Classroom trials, triumphs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last in a series of occasional articles.

At the school in the Philippines where Aileen Mercado used to teach, students got dressed up for the last day of classes, which they spent singing and dancing for their parents and celebrating the year's accomplishments.

At Mercado's school in Baltimore, there was no such closure.

During the Filipino teacher's final weeks at Highlandtown Middle School, the children just stopped coming. Some already knew they had failed. Others were tired of sitting in the heat, tired of school in general.

On the fifth-to-last day, only 11 sixth-grade pupils showed up for a language arts class with 37 on the roll. On the second-to-last day, the two kids present helped Mercado pack. On the final day, about a dozen wandered in and out.

It was a cultural adjustment Mercado had been bracing for since early on in her year at Highlandtown, where she started last summer as part of a corps of 109 teachers recruited in the Philippines to fill some of the city's toughest teaching assignments.

She was stunned in November when a Somali girl she was helping with English left without a goodbye. By spring, so many pupils had come and gone that she treated every day as though it could be their last together.

"You never know the last time you will see these kids," she said in April. "I always think, I should give my best to these kids because this could be their last day."

Student transiency was one of many surprises awaiting Mercado, 35, a year ago when she left her husband and three young children seeking a professional challenge. When city school administrators waving red, white and blue flags greeted her at the airport, her only impression of American schools was what she'd seen in the movies. She figured kids might talk back to teachers more than in her country, where she taught in a private school for the disabled. Maybe they'd throw food in the cafeteria.

The talking back part turned out to be true. The food-throwing wasn't too bad.

Yesterday, Mercado boarded a plane to go home to the Philippines for the summer. When she returns in August for the second leg of a three-year commitment to the city schools, she will come back to a different life.

She'll be going to a different school, Canton Middle, after the closure of Highlandtown this summer as part of a citywide effort to make more efficient use of school building space.

If all goes well, her husband and kids will be with her. So will her sister, who's leaving her own husband behind next school year to teach in Baltimore. Mercado has spent the past year living in a downtown apartment building with 74 other Filipino teachers, all separated from their families. This spring, she signed a lease for a townhouse in Perry Hall, so her kids, ages 3, 5, and 11, can go to school in the suburbs.

Meanwhile, the presence of Filipino teachers in Baltimore will continue to grow. While about 100 from the first batch plan to stay for a second year, the city school system is planning for at least 120 more to start this summer. The hires come amid a wave of international recruitment as American schools, particularly urban ones, struggle to find enough qualified teachers in math, science and special education. The Philippines has a teacher surplus.

Mental toughness

For Mercado, the past year has been a time for gaining independence and developing mental toughness. She learned to tune out the constant noise of running in the halls, and of interruptions on the loud speaker. She got used to broken heat and no air conditioning in classrooms.

She learned she could raise her soft voice and yell when kids misbehaved, and she learned how to break up fights. She learned to dull her homesickness by throwing herself into her work.

The past year has also been a time for becoming flexible in the face of change, at a school where change was everywhere.

Mercado signed up to go to Highlandtown, in southeast Baltimore, last summer after hitting it off with Principal Veronica Dixon. Then in January, Dixon left for medical reasons. An assistant principal filled in for the rest of the year.

As a special education "inclusion" teacher, Mercado's job was to work with children with disabilities in regular language arts and math classes, alongside a regular language arts teacher and a regular math teacher.

Shortly after Dixon's departure, a girl with behavior problems accused the math teacher of hitting her. The teacher spent the next four months sitting in city school system headquarters waiting for his case to be investigated. He was eventually cleared and permitted to return to Highlandtown for the final seven days of school. But in the interim, Mercado worked with a string of substitutes and, sometimes, did both jobs herself.

She adjusted to a midyear schedule change that resulted in class sizes nearly doubling and a new language arts curriculum after the city scrapped the one it was using.

Early in the school year, Mercado was baffled that Highlandtown was one of six city schools labeled "persistently dangerous" by the state. The atmosphere was remarkably calm.

But after the increase in class size and the departure of the principal and the math teacher, things got rowdier.. There were three fights in Mercado's classes in a single day. At first, when kids would fight, she recalled, "I wanted to throw up. But I got used to it."

When she was the only adult in a math class with 30 regular and special-education pupils, classroom management was a challenge. (Though nearly 40 kids were enrolled in each class, rarely did more than 30 attend on any given day.)

On a morning in April, kids threw a plastic bag filled with water - a melted ice pack for a girl's sprained ankle - back and forth across the room as Mercado tried to teach about negative integers.

On a morning in May, a group of girls from another class banged on the door in the back of the room. As Mercado rushed to the door to keep the kids from opening it, they ran to the front of the room and opened a second door there. One boy wrote "kill" on the chalkboard, erased it and wrote it again. Another threw a notebook.

From the beginning, though, kids were drawn to Mercado, who has a gentle demeanor and is always quick to giggle or smile. She would put stickers on their papers, write them notes of encouragement, and give them candy to reward good behavior and mark their birthdays.

Late last fall, a boy with an unstable home life confided in Mercado that he felt he had no choice but to be in a gang. Before she left to visit her family in the Philippines in December, he hugged her tightly and begged her to take him with her. When she got back, he was gone. Some other kids thought he'd gone to jail for stealing a bike. She made several calls but couldn't find him. She dreamed about him and prayed for him, but never saw him again.

Many of the 20 special-education pupils assigned to Mercado drastically improved their behavior under her tutelage, even as non-disabled peers acted out.

She opened their eyes to the world outside Baltimore. When Filipino rebels attempted a coup in February - down the street in Manila from the hotel where city school system recruiters were staying that week - some of Mercado's pupils followed developments in the news.

When it came time for Mercado to choose a new school for next year, she toyed with the ideas of going to an elementary school or of going somewhere in the northeast part of the city, closer to where she'll be living. But she chose Canton, one of three schools receiving Highlandtown pupils, so she can work with some of the same kids. A key factor, again, was that she was drawn to Canton's principal. But three days after she'd committed to go, the school system announced the principal was being replaced in response to low test scores.

As school let out for the summer Tuesday, pupils hadn't yet received their new school assignments. So Mercado doesn't know which ones she might see again.

During a year filled with daily frustrations and triumphs, culture shock and homesickness, the Filipino teachers turned to each other. Mercado was the elected leader of the group, organizing weekly Bible study sessions and prayer meetings.

In the teachers' personal lives, a lot happened in a year. Three couples in the group fell in love, with one marrying at Baltimore City Hall. One teacher spent six weeks in the hospital before giving birth to a premature baby. One was unable to return home for her mother's funeral. Mercado's roommate nearly died of pneumonia.

Mercado saw her family on a Web camera almost daily, but her absence clearly took a toll on her children, particularly 3-year-old Adrienne, who started crying a lot and throwing tantrums. Earlier this month, when Mercado told her over the phone she'd be home soon, Adrienne ran outside and looked to the sky for her plane. She sobbed when she learned her mother wasn't coming that day.

Mercado's husband, Isagani, and the three kids are awaiting word, expected to come next month, on their visas. Then Isagani, who works in a prison in the Philippines, will have to look for a job in Baltimore. Mercado is confident that things will work out, because she can't bear to think of the alternative. Though many of the Filipino teachers will be apart from their families for all three years in Baltimore, a year was as much as Mercado could handle.

At the same time, she was sad for the year to end, sad for the built-in community of friends living together in one apartment building to disperse around the metropolitan region. The teachers marked the conclusion of their chapter together Monday night at a Filipino restaurant. Like students on the final day at Mercado's old school, they dressed up and sang and danced for an audience: the American principals, central office administrators and colleagues who have supported them.

One last fight

The next morning, Mercado went to Highlandtown Middle School for the last time. She broke up one last fight and let a few girls braid her hair. She asked the kids stopping by her classroom to write their best memories of the school, which invariably involved having her as their teacher. She hugged them, gave them a final handful of candy and told them to be good. She passed out scraps of paper with her cell phone number and new home address.

When the clock struck 12:30 p.m. and the children were officially seventh-graders, two girls stayed behind for Mercado to walk them outside. As they reached the sidewalk, Mercado noticed that one had tears rolling down her cheeks.

"Don't cry," Mercado said, stroking the girl's arm. "It's OK."

But she was crying, too. As the girls walked away, Mercado sat alone on the steps outside the school, her wet face in her hands, and reflected on the end of her journey.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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