Far from their homes and families in the Philippines, a group of city educators draws upon each other for support

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One in a series of occasional articles It was 2:30 a.m. when Aileen Mercado was awakened by her roommate, crying, feverish, unable to breathe.

Mercado called upstairs to one of the few of the 72 Filipino teachers in her apartment building who has a car so they could take their stricken friend, PeM-qafrancia "Penny" Pineda, to the hospital.

The following days were among the most difficult Mercado, 35, has had since she left her husband and three children in the Philippines last summer to teach at Baltimore's Highlandtown Middle School. She was struggling to readjust after saying goodbye to her family again after a trip home for Christmas. Then, suddenly, she was in the intensive-care waiting room at Maryland General Hospital. And she was calling around the world to alert Pineda's fiance and parents that she was critically ill with pneumonia.

On the phone, Mercado told her own husband, "I'm going to die if something happens to Penny."

But those were also days that underscored the value of the community that the Filipino teachers have found during their months in Baltimore, where they were recruited to fill vacancies in some of the city's toughest schools.

At Maryland General, which has turned to the Philippines to find nurses just as the city schools have looked for teachers, Filipino nurses doted over Pineda, a sixth-grade science teacher at Chinquapin Middle. They brought snacks and sodas to Mercado and others in the waiting room. After Pineda was released from the hospital the next week, a member of a local Filipino church drove twice in one day from Harford County to bring her fish soup and rice.

By recruiting abroad, the school system sought to meet its obligation under the federal No Child Left Behind Act to place a "highly qualified" teacher inside every classroom. Like urban systems nationwide, Baltimore is struggling to fulfill that requirement, with only 42 percent of its teachers currently meeting the federal criteria of certification and subject-area expertise.

The Philippines has a surplus of English-speaking math, science and special education teachers, the toughest positions for U.S. schools to fill. In Baltimore, some of the teachers need to pass Maryland's basic certification test to count as highly qualified. Others, including Mercado, may be able to have that requirement waived by submitting certification documents from the Philippines.

City school officials are so happy with the Filipinos hired for this school year that they've signed up 74 to start in the fall -- among them Mercado's sister -- and the system plans to do more recruiting abroad.

The success of the experiment hinges largely on the foreign teachers' ability to adjust to life outside the classroom. Some say the system would be better served by recruiting at home because U.S. teachers are more likely to stay for the long haul.

Half of the Filipino teachers, including Mercado, have visas for a three-year stay, after which they can apply for a waiver to stay longer. (The other half can stay for six.) Most came to Baltimore to help their families, by sending money home or giving their spouses and children the chance to experience the United States once they're established here. But the agency that sponsors the teachers' visas requires them to come alone for the first year.

There are days when it is too painful for Mercado to look at the family photos on her desk at Highlandtown Middle, where she teaches sixth-grade special education. She always carries an international phone card in case she needs to hear her husband's voice.

After returning from her Christmas trip, Mercado spent a lonely day in the bedroom she shares with Pineda, agonizing as her 3- and 5-year-old daughters far away were sobbing for her and throwing up. Within a few days, though, their life returned to normal, and Mercado became distracted tending to her roommate and other homesick teachers.

As the Filipino teachers' elected coordinator, Mercado has gained a sense of independence in Baltimore. She and other teachers are taking driving lessons. While in the Philippines, she only had a learner's permit. Whether tracking down lost paychecks or renting movies from Netflix, Mercado has taken the lead in navigating a foreign culture and bringing the group of teachers together.

Two-thirds of the 109 Filipino teachers live in the same apartment building, the Symphony Center apartment and office complex near Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. On Friday nights, Mercado leads a prayer meeting where they share their challenges and victories from the week. She hosts a Bible study session in her apartment each Wednesday and on Sundays her routine includes church, lunch at a buffet and shopping.

At an October prayer meeting, one teacher, spending her first birthday away from her family, made this wish: "For all of us to hang on." For more than half of the first year, they all did.

Now, the first teacher in the Baltimore group -- one of the few who lives alone -- is leaving.

The San Diego-based Amity Institute, which sponsors visas for Filipino and other foreign teachers around the country, estimates that one in 10 nationwide doesn't fulfill their three-year commitment. Tiffany Bettencourt, Amity's director of programs, calls the retention rate in Baltimore so far "just astounding."

"They have amazing support networks," she said.

For Mercado, a big part of that support comes from the River of Life International Christian Fellowship, a Filipino church in Baltimore County. Its members donate furniture to the teachers, drive them around town and host them for holidays when they have nowhere else to go.

An area Catholic church has lent similar support to other Filipino teachers.

Mercado says she has turned to River of Life to support her on a spiritual journey. She has come to believe that God sent her to Baltimore to minister to the city's children and other Filipino teachers. She believes that, if she can touch the life of one child, the experience will be worth it. She also believes God will provide for her family while she's gone.

In September, to ease the pain of separation, Mercado bought a computer with a Web camera. Since then, she's seen her husband and children -- Andrei, 11; Andrea, 5; and Adrienne, 3 -- online almost daily.

One Saturday morning, she held up for the camera a small red-and-white umbrella she bought for her daughters, asking Adrienne to identify the colors. "When I left home, we were studying colors," she explained. "I just want to check if she knows."

Mercado keeps her family abreast of all her life's developments. Still, it's no substitute for being together. When Andrei didn't make the honor roll as he normally does, she felt her absence was to blame.

"It is ironic that I can help American children when I can't even help my son do his homework," she said at church in November, speaking to the congregation about her experience in Baltimore. "My little girls, they're so innocent and so cute, and it just pains me to think that their yaya [nanny] knows them more than I do right now."

Mercado was one of only a handful of teachers who returned home over winter break. She brought with her a video of 17 teachers sending holiday greetings to their families.

The video was filmed by a Filipino director who read about Mercado in The Sun and plans to make a documentary about her and the other teachers. Mercado showed the video when she gathered several teachers' families for a dinner in Quezon City, a chance for 80 parents, spouses and children to meet each other.

In her video message, Pineda, 32, wanted to tell her parents she and her longtime boyfriend had just gotten engaged over the phone. The documentary-maker nixed the idea, saying in jest she didn't want to give Pineda's mother a heart attack.

Mercado's plane arrived in Manila close to midnight Dec. 17, hours past her kids' bedtime, but they ran to her with balloons and roses. As their van left the airport, the two little girls sang excitedly in the back seat:

I love you,

You love me,

We're a happy family ...

"Their family was complete," Mercado said. From the beginning, she found herself compelled to remind them: "On January 1, Mom will have to go back to Baltimore." At times, she recalled, "they would really, really cry."

Mercado's trip home strengthened her resolve to bring her husband and children to Baltimore for the next two school years. She's overwhelmed thinking of the logistics, from visas to a house to a job for her husband, Isagani, who works with juvenile delinquents in the Philippines.

She has mixed feelings about whether she wants to try to stay in Baltimore beyond three years. She recently said she'll be happy anywhere as long as she's with her family.

During her trip, Mercado kept in her wallet a letter written by one of her special education pupils, to motivate her to come back: Ms Aileen Mercado, I will miss her when she go back home. ... I now you is gon to miss us to. I will feel mad because I do not have no one helping me whit my work. I will all was remember you.

Coming back, though, was excruciating. Adrienne was waking up crying, looking for her mother. She sobbed into the camera, "I don't want you to be on the Webcam. I want you to be here."

After a day in her bedroom, Mercado started seeing other teachers just as homesick as she was, and learned that one woman's mother had died of a heart attack. She felt she had to be strong. "If they're sad and I'm sad, what will happen to us?" she said.

Then, on Jan. 5, Pineda woke up sick. Soon, Mercado found herself consulting with doctors and fielding phone calls from teachers and relatives. When Pineda was released from the hospital the following week, Mercado set strict restrictions on visitors, brought her meals in bed and accompanied her to follow-up appointments.

Pineda, who has since returned to school, was overwhelmed by the support she received from "the new community."

"I never felt so much love," she said.

Throughout Pineda's ordeal, Mercado thought of a friend from the Philippines who worked as a speech therapist in New York City schools a few years ago. One day, he fell on the ice. With no one to turn to, he crawled back to his apartment and called 911.

"He didn't have anybody," Mercado said. "When he got out of the hospital, he just called a cab. He got so depressed, he went home to the Philippines and doesn't want to come back."

In her apartment, with Pineda by her side, she asked, "When you're far away from your family, imagine if you didn't have anyone around you."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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