Classroom trials, triumphs

A Filipino teacher completes her first year in a city public school


Last in a series of occasional articles.

At the school in the Philippines where Aileen Mercado used to teach, students got dressed up for the last day of classes, which they spent singing and dancing for their parents and celebrating the year's accomplishments.

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.

The talking back part turned out to be true. The food-throwing wasn't too bad.

Yesterday, Mercado boarded a plane to go home to the Philippines for the summer. When she returns in August for the second leg of a three-year commitment to the city schools, she will come back to a different life.

She'll be going to a different school, Canton Middle, after the closure of Highlandtown this summer as part of a citywide effort to make more efficient use of school building space.

If all goes well, her husband and kids will be with her. So will her sister, who's leaving her own husband behind next school year to teach in Baltimore. Mercado has spent the past year living in a downtown apartment building with 74 other Filipino teachers, all separated from their families. This spring, she signed a lease for a townhouse in Perry Hall, so her kids, ages 3, 5, and 11, can go to school in the suburbs.

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.

The past year has also been a time for becoming flexible in the face of change, at a school where change was everywhere.

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.

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