Baltimore school system faces challenges in keeping Filipino teachers

Hundreds of Filipino teachers in Baltimore face crucial visa deadlines, and the school district is scrambling to seek renewals — and to show the federal government that they're still needed despite a growing pool of U.S. teaching applicants.

Anxiety has been building among Filipino teachers since March, when 15 were denied U.S. citizenship, school officials said. More than 25 teachers faced a May 31 deadline to file for renewals of their work visas, and 110 teachers face a June 30 deadline.

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso said he is "personally committed to doing everything I can for my Filipino teachers within the context of the law," but the district has limitations. In addition to being ill-prepared to help teachers through their filing process, the district is facing more stringent immigration standards, he said.

"This has been unbelievably complex," Alonso said. "It's a critical issue and a high-volume issue because there are hundreds of teachers who this affects. It has been a messy process."

School officials said that about 200 teachers — dozens of whom will likely have to return to the Philippines before September — must seek U.S. citizenship this year because they have run out of renewal options for work visas.

The Filipino Educators in Maryland, which represents the city's roughly 600 Filipino teachers, said in a statement that it was "actively working with Baltimore City schools and the [Baltimore Teachers Union] to seek a successful resolution to the current immigration issue."

"As an organization that is comprised entirely of Filipino educators, we certainly feel a great sense of urgency that this issue is resolved quickly and appropriately, so that our members can continue to positively impact the thousands of Baltimore City children that we work with on a daily basis," said Anthony Japzon, president of the Filipino Educators in Maryland.

The majority of the teachers in question represent a group who came to Baltimore between 2005 and 2007, when the city and districts across the nation began recruiting international educators to fill vacancies in subject areas such as science, math and special education. At the time, the district didn't have enough qualified teachers to fill the positions.

The teachers, who left their families and jobs and paid thousands of dollars to come to the district, were brought over on H1-B visas, which can be renewed once, but not for more than six years total.

In 2005, the district was facing 200 vacancies. Now, school officials said they face a new challenge.

"We're in a tough position now because we're currently operating with more applicants than we have positions," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "Initially, there was a great need for these teachers. Six years later, the economic conditions of the district and the job climate have changed dramatically."

Fulfilling requirements

For the past three years, Baltimore has carried at least 100 surplus teachers — certified teachers without permanent placements. The district uses them in classroom support, administrative and substitute positions. While the school system doesn't know how many surplus teachers it will have this year, about 700 teachers attended a May 25 job fair seeking open positions at city schools.

The city's surplus teachers pool puts it in a predicament, said Andres Benach, an immigration attorney at Duane Morris LLC in Washington.

"The Department of Labor is not going to make it any easier when you have large numbers of unemployed people," Benach said. "It's going to be hard for them to show that they need these Filipino workers."

According to the department's website, the law requires that before applying for H-1B status for a worker, the school system must prove that it took good-faith steps to recruit U.S. workers for the same job at the same wage. It also stipulates that the district would have to offer a job to any U.S. worker who applies and is as qualified as the H-1B worker.

Edwards said that the district is looking at "strategies to meet the [legal] thresholds" of the visa requirements. Among those efforts, Edwards said, has been reaching out to other Maryland districts to find vacancies that Filipino teachers could fill. In the last month, the district has also assembled a six-person team, including two immigration attorneys, to work on the issues.

The district barely made the May deadline and vowed to make the June 30 deadline for starting the process of renewing teachers' work visas.

According to communications obtained by The Baltimore Sun, several Filipino teachers pleaded with school officials for an update on their visa filings just days before the May 31 deadline. The teachers union echoed those concerns publicly to the city school board May 24.

The district said it has prioritized the group of 200 teachers who have had a H1-B visa for six years and have to apply for permanent visas this year to remain in the United States.

Those filings should have begun last year for the best outcome, Benach said. "In theory, they could wait five years, but it's not good employee relations to have somebody work for you for five years and wait until the last minute to file the paperwork."

For those teachers who have already been denied permanent U.S. residency, the district said it is also working to fix any mistakes.

Edwards said that some denials occurred in part because teachers, rather than the district, imitated the process, which led to insufficient filings of paperwork. But some people who spoke to The Sun on the condition of anonymity said that several rejection letters noted more than one reason, including information that was not completed by the district.

"We're exhausting every strategy to see if there's anything that we can do to reapply and seek appeals," Edwards said. "We know that we have some teachers who are really struggling with next steps."

'Commitment' to students

School officials said the district always planned to help Filipino teachers obtain permanent visas.

Edwards said the teachers "have demonstrated a serious commitment to our children." She noted that they were integral to several high school seniors completing projects to meet state graduation requirements, often volunteering their time on the weekends.

"They have been an honor to have in the district," she said.

But in the past year, Filipino teachers have questioned the teachers union and the school system about where they fit in the district's future.

Last fall, as the teachers union sought hundreds of votes to pass a contract, Filipino teachers were called to a November meeting on the issue. The meeting quickly shifted to discussions about the school system's efforts to assist international teachers in securing U.S. citizenship.

During that meeting, union officials said a memorandum of understanding between the union and the district was in the works to address the international teachers' concerns. But last week, district and union officials said that while there were discussions about the memorandum, it never came to fruition.

Teachers union officials said that after the May 24 complaint to the school board, they are now working closely with the district on the issue.

"They should have all been taken care of," said Neil Ross, field representative for the union. "The way it looks to me is that it's going to be OK."

Alonso acknowledged that a communications breakdown on the part of the school system has led to a buildup of concern among a group that has been particularly vulnerable in the district.

The teachers who face the most pressing deadlines were hired before Alonso came to Baltimore in 2007. Under his tenure, 60 Filipino teachers have been hired for critical vacancies in special education, an area where shortages still exist.

"It's hard to talk about broken promises when there were hundreds of teachers who were here before I arrived," he said.

"But if I'm a Filipino teacher, what I would like to hear is 'You're going to stay … you're for all intents and purposes a Baltimorean.' In the absence of that kind of response, it's problematic."