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Foreign Teachers a Quick Fix

Va. Schools Lose Language Instructors When Visas Expire

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C03

Gilmar Mejia tries to give his high school Spanish class an authentic feel, adorning the shelves with Central American toys and the walls with posters of Latino celebrities -- race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya and pop singer Shakira, her blond mane flaming outward.

The most genuine articles, however, are his students. Mejia's class at Stonewall Jackson High in Manassas is filled mostly with immigrants from Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador. These proficient Spanish speakers, not held back by those who struggle to understand, can study the language and its literature at a faster pace.

Gilmar Mejia teaches Spanish at Stonewall Jackson High in Manassas but must return to his native Colombia at the end of the school year, when his visa expires. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Mejia, 37, a native of Colombia, designed the course and would prefer not to give it up. But at the end of the school year, his three-year visa will expire, and he must go home.

The principal says the future of the class is in doubt because it will be hard to replace Mejia with a teacher of equal caliber.

Mejia and two others -- his wife, Spanish teacher Gleidy Clavijo, and Irish-born French teacher Janet Livingstone -- are about to complete their tours of duty at Stonewall Jackson in the Visiting International Faculty program, a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that recruits teachers worldwide to work in U.S. schools.

"We would like to stay here, and our principal was great in doing all that he could to keep us. We thought staying here was an adventure, but we never thought it was going to be this great," Mejia said. "The class was like my baby. The parents love it and say 'We need this.' "

Mejia said the purpose is "to rescue all those kids who come here and start losing their Spanish because they are absorbed by the American culture" and to make it easier for them to grasp English grammar and appreciate English literature.

School officials say that the foreign teachers' departures reflect the difficulty facing many suburban Washington school districts, which fight each other for the best educators, especially in math, science and foreign languages. These fields typically do not have large pools of applicants because they are specialized, and often such specialists can command higher salaries in the private sector.

Educators say the increase in the region's immigrant population has fueled interest among English-speaking students in learning foreign languages, especially Spanish, as a practical necessity for the future.

"It's a challenge," said Carol Vass, Prince William County's supervisor of foreign languages and English for Speakers of Other Languages program. "You have all these major school divisions with the highest percentage of [students who speak English as a second language] in the state, and we're all competing with the same needs and dynamics."

Without the Visiting International Faculty program, the Prince William County school system would struggle to fill its annual average of 15 to 20 foreign language teaching vacancies, said Rene Campbell, supervisor of the school system's secondary employment. Such a premium is placed on finding Spanish teachers -- who often get lured away by various businesses to serve as interpreters and translators -- that school officials, for the first time, recently traveled to a job fair in Puerto Rico.

David Huckestein, Stonewall Jackson's principal, wonders which is more maddening: trying to find good teachers or losing them after they have proved to be a perfect match. "We had a math teacher come from Australia through VIF, and he was wonderful, but then he had to leave. You just get frustrated," he said.

Huckestein called Visiting International Faculty and Prince William county school officials to see if there was any way to keep Mejia, Clavijo, 36, and Livingstone, 41, but was rebuffed at every turn.

The problem is that the State Department authorizes the program, as well as more than 1,400 other nongovernment agencies, companies and universities, to sponsor "exchange visitor" visas that last three years. When their visas expire, teachers must return to their homeland for one or two years, depending on the country's rules, and only then can they reapply to the program.

Stanley Colvin, director of the State Department's exchange coordination and designation office, said visiting teachers or their school districts often hired immigration lawyers to seek five-year temporary worker visas or permanent residence.

"We're not going to be happy about that because that's not how this is supposed to work. This is not an alternative immigration scheme," Colvin said. "If we find that school districts are using that to fill staffing problems [permanently], then we view that as an abuse of the program, and we would not want our sponsors to place any more teachers in those school districts."

School officials said they are particularly sad to see Livingstone go. After she taught International Baccalaureate French at Stonewall Jackson for one year, the percentage of students who scored high enough to earn college credit shot up from 47 percent to 100 percent.

"I love the students. Everybody's keen to work," she said after class one day. "Everybody's keen to achieve."

The affection is mutual. As students streamed out of the classroom on a recent day, one student giddily told her about his plans to see a play at the French Embassy, and another invited her to watch her lacrosse game.

One of Mejia's students, Pedro Henriquez, 18, whose parents are from El Salvador, said Mejia is firm but fair and easygoing -- important for students who might be adjusting to a new country. "It's easy for people's personalities to come out in class. They feel comfortable," Henriquez said. "When he told he us he was leaving, everybody was like, 'For real?' "

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