While the college-bound students are tied to their parents' visas until they are 21, the students currently in college can stay in the U.S. on their student visas. But many can't work or receive financial aid because they are not citizens and have relied on their parents who work in the school system — the sole breadwinners in their families — to help pay tuition.

"I feel lucky that I get to stay here, but that disappears, because this was always about family," said Jacob Siozon, who is finishing his third year at Baltimore City Community College's nursing program. "What good am I here, if my family is back home?"

Over the years, the children said, they have watched their parents grow more tired and weary from their challenging work but also more invested and committed to Baltimore's schools and its students.

They say they've watched their parents work through weekends visiting students' homes, stay late after school to tutor, volunteer for many programs, receive numerous certifications, and attach their own failures and successes to those of their students.

"I've seen this all take a lot out of my mother, but she worked hard for those kids," Jacob Siozon said. "Where were the people who were here welcoming us with open arms? They just closed up."

The students also have become connected to Baltimore schools, overcoming the obstacles of an urban school system. Some have attended schools with challenging climates and faced discrimination.

"It's just so unfair that we worked so hard for so many years, and the system just throws it all away," said Mary Naluz, who graduated third in her class from Forest Park High School and went on to study pharmaceuticals at the Community College of Baltimore County until this spring when financial issues forced her to take a semester off.

According to Ramona Diaz, a Baltimore filmmaker who documented four Filipino teachers' trek to Baltimore from the Philippines in a film released last year called "The Learning," there was always hope that the teachers could work hard enough to stay in the district.

"When I was filming, the whole idea was to ... be good enough to stay and contribute to the community, which I think in large part has happened," Diaz said.

Diaz, also an immigrant from the Philippines, said that children are the main reason for the teachers coming to America, and she isn't surprised that the looming return home is taking the hardest toll on them.

"For younger kids, they're creatures of habit and predictability — and to live in such unpredictability, that's tragic," Diaz said. "They were first taken away from the Philippines to be brought here, and now they're being taken away again, along with their dreams, at no fault of their own."

Jotham Siozon, a ninth-grader at City College high school, came face to face with his dreams at a college fair last Friday. What he didn't tell his friends who bantered about rival college teams is that, "I'm disappointed that I can't get to any of these good colleges, have the opportunities here."

Diaz said that for college students, who can stay in the U.S. on a student visa, there is something to be salvaged. Returning to the Philippines with a college degree, she said, will afford opportunities.

Thea Mucas, a ninth-grader at Pikesville High School who will end the year with a 4.0 GPA, had planned her schedule at Pikesville for the next three years.

Mucas said she'd be starting behind her peers in high school in the Philippines because classes are harder and courseloads are heavier there.

"I won't have the whole high school experience that I started," Mucas said. "And I'd be leaving behind everyone I know."

Returning to the Philippines isn't the worst thing, the students say, but facing another journey to the unknown is. They said that even harder to swallow is that for the first time in their American lives, they realize that neither their parents' hard work nor their optimism is enough.

"Every time I see my mom — how tired and sad she looks, how she has her rosary all of the time, I say, 'Wow, this is really happening,'" Acalain said. "It's hard — when you know your whole life is about to completely change. All we can do is pray to God."

erica.green@baltsun.com