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The New Import: Teachers

First it was nurses. Now recruiters are tapping the Philippines to help fill a void in American classrooms.

August 10, 2002|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new teacher struggles to keep the algebra lesson on track. An eighth-grader is fiddling with a broken pencil sharpener. Another sneaks out of the Compton classroom. "Please be good," the teacher begs in accented English.

"Mr. Banas, where are you from?" one student asks.

The teacher smiles.

Relson Banas points to a spot on a classroom map, and a collective gasp goes up. "You mean you came all the way across the Pacific," asks another student, "to teach us?"

Who would pay dearly to cross the ocean to teach middle-school math in one of Southern California's lowest-performing school districts? Who would leave behind a 2-year-old daughter to share a house with four other adults in South-Central Los Angeles?

Banas did. And many of the Philippines' best teachers are about to follow his lead.

Banas, who arrived in the United States in January, is the first ripple in a wave of experienced, English-speaking foreign teachers about to land on American shores. With school districts needing to hire 200,000 teachers a year to stem a national shortage, private recruiters plan to place at least 15,000 foreign teachers in American classrooms over the next five years.

"It won't be long before people will be saying, 'Relson, you brought along the whole island,' " Banas says.

The recruiting agencies are also eyeing India and China. But the Philippines--with an English-speaking school system founded by colonizing Americans--is emerging as the chief source of recruits. The recruiting companies, once devoted to bringing nurses to the U.S., are now switching to teachers.

Central to their success is putting the financial burden on the job seekers, not the schools. Foreign teachers pay the job agencies about $7,500, which covers the costs of passage and recruitment--and provides recruiters with a profit of up to $1,000 a head. With the teachers themselves picking up the tab, their recruitment is a free lunch for U.S. school districts.

These pipelines are so new that they have gone unnoticed by many U.S. educators. Nevertheless, recruiters have found customers in the Boston and Houston school districts. Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City have made inquiries. But the strongest market so far has been mid-size school districts in Southern California, which are struggling to meet a federal mandate for "highly qualified" licensed teachers. Philippine recruits, some of whom have advanced degrees, begin the credentialing process even before they leave the islands.

In the last academic year, San Bernardino hired 41 Philippine teachers, Inglewood 50 and Compton 58, including Banas.

The story behind this new bandwagon begins with a couple in the San Fernando Valley and 150 pioneers determined to reciprocate a little-known act of American generosity from a century ago.

*

Three years ago, Randy Henry, an engineer at Xerox, and his wife, Susan, a native of the Philippines, read a newspaper report on the teacher shortage in Compton.

Susan Henry, daughter of a teacher, had grown up hearing stories of the Thomasites, 540 American teachers who arrived in the Philippines in 1901 aboard the U.S. Army transport ship Thomas and built an English-speaking educational system in what was then an American colony.

Since 1994, her company, Universal Agency, had been bringing Philippine nurses to staff American hospitals and nursing homes. She wondered if she could do the same with teachers, so well-prepared in the Thomasite tradition.

Foreign teachers are not new to American classrooms. Exchange programs are common, but those teachers must go home within three years. Some large U.S. school districts have tried recruiting foreigners but found the process too costly. The Henrys, working out of their home in Northridge, decided that a private firm could bring teachers both permanently and at no cost to the schools.

Randy Henry quit Xerox and put his retirement money into Universal Agency. To find teachers, the couple traveled to Susan Henry's hometown of Cebu, the Philippines' second-largest city.

The response was overwhelming. At a seminar for Cebu teachers, the Henrys had planned for 200 to show up; 1,500 did. The lure was clear: Many U.S. teachers get starting pay of $30,000 or more, while their most experienced counterparts in the Philippines are lucky to earn $5,000 a year.

The Henrys culled the applicants by demanding five years' experience and requiring a passing grade on an exam based on the California Basic Education Skills Tests, which California teachers must pass to earn their full credential. Worried that applicants might have too rosy a view of U.S. education, Randy Henry screened "The Substitute 2," a movie about a violent high school in the urban core.

Armed with teachers' resumes, the Henrys began receiving a few bites from school districts. San Bernardino called first. Susan Henry explained that Universal--drawing on prospective teachers' fees--could provide air fare to the Philippines for district recruiters.

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