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For children of Filipino teachers, an uncertain future

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As the school year draws to a close, one group of Baltimore students isn't making plans for summer. They deflect discussions about courseloads for next year, and shy away from questions about which colleges they hope to attend. They don't talk about "the future."

For hundreds of Filipino children who made the journey to Baltimore when the city school system sent recruiters across the world to recruit their parents for teaching positions in 2006, this year marks bitter ends and uncertain beginnings.

The children attended some of the best schools in the city, many graduating at the top of their classes and securing scholarships to attend college. But now they face the possibility that the school system no longer has a place for them or their parents.

Only 46 of 154 Filipino teachers whose work visas are expiring this year will be sponsored for renewals by the system, school officials announced last month. More may lose their visas over the next five years as the system uses an annual review of the job market to determine whether to retain roughly 600 international teachers, the vast majority Filipino, who were recruited by the school system every year between 2005 and 2009.

"This whole thing has shown that the American dream can be a lie," said Thea Siozon, a senior at Polytechnic Institute. She is the daughter of a Filipino special educator of six years who plans to move her family back to the Philippines if she isn't sponsored for a work visa.

The news has thrown the Filipino teaching community into a frenzy, as many teachers desperately try to plead their case for the 46 coveted spots or prepare to leave.

"It just seems that they're punishing the people who are doing such good for the kids," said Siozon, who will graduate from Poly with a 3.7 grade-point-average and a $30,000 merit scholarship to Towson University that she doesn't know if she can use. "And what about us? We're the kids, too."

Last month, before a packed room in the auditorium at Polytechnic Institute, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso presented the results of the district's "market test," showing that there were hundreds of American teachers vying for positions that are currently filled by the immigrant teachers. The district can legally sponsor work visas only if it can prove that there are no qualified American candidates for positions.

The market test is a required review of the American job market mandated by the U.S. Department of Labor for districts that employ immigrant teachers with work visas. Alonso called the market test "a moment of truth" in an anxiety-riddled year after the school system acknowledged that there was no long-term plan in place for the teachers.

Alonso, who emigrated from Cuba to the United States at age 12 and credits education for his triumphs, said he empathized with the Filipino families.

"Those kids could have been me," Alonso said. "The fact that it impacts the kids who, right now, for all intents and purposes are Americans is very, very painful."

Alonso arrived one year after the bulk of the teachers were recruited and has vowed to personally make up for missteps and lost time in helping teachers as much as the law allowed. A team of immigration lawyers and other district resources to uphold this commitment costs $8 million.

"No legal explanation can justify the disruption of a child's life," he said. "It's just tragic that many of these kids' lives are going to be touched by something that we couldn't control."

On a recent night in the lobby of a Northwest Baltimore condo building they've called home for half of their lives, a group of six Filipino teenagers whose parents face visa deadlines reflected fondly on their homeland, which they left when they were between ages 11 and 18.

They described it as a place where beaches and sunshine are in abundance but jobs and resources are scarce. They yearn for the taste of authentic Filipino roasted pork, called Lechon, and to see their families again.

The teenagers, who have adopted American-type styles in clothing and were wearing jeans, plaid shirts and sweatshirts, also perked up when they described what it was like to see snow for the first time, how they dreamed of seeing where movies in America were made, how they were amazed at how readily available food and water was.

They chuckled as they remembered how they thought Maryland was a religious, sacred ground, because it contained the name "Mary."

"I had to leave my family and friends, but it was like a chance at a second life," said Francel Acalain, also a senior of Polytechnic Institute, whose mother teaches special education in the system on a work visa that expires in 2013. "Eventually, it was like I was finally home, and I don't want to move to another place."

Acalain hoped to attend a community college in the fall and transfer to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but is unsure about the future.

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

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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