The school system in coastal Baldwin County — 60 miles by 25 miles of Alabama farmland framed on two sides by waterfront towns — was short on teachers, especially in courses such as math and science.
So short, in fact, that district officials went around the world last year, with expenses paid by a teacher recruiting firm, and brought back Michel Olalo of Manila and 11 other Filipinos to teach along the shores of the Gulf Coast and Mobile Bay and in the communities in between.
That raised some eyebrows in Baldwin County, where nine out of 10 people are white, just one in 50 is foreign-born and, as the county's teacher recruiter Tom Sisk noted recently, "Many of our children will never travel outside the United States."
Yet school administrators throughout the U.S. are plucking from an abundance of skilled international teachers, a burgeoning import that critics call shortsighted but educators here and abroad say meets the needs of students and qualified candidates.
"All my friends were applying," said Olalo, hired through San Mateo, Calif.-based Avenida International Consultants to teach physics. "I thought, why don't I try it? Luckily, when I was lined up for an interview, it was people from Baldwin County."
Dearth of math and science teachers
The U.S. Department of Education doesn't monitor how many foreigners are working in American classrooms, spokeswoman Elissa Leonard said, but a federal survey released in May confirmed the dearth of math and science teachers, chiefly due to retirement by baby boomers.
As far back as five years ago, the National Education Association estimated that up to 10,000 foreigners already were teaching U.S. students in primary and secondary schools, mainly to fill vacancies in math, science, foreign languages and special education.
The largest single sponsor of foreign teachers, according to the NEA, is Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Visiting International Faculty, which claims it has 1,500 teachers from more than 55 countries in districts in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and California. The firm has placed teachers mostly in the South as it branches out from its Chapel Hill base, spokeswoman Leslie Maxwell said.
Critics view the international teacher market as a quick fix that can frustrate students and foreign hires alike.
If foreign teachers "are recruited into schools and communities lacking the kinds of support that all new teachers need, they may not stay," said David Haselkorn, policy research director at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J., which recruits recent college graduates with education degrees and professionals from certain fields to teach in low-income communities.
Janet Lipscomb, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Foley High in Baldwin County, said the students liked the Filipino teachers but some experienced a "communication gap," particularly when students used slang.
"The students cut up a lot. Some of that may have been misinterpreted by the teachers," said Lipscomb, a substitute teacher at the high school.
But Chris Fredrick, an 11-year-old at Cedar Grove Middle School in Decatur, Ga., enjoys the earth science class taught by Uzma Masood, who was recruited by Georgia-based In-talage Inc. to come from Hyderabad, India.
"I like her. I like what we do in class. We're active in the class. We're not just sitting there all day," he said.
On a recent school day, students were highly responsive to Masood as she constantly walked around the classroom and encouraged students instead of just lecturing them.
"I like her class because sometimes if we don't understand something she'll break it down for us," said Pedruna Adams, also 11.
Masood, 32, wearing black pin-stripe pants, a turquoise Indian tunic and a black hijab on her head, spoke with an accent as she conducted activities that got students up out of their seats in the classroom, which looked typical for 6th grade. Big block letters cut out of blue construction paper were across the front, above the white board: EXPLORE THE WORLD THROUGH SCIENCE.
"I always introduce myself on the first day and tell them I'm from a different country and explain that I have an accent and they can ask me if they don't understand something. Usually within two or three days they get used to it and don't have any problems," Masood said.
"She is a wonderful teacher," said Agnes Flanagan, principal of the school. "I don't understand some people's philosophy of not wanting visiting teachers. I wouldn't mind having a building full of them. She's very dynamic and the kids love her."
Teachers proficient in English
Philippine Education Secretary Jesli Lapus said the Philippine teachers hired for U.S. classrooms are those most proficient in English and who look at America as "a second home ... it's not like a strange place."
"These teachers, they all grew up reading American books," he said.
Proponents note that international teachers typically have a higher level of subject expertise in the classroom and can expose young students to a new culture.
Also, the pool of candidates overseas is much bigger than locally.
"We interviewed 180 applicants in five days" in Manila, Sisk said. In the U.S., he did not meet that many candidates on visits to 20 or 30 colleges.
Immigration officials say the temporary work visas used to hire foreign teachers create no path by themselves to permanent U.S. residency, and teachers have no advantage over any other group seeking the visas.
For foreign teachers, the U.S. job market offers much better pay than at home. Lapus said the starting monthly salary for a public school teacher there is about $300 a month. In Alabama, the starting salary set by state law is about 10 times more — a minimum $36,144 for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience.
"This is the global rule of the game now," Lapus said in an interview in Manila.
He said the hiring of Filipinos for U.S. jobs is a testament to their competence and is a loss, but not a large one, to the Philippine education system, which has 500,000 public school teachers and some 30,000 new ones taking the licensing exam each year.
"We cannot even absorb all those who pass," he said.