Filling a role far from home

Arnold Dacles has had to make some adjustments during his first year of teaching science at Leestown Middle School, particularly during the recent wintry weather.

"I had never seen snow before," Dacles said. "Back home we only have two seasons — wet and dry."

Home, for Dacles, is Manila, Philippines. Now, however, he is one of 16 Filipino teachers working in the Fayette County Public Schools, all recruited to teach in subject areas such as math, science and special education, where certified teachers often are hard to find.

Recruiters from the Fayette schools went to the Philippines in late 2007 to interview several dozen job applicants, all of whom had experience teaching in schools there. They ultimately selected Dacles and 15 others from that pool to teach in Lexington schools for the 2008-2009 school year.

The Filipinos arrived here late last summer and have been on the job since last August. They are working on visas, sponsored by the county schools, that will allow them to stay in the United States up to three years.

They have master's degrees and are certified to teach in Kentucky, said Fayette County School Superintendent Stu Silberman.

Recruiting foreign teachers to fill critical shortage areas has been a trend in American elementary and secondary education for about a decade. In Kentucky, the Jefferson County Public Schools have hired teachers from both the Philippines and Barbados in recent years.

Fayette County previously has hired teachers from other countries to teach foreign languages, but this is the first time the district has directly recruited a block of teachers from overseas.

Silberman says school officials took the step because Fayette County has been struggling to fill teaching slots for so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes. As a result, the school system sometimes had to get emergency certifications for people to teach STEM classes even though they lacked background in those subjects, he said.

Educators blame the nationwide problem on the relatively small number of prospective teachers who graduate from U.S. colleges today with training in STEM subjects. Most who have such training go into private business or industry because the pay is better.

"We've had some very serious shortage areas where we just can't find people in these particular certifications," Silberman said. "You have to be innovative to find ways of meeting these needs."

Silberman stressed that the county schools have not recruited foreign teachers when qualified people were available locally. "We weren't keeping anybody out of jobs," he said.

Other school districts that have recruited teachers from the Philippines say they generally have worked out well.

"Our experience was that they were very, very good educators," said Tim Wilhite, a spokesman for the Baldwin County, Ala., Public Schools, which signed about a dozen Filipino teachers in 2007. "If we had the need for additional teachers, and couldn't fill the positions locally, we'd consider recruiting from the Philippines again."

However, there have been some problems.

Two Filipino teachers who were working in the Baltimore City Schools committed suicide in 2007, apparently despondent over being far from their homes and loved ones.

The Roanoke, Va., Public Schools recruited six Filipino teachers in 2007, but they didn't show up on time. The schools later decided not to recruit more.

In El Paso, Texas, recruiters allegedly tricked Filipino teachers into paying fees of $10,000 each to secure jobs in Texas schools that never materialized. Federal charges, including conspiracy to smuggle aliens into the United States, were filed against several people.

Nevertheless, Filipino teachers still seek jobs in U.S. schools because salaries here typically run two or three times the levels back home. And American recruiters like Filipino teachers because the Philippines' educational system closely resembles the U.S. system.

Each of the Filipino teachers who came to Lexington paid fees of several thousand dollars to a California-based firm that worked with the Fayette schools to facilitate the recruiting process.

The firm, Avenida International Consultants, in turn covered the cost of getting the teachers certified in Kentucky, their travel here and other related expenses.

The Fayette schools' only expense is paying the teachers' salaries, which equal the amount American teachers with the same training and experience would receive.

The time and expense are worth it, the Filipino teachers say, even if it sometimes means leaving family and friends back in the Philippines.

Maria Fatima Dela Peña, 33, who is teaching at Winburn Middle School this year, said Lexington was "an opportunity I couldn't pass up," even though it meant a long separation from her husband. He's on a three-year tour as a school administrator and teacher in Indonesia.

This is Dela Peña's second U.S. tour. She taught in Palo Alto, Calif., from 2001 to 2004.

"I had a wonderful experience there, and I wanted to come back," she said. "The first time it was more of an adventure. This time, it was something I just wanted to do."

Dela Peña said she and her husband, who will visit her here this summer, eventually might settle in the United States.

Esmeralda Agustín, 38, said she dreamed of teaching in the United States for years before becoming a special education teacher at Deep Springs Elementary.

"My parents didn't want me to come because I am the youngest in the family," she said. "But when my father passed away a few years ago, I encouraged my brothers to allow me to come here and work."

Early in the school year, Fayette County assigned six of the Filipino teachers to "release-time" teams, which move from school to school to free up in-house teachers for professional development sessions. The teams are generally made up of retired teachers who work part-time.

According to Silberman, the situation developed because Fayette County recruiters had to estimate how many teachers to bring over from the Philippines before knowing exactly what the need would be.

Since the Christmas break, however, almost all of the Filipino teachers have been assigned to specific schools, officials said.

All of the teachers speak English, but Melodee Parker, the Fayette schools' human resources director, said she's heard some complaints that some are hard to understand.

Silberman said he heard similar complaints early in the school year, but that they've faded in recent months.

"All of the teachers had to be able to speak English coming in, and some were stronger than others," he said. "With any new program there are growing pains. But I think that for the most part it has gone well."

The program gets high marks from some administrators and teachers in the county system who have worked with the Filipinos.

Winburn Middle School science teacher Ron Chi says that collaborating with Katrina Frias, one of the Filipino teachers, has enhanced his efforts to create a "mini science museum" in his classroom.

"I wouldn't be able to even attempt this if I didn't have Katrina here," Chi said.