimore to help their families, by sending money home or giving their spouses and children the chance to experience the United States once they're established here. But the agency that sponsors the teachers' visas requires them to come alone for the first year.

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.

After returning from her Christmas trip, Mercado spent a lonely day in the bedroom she shares with Pineda, agonizing as her 3- and 5-year-old daughters far away were sobbing for her and throwing up. Within a few days, though, their life returned to normal, and Mercado became distracted tending to her roommate and other homesick teachers.

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.

At an October prayer meeting, one teacher, spending her first birthday away from her family, made this wish: "For all of us to hang on." For more than half of the first year, they all did.

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

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