To get to Highlandtown Middle School, Aileen Mercado left her husband and three young children a half a world away.
She left a good job and a comfortable home.
All to teach in the United States.
Tomorrow, as students around the Baltimore region return to school, the heart of her journey begins.
The 34-year-old Filipina is headed to one of six city schools recently labeled "persistently dangerous."
As the state assumes control over Baltimore's troubled special education program, Mercado will teach language arts and math to students with disabilities, in classes with their non-disabled peers.
She and 57 other Filipino teachers who arrived in Baltimore this summer know they're in for a challenge. And though some are nervous, they can't wait.
"Right now we're very idealistic," says Mercado, a petite and religious woman who loves malls and movies. "We're hoping we can make a difference in our own little way."
Hiring foreign teachers is a phenomenon that has swept the United States as school systems struggle to meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act's requirement of "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom. Critics say schools should instead fix the classroom conditions that make it hard to attract and retain American teachers, but urban systems aren't having much success in meeting that goal.
The Philippines, which has long supplied the United States with nurses, has emerged as a recruitment hub, because of its surplus of education majors and its English-speaking population.
In addition to the 58 teachers already in Baltimore, 51 - held up because of visa problems - are expected to arrive this fall. Sixteen more will begin teaching tomorrow in Baltimore County.
The Filipino teachers in Baltimore will fill openings in "critical shortage areas" such as math, science and special education. And they will take on assignments in some of the city's toughest schools.
Some came for the money, others for the learning opportunities, and to experience America. Mercado came for all those reasons.
She is one of many who left young children at home. A few even left infants.
The teachers' international exchange visas will allow them to stay three years. Several, including Mercado, hope their spouses and children will be able to join them for years two and three.
A birthday from afar
Of all the cultural adjustments faced by Mercado, being away from her husband and kids is the hardest.
On Aug. 7, they celebrated her daughter Adrienne's third birthday in Marikina City without her. At her apartment on Park Avenue, Mercado wept.
She talked to the little girl on the phone, which was passed around to her husband, her parents, her siblings and her two older children, ages 4 and 10.
The conversation wasn't as hard as earlier ones.
"The hardest part was when I was very new here, and [Adrienne] said, 'Mama, you come home,'" Mercado recalls. "She has no concept of time. She was asking me, 'Are you going to stay there for two nights?' I said, 'No, 200 nights.'"
The daughter of a high school principal and an insurance agency manager, Mercado grew up in the Pampanga province of the Philippines, the eldest of four children. Her native language is Filipino, and she learned English in school.
From an early age, she found herself drawn to children with disabilities, influenced by a mentally retarded uncle. At the University of the Philippines, she earned a bachelor's degree in special education in 1991.
During her last year of college, she was assigned to work in a center for juvenile delinquents as part of her studies. There, she met another worker, Isagani Mercado. They married in 1993.
Mercado spent 11 years at a private school for disabled children, most from well-to-do families. She was a teacher, a program coordinator and an administrator. During those years, she had three children: Andrei, Andrea and Adrienne.
Drawn to the U.S.
When her friends, one by one, began leaving to teach in California, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Nevada, she never thought she'd be one of them.
But in time, her curiosity grew.
Naturally, the money would be nice. Public school teachers in the Philippines earn around $3,500 a year. Private school teachers earn a few thousand dollars more. As a private school administrator, Mercado earned around $10,000.
To get to Baltimore and Baltimore County, the teachers paid a recruiter $5,000 each to cover their visas, plane ticket and an undisclosed fee. Now that they're here, the city teachers will earn around $45,000 a year.
Money, though, wasn't the only reason for coming. Mercado was done having babies. She felt that she had reached a plateau in her career, and she longed for an experience to push her mentally. She read The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream.
"I started wondering, what's in the U.S. that everybody wants to go there?" she says. By October, she'd decided, "I won't have peace until I find out."
After that, she spoke with her husband. "My husband is so wonderful. He told me, 'Whatever makes you happy, I will support you.'"
Two Baltimore school recruiters traveled to Manila in November and again in January, when they interviewed Mercado. Each time, they met with 20 candidates a day for five days at the Manila Peninsula Hotel. All the applicants - prescreened by an outside agency - had substantial teaching experience and strong knowledge in the city's shortage areas. Most had master's degrees. The main criterion used to weed people out was English fluency.
By the end of January, Mercado had a job offer.
'Where will Mom go?'
Then she had to tell her kids. It took almost a month for the message to sink in.
Every day, she'd show them the United States on a map and ask, "Where will Mom go?"
"U.S.A.," they would answer.
"What will Mom do?" she would ask.
"Get snow, buy chocolates, buy house" came the reply.
As departure day, June 23, approached, Mercado and her husband made a pact: "If you want to cry, cry here in the [bed] room," away from the kids. They somehow managed to keep that pact when they said goodbye at the airport.
Mercado's mother moved in to care for the children.
Mercado, on the plane with other teachers, flew from Manila to San Francisco, San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake City to Baltimore.
School system officials were at the airport to pick them up and bring them to their new home: the Symphony Center apartment and office complex near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
A new home
Of the 58 Filipino teachers, 44 are living at Symphony Center in furnished, two-bedroom apartments, with four teachers to each. The complex, brick with emerald green awnings, is steps from the light rail, an important factor, given that none has a car.
Mercado chose to share a bedroom with Penny PiM-qeda, headed to Chinquapin Middle, because they speak the same dialect of Kapampangan.
In their apartment, one roommate is the "treasurer," in charge of keeping up with bills. Mercado does all the cooking, posting menus on the refrigerator listing a week's worth of such Filipino dishes as adobo and sinigang. The three others take turns dishwashing.
On her first day, Mercado and other teachers went to Lexington Market. They saw abandoned buildings and a man they thought was high on drugs.
"I was a bit scared," Mercado says. "We were in a foreign country. This was the first time we went out. People were shouting in the street."
In the two months since, the teachers have taken public transportation to the malls - Owings Mills, Towson, the Gallery at Harborplace and Mondawmin - and Goodwill, in search of winter clothes and gifts for their families.
School system officials took them by school bus to Han Ah Reum Asian Mart in Catonsville. Mercado was especially impressed by a day trip to Washington, where they saw the Senate in session.
On Sundays, area Filipinos from the River of Life International Christian Fellowship church drive the teachers to and from services in a movie theater. On weekdays, the teachers have been busy training.
The school system organized a "cultural transition week," during which the teachers learned about different family structures. Watching a video, they learned about families in which both parents are gay - a foreign concept in their Roman Catholic, conservative culture.
They attended a summer institute open to all 700 new city teachers, and they assisted veteran teachers in summer programs. Mercado was assigned to a program for incoming sixth-graders at Pimlico Middle. She noticed that far more children were enrolled than were attending.
Those who were there were well-behaved, she says. "That's why the teachers kept telling us, 'This is not the real picture.'"
When she asked the kids why they seemed so tired, they told her they stay out until midnight. She told them about her son, who is their age. They didn't believe her when she said he's in bed each night by 10.
Finding a school
In early July, the teachers attended a placement fair. Highlandtown Middle was not among Mercado's top five choices. But she was waiting for an interview near the Highlandtown table and learned that the Southeast Baltimore school - which, like most city middle schools, has among the state's lowest test scores - needed special education teachers.
The principal, Veronica Dixon, and an assistant principal began interviewing her. Mercado thought Dixon seemed supportive. Dixon offered her a job, and, after about a half-hour of thought, Mercado accepted.
Two weeks later, some Filipino teachers saw a television news segment about the schools being named persistently dangerous. They rushed to tell Mercado: Highlandtown was one of them.
"I didn't know until I was signed up, but it's OK," she says.
At orientation at Highlandtown last week, Mercado was struck by the size of the school, which has about 1,100 students. Her old school has 70.
Soon after the teachers' arrival in Baltimore, they decided to elect a representative, someone to work with the school system administration whenever a problem arises.
They chose Mercado, giving her a role that has distracted her from her homesickness.
As the teachers' representative, Mercado has taken on planning a weekly meeting.
Each Friday - supposedly at 8 p.m. but really closer to 9 - the teachers meet in one of the Symphony Center apartments. They begin with a prayer service, where they discuss their challenges. Then they eat and celebrate the past week's birthdays. Their self-imposed curfew is midnight.
One teacher thanks everyone for praying for her 10-year-old daughter back in the Philippines. A suspected case of typhoid or malaria turned out to be nothing more than the flu.
The sharing continues. One teacher who tried taking the light rail to the bank ended up at the airport. "I had a nice ride," she says.
'Opportunity to grow'
Another has overcome his initial fear of being at a school labeled persistently dangerous: "I have accepted as a challenge that it's one of the most dangerous schools in Baltimore City in the eyes of some. In our eyes, it's an opportunity to grow."
The service concludes with "Lead Me Lord" on a karaoke machine. Then the music turns to Gloria Estefan and Ace of Base. Mercado, in black jeans and a University of the Philippines T-shirt, takes the microphone for ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
Two nights ago, Mercado came to the prayer service with exciting news: An American teacher at Patterson High has agreed to drive her and two other Filipinas to and from school. Each will pay $40 a month, but it will save them 90 minutes a day on buses.
Tired from training and classroom decorating, many teachers straggle into the service late. A whiz at text messaging, Mercado takes notes on her cell phone about what they're missing. Once the group swells from nine to 24, she asks for the teachers' attention.
Monday, she tells them, will be "a very, very tough day." As they go forward into the school year, she urges them to keep something in mind.
"We should always remember," she says, "we prayed for this, we asked for this. Now that we're here, we should be grateful. And we should deliver."
REMEMBERING THEIR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
For Carroll County Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr., school started in the first grade at Liberty Elementary in Libertytown, a small Frederick County village, without the benefit of pre-school, kindergarten or reading readiness programs.
You just got on the bus and went to first grade, he says.
At 53, he says he barely remembers that first day, but he does recall liking school so much that he rarely missed. His mother still has a stack of his perfect attendance certificates, and Jones has kept the silver dollars the teacher awarded annually to students with no absences.
He may have had a perfect homework record, too, he says.
As soon as I got home from school, I would change clothes, do the farm chores and then, it was homework, he says. There was no TV, until homework was done. So I missed a lot of the shows other kids would be talking about.
Jones walked nearly a mile along a farm lane to catch the bus but was not apprehensive, not even on the first day, he recalls.
I had my older sister to go with me, and the guy who drove our bus was like a grandfather to us, Jones says. He made sure everybody got on and off OK.
Mary Gail Hare
No longer lonely
Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar describes his first day of school in 1950 as a distraction from mourning his sisters departure for college.
Ungar, the youngest in his family, with three older sisters, was 5 years old at the time. The older two girls had already left home. But, Ungar says, he was excited about traveling to State College, where the youngest of the Ungar girls was to begin her freshman year at Penn State University.
At some point, I suddenly realized we were going to leave her there, says Ungar. I remember standing outside this diner on the main street in State College just bawling my eyes out.
Soon afterward, he started the first grade there was no kindergarten in his hometown, Kingston, outside Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
I guess it was a relief, says Ungar. I was so lonely without her.
The reward of tears
The Calabrese twins learned a pair of lessons on their first day in school.
Laura discovered the influence of tears, while Joana was taught the value of the adage Be careful what you wish for.
They were running late for school, and when they finally arrived, class assignments had already been made at Hammond Elementary School in Laurel.
I remember I always wanted the male teacher, and my sister wanted the female teacher, Laura recalls. But when we got there they told us it was the other way around.
Laura began crying. Soon after so did her sister.
School officials immediately changed the sisters teachers to conform to their wishes.
I remember having a very fun teacher, Laura says. I really enjoyed him and was intimidated by him. I thought he was very cool, and I didnt want to make him upset.
Joana wasnt so fortunate. My sister ended up not liking her teacher and wished she hadnt cried that day, Laura says.
Now 17 and a senior at Reservoir High School in Fulton, Laura offers this advice for those entering school for the first time: If youre just starting school, its exciting. And you'll probably be with your classmates a long time, so be friendly.
Steve Ingles first day of school affects how he teaches at Annapolis High School.
When Ingle started school as a 5-year-old, his family lived in South Africa, where his father worked for the German government. His mother, who is Mexican, enrolled him and his older siblings in an English school.
However, her understanding of the educational system in an English-speaking country was not good, Ingle said. She bought him a satchel shaped like a small briefcase. I carried it with me all day long even though the other kids didnt, he said.
There was something else that made him different. Until that point Ingle had only heard German and Spanish. His English was poor to non-existent.
As a student I was terrified, because I was in a place I wasnt familiar with, he said. I didn't understand what was going on.
But Ingle remembers the teacher read a story to the class, though he said he didnt gain anything academically from it. Ingle couldnt pronounce her last name Lachowski but she let him call her Miss Carol. She did something to make us comfortable, he said.
Now Ingle, a 33-year-old Linthicum resident, teaches students who have had interrupted education intermittent schooling because of frequent moves. He can relate to their situation.
My students now are pretty much the same. They come to school and dont know what to expect, he said. Nor do their parents. So, when students first arrive in his class, he tries to ease their anxiety.
Thats the biggest thing I do is make them feel comfortable, he said.