Officials at the Sacramento City Unified School District took an international field trip to the Philippines this year – to hire teachers.
The district says it has no choice but to look abroad to fill vacancies, as schools around California and the nation face a shortage of employable teachers.
Sacramento City Unified is the only district in the greater Sacramento region hiring from the Philippines through a program that began last year.
In the Philippines, English is widely taught in schools and is an official language, along with Tagalog. The country, which was governed by the United States before World War II, retains a similar school system, which is why teachers can easily transfer their credentials to the U.S., according to Ligaya Avenida, CEO of AIC Inc., the consulting firm that brings teachers over.
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“The teachers from the Philippines, they have a strong desire to do the best they can,” Avenida said. “They have a high level of commitment.”
Avenida, who charges the teachers $2,500 for a placement in the U.S., completes all of the paperwork, including transcript verifications and visa applications. The process can take a couple of months. There is no cost to the district, except for hotel rooms in the Philippines for its staff.
Jake Hansen, personnel specialist for Sacramento City Unified, flew to the Philippines last year for the first time to hire 12 special education teachers. After three days of interviews, he flew back to Sacramento.
“We couldn’t fill our needs locally,” Hansen said. “We always have a need for special education teachers.”
The teachers are able to work in the U.S. through the J-1 non-immigrant visa program, which promotes cultural and educational exchanges. Legally, they can stay for an initial three-year period and then apply for a two-year extension. However, each district has its own contract with the Filipino teachers.
In Sacramento City’s case, each teacher is evaluated annually. The district is required to treat the teachers the same way as local hires, offering commensurate pay and equal benefits based on the contract with the teachers’ union.
American salary levels are the biggest motivating factor for the Filipino teachers, who can earn 10 times what they make at home.
“Obviously it pays a lot here,” said Paolo Legaspi, 35, who came to Sacramento last summer from the Manila area.
Legaspi is the only man in the cohort of 12 teachers that arrived last year to teach special education in elementary, middle and high schools. His salary is $5,700 a month in Sacramento, compared to $500 in the Philippines. Each teacher also has to pay roughly $12,000 in startup costs to get placed in the U.S.
Even accounting for the higher cost of living, Legaspi said he still comes out ahead and plans to save up so he can open a catering business back home.
“There was some hesitation from my wife,” said Legaspi about the decision to share an apartment with other Filipino teachers who are female. “We talked about it before she agreed.”
Avenida said the Filipino teachers are focused on saving money, so they make do without the luxuries of American life like a car, single apartment and restaurant meals. Instead, she said, they cook at home, share rooms and commute by bus.
Legaspi’s expenses, however, will increase this year, since he is bringing his family here, including his wife and two young children, ages 2 and 5. They will be moving into a two-bedroom apartment, and Legaspi has purchased a used Honda Civic for $2,000.
The transition to California has been bumpy, Legaspi said. From a language standpoint, he said, in the Philippines, “we don’t speak English every day.”
The district is hiring seven additional teachers this year from the Philippines. It has spent nearly $3,000 on hotel rooms during the past two years for its staff to travel there.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association suggested the district’s foray into international recruitment reflects less competitive pay.
“It’s indicative of their inability to retain and recruit teachers,” said David Fisher, SCTA president. “Other districts don’t have the same difficulties. The fact that they have to do this is more or less a crisis of their own making.”
The union, which represents 2,400 teachers, including the ones from the Philippines, has been deadlocked in negotiations for a new labor contract. SCTA has said that the district is failing to spend money on teachers and resources despite district revenues growing by 41 percent. District leaders dispute that assertion, pointing to growing costs to provide benefits like lifetime health insurance.
Benita Ayala, a former vice president of the SCUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, expressed some concern that foreign teachers may have an accent that can be difficult to understand for kids with disabilities like autism.
“That’s our biggest concern – the language barrier,” Ayala said. “If you are not pronouncing the words right, that could be a challenge.”