Filipino teachers in Pr. George’s caught in middle of labor dispute

Charisse Cabrera sat in the back pew of Holy Family Catholic Church in Mitchellville one spring Sunday as a priest tried to comfort a congregation of Filipino teachers caught in a bureaucratic maze.

The Prince George’s County school system has brought them in by the hundreds in the past decade to comply with one federal law. Now they are at risk of being sent home because the school system failed to comply with another.

The result could mean as many as 957 foreign teachers — more than 10 percent of the county’s teaching corps — would lose their visas by 2014. Such an exodus would mark a significant reversal after years in which many U.S. schools filled hard-to-staff positions with overseas instructors.

Cabrera, who teaches pre-kindergarten at Carole Highlands Elementary School in the Takoma Park area, would be among the first to go; her visa expires in June. She nodded as the priest suggested a divine reason for all of this.

“Sometimes when we’re faced with a difficult situation, we ask, ‘Why are we suffering? Why are they taking our visas away?’ ” the priest said, answering: The Lord “wants you to find that inner spirit — that strength deep down inside of you to help yourself, and to help others.”

In April, the Labor Department ruled that Prince George’s owed 1,044 foreign teachers, mostly Filipino, $4.2 million in back pay. The department fined the county schools $1.7 million and concluded that the system was a “willful violator” of federal labor law. If that finding stands, the system will be unable to renew any three-year visas for its foreign employees. Prince George’s is appealing.

When the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act called for schools to find highly qualified teachers, Prince George’s and several other systems facing a tough labor market got innovative: They hired from abroad. They also drew scrutiny from the Labor Department, which has has cited about 17 educational entities for shortchanging foreign workers. But only one other system — in Dayton, Ohio — has been found a willful violator.

Cabrera said she would rather keep her job than recoup the back pay, about $4,000 per teacher. She wants to become a permanent U.S. resident.

“A green card would make me feel like I accomplished something,” she said. “It would feel so good to know that America thinks I benefit their country.”

Single and ambitious, Cabrera said she came here nearly three years ago to soak up the best practices of American education, hoping to one day start a school back home. It brought her financial stability: She just bought a new Honda CR-V, and she helps pay her father’s medical bills.

Cabrera said she has learned from other Filipino teachers who have come to Prince George’s over the past decade. They live on the same street of Largo townhouses and pray the rosary with her each Friday.

Recruiting overseas

In early 2008, a Prince George’s schools recruiter had interviewed Cabrera in Manila for the job. It was arranged by Arrowhead Manpower Resources, one of many Filipino agencies that help U.S. schools find teachers with advanced degrees.

Ching Rodriguez, the company’s president, told prospective recruits that she would arrange everything: signing them up for a Maryland certification test, processing a visa application, booking a furnished apartment in Largo.

In a country where the per-capita income amounts to less than $10 a day, Filipino teachers sold houses and took out loans to pay Arrowhead’s fee, which exceeded $10,000.

In 2003, Arrowhead called Prince George’s officials and offered interviews with its clients. The school system, which also searched for teachers in India, Jamaica and elsewhere, made at least four recruiting trips to the Philippines during the next several years. Recruiters were continually impressed with the teachers they met.

Prince George’s officials said the Filipino teachers scored well on evaluations and were some of the county’s best educated.

In 2007, Prince George’s applied for more of the guest-worker visas, known as H-1Bs, than any school district in the country except New York, federal data show. Its visa applications for teachers exceeded Nintendo of America’s for software designers and IBM’s for software engineers.

“These were necessary steps,’’ said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who has led the school system since late 2008. “We would have faced penalties if we didn’t find good teachers somewhere.”

Cabrera, who has a master’s degree in early-childhood education, wasn’t sure at first about taking a job halfway around the world. But as she watched her father recover from a heart attack and fret over the high cost of medicine, her decision became clear.

By August 2008, she was teaching at Carole Highlands.

On a recent Friday night at home, Cabrera tossed three pounds of shrimp into a skillet and searched her crowded kitchen for rice. Her colleagues were coming for dinner.

The doorbell rang. Jeffrey Garcia, a tall 29-year-old with shoulder-length hair tied in a bandanna, walked in. He works with autistic children at Isaac Gourdine Middle School in Fort Washington.

“And now, we’re the faces of Filipinos losing their jobs,” Cabrera said.

“And what beautiful faces we are,” Garcia quipped.

Cabrera took off a shoe and playfully threw it at him. Laughter, she said, eases the tension.

In years past, it was customary for Prince George’s to sponsor a visa renewal if the teacher had a good evaluation.

In April, all foreign teachers learned that their positions were in jeopardy because of the federal investigation. The heart of the problem was that Prince George’s had failed to reimburse teachers for visa application fees.

“I was in shock,” Cabrera said. “I thought everything was done correctly. Those fees were paid a long time ago. None of us knew the county was supposed to pay them.”

Neither did the school system, officials said. When the Labor Department started its probe in 2007, school officials said they started to reimburse teachers for the mandatory portion of the application fees. It wasn’t until 2009 that officials learned that Arrowhead had collected additional processing fees that were also supposed to be reimbursed.

Rodriguez, Arrowhead’s president, told The Washington Post that she followed labor laws in the Philippines. No U.S. agency has accused Arrowhead of wrongdoing.

“What is happening to these teachers is sad,” Rodriguez said, “but I don’t have any regrets about what was done.”

Prince George’s schools officials maintain that the system did nothing wrong and blame the trouble on unclear federal rules. The Labor Department contends that the school system should have been more diligent about following laws stated clearly on its Web site.

Now, Cabrera is in the precarious position of trying to keep her job in a system with a significant budget shortage or find another elsewhere — all while her visa situation is up in the air.

‘We’ll find something’

Over dinner, she and Garcia talked about handing recruiters resumes at a job fair, only to have them handed back.

“If I leave, I guess I won’t be sad, but I’d be disappointed if I didn’t try,” she said.

“We’ll find something,’’ Garcia said. “I hear there are jobs in North Carolina. Maybe somewhere in Canada.”

Lita Kelly, the principal of Carole Highlands, praised Cabrera. “She’s been a great teacher who cares about her students and has had tremendous growth here,’’ Kelly said. “If I could keep her, I absolutely would.”

One recent school day, Cabrera presided over a game in which students lined up and wriggled through a small cloth tube. Giggling, they ran to the back of the line to try again.

With a frown, Cabrera called a halt because too many kids were crowding the tube. The students began blaming one another for the tube’s collapse. One was so distraught he started massaging his temples.

Cabrera shook her head.

“I know who did it,” she said. “But there’s no use in blaming anyone. We just have to deal with the consequences.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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