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COLUMN ONE

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

San Bernardino had planned to hire 20 teachers. It ended up with twice that many, including the former dean of education at a Cebu university. A month later, the school district in Boston hired nine teachers from Cebu. In the spring, Inglewood hired 50.

"It's an absolute gold mine," says Douglas Agatep, the Inglewood schools' chief human resource officer. Officially, the Philippine government is "flattered" by the recruiting, but it worries about the possible effect on education there.

"It is definitely a brain drain," says Erlinda Alburo, head of the Cebu Studies Center at the University of San Carlos, where some of the recruited teachers taught. "They take the best teachers we have."

Compton, a struggling district that only recently emerged from an eight-year state takeover, was desperate for qualified teachers--particularly in math and science. In the spring of 2001, Compton officials, working with the Henrys, took a recruiting trip to the Philippines. At one interview site, a line of 300 applicants stretched around the block.

By May 2001, the district had made offers to 58 teachers. They all accepted.

Relson Banas was one of them.

The 31-year-old had grown up in a rural community outside Iloilo, the son of a successful rice farmer. He moved to the city to attend college, earning a master's degree in education, and taught math at a Catholic school.

Single and living with his mother, Banas had adopted a relative's baby daughter. He did not have the $7,500 fee required by the recruiting program.

He took the offer anyway, scrounging half the fee from friends and relatives. He would pay them back, and the other half to the Henrys, once he was on the payroll in Compton. "This was the chance to practice my vocation in the land of milk and honey," Banas says.

*

The first teachers arrived in Los Angeles just before Christmas 2001, four months late--and very anxious. An INS agent at the airport, glancing at visas that showed "Compton Unified School District," asked: "Did you bring a bulletproof vest?"

All Banas knew of his new city was that Venus and Serena Williams grew up there. "I thought Compton was a place where everyone played tennis," he said.

Just getting to the United States had been an ordeal.

Banas and the other teachers, who had been scheduled to leave in August of last year, were delayed when the Immigration and Naturalization Service demanded that they obtain preliminary California teaching credentials before getting visas.

The state had no experience granting preliminary credentials to teachers while they were still overseas. California fingerprints all prospective teachers electronically, but there were no facilities to do so in the Philippines. Then the teachers' ink-on-paper fingerprints were caught in a post-Sept. 11 backlog, as the number of visa background checks soared.

In the Philippines, the recruits--most of whom had already quit their jobs--grew desperate. Banas took a part-time job teaching ballroom dancing to make ends meet.

In Southern California, the schools that had hired them were desperate too. They were forced to rely on substitutes until Jan. 7, when the first teachers arrived.

The Henrys personally greeted all of them at LAX.

"At last!" cried Banas, as he spotted the Henrys.

"What took you so long?" Randy Henry joked.

*

At 7 o'clock each weeknight, Banas takes a seat on a living room couch, alongside the four other teachers with whom he shares the $1,500-a-month rented home. Together they watch the game show "Jeopardy." It is a half-hour break from lesson plans and a chance to test their assimilation.

They didn't know the identity of California's governor until "Gray Davis" came up as an answer on the show. But they ace the questions related to literature, science and movies.

"Jeopardy" is a rare ritual of familiarity in an extraordinarily difficult adjustment. The teachers say the Henrys have done their best to help them, organizing outings on holidays and advising them on American standards of promptness. Philippine churches in Carson have assisted some of the teachers, lining up van services to take them just about anywhere.

"I'm honored to be of service," says their driver, Francisco Arzadon, also known as "Brother Ike." He is paid $100 a month by each of six teachers to provide 24-hour transportation service.

But the teachers see Los Angeles as too large, too sprawling, and especially--for people from the tropics--too cold.

"It's just freezing here," says Banas.

For recreation, he walks to Magic Johnson Park or wanders the aisles of a local thrift store. On weekends, the teachers often head to a shopping mall, where the crowds remind them of the streets back home.

Many of the teachers have become close, because few members of their families have accompanied them--at least during this first year. The separation is hard.

"Daddy, come home," Banas' 2-year-old daughter, Aliah, pleads over the telephone one recent night. For a few minutes, the normally effusive Banas can't say anything.

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