Filipino teachers shine in Baltimore

Posted at 06/02/09 10:57 AM

13 teachers chosen as best in their schools

BALTIMORE, Maryland. A howl of approval pierced the Digital Harbor High School auditorium as teacher Vilma Ungab-Morala belted her version of “Usahay” before an audience of hundreds -- the biggest gathering of Filipino teachers in Baltimore.

Fiesta Filipiniana, held last Saturday evening, was just the third time the Baltimore-based Filipino Educators in Maryland, Inc. (FEMI) put up a cultural show. 

“There was just a few of us on our first year but that was when the idea was born,” recalls Oedipa Torregoza, FEMI executive vice president.

“It’s a way of saying thanks to the principals and school administrators, and also Filipino teachers in Baltimore rarely get to see [each] other,” she tells ABS-CBN’s Balitang America.

Torregoza was part of the first batch of 40 Filipino teachers recruited by the Baltimore City Public School System in 2003. She’s already run out her first employment visa, and is now working with a fresh visa that can run another six years.

There are now over 600 Filipino teachers spread out in almost 200 Baltimore public schools.

“We decided to set aside one day so we can all gather together. The first show we called ‘Gabi ng Parangal’ and it just continued after that, so tonight is our third staging of this event,” she explained.

The number of Filipino teachers has been growing so fast, tracking them can be a challenge so this perennial cultural show is often the only gauge of just how many they are.

Good fit for Pinoy mentors

“When the first batch came I was the coordinator so I ended helping them, everything from finding places to live to reporting to their schools,” recalled Cheryl Curtiss, a Human Resources officer who became intimately involved with recruiting teachers from the Philippines.

“Over the next two to three years I was actually able to go (to the Philippines) to be part of the selection process,” she explained to Balitang America.
“One thing we know and it’s become very clear tonight as I see those who’ve been here the longest, (Filipinos) are just excellent, excellent teachers,” Curtiss enthused.

“They know the subject areas, they’re willing to work hard with our students, and they’re just a very dedicated group of educators,” she added.

Teachers describe her as a “godmother” but she laughs at being called “Tita” and indicated good-humoredly that she likes “Ma’am Cheryl” better.

“I kind of like the mother but it’s more in terms of helping them get through a lot of the process,” she said.

“It’s funny because now you see them bringing their families, their children fit right in. What’s interesting is that when they first came, some of the educators here thought it was going to be a short-lived kind of thing, they’re not going to be able to speak the language,” Curtiss observed.

“But they actually excelled in the classrooms. They’ve changed the impression of our children,” she concluded.

And change seems to be what Filipinos are bringing.

First Fil-Am principal in Baltimore

Ramon Anthony Japzon, who jokes he’s half American, half Cebuano, is the first Fil-Am principal in Baltimore. He oversees Medfield Heights, an elementary school of 340 students (32 of them Filipinos) in the northwest corner of Baltimore City.

“I’m recruiting a lot of the teachers to bring their children to my school,” he told Balitang America. With the burgeoning ranks of Filipino teachers comes the need to support their families.

“Our school is very diversified, we have five continents and 14 countries represented at Medfield Heights. The Asian population is about 10 percent but it is growing fast,” he explained.

Japzon said he has three Filipino teachers working in his school.

“At Filipino events, I’ve told the Filipino community – bring your child, we welcome them here.”

“Because of the diverse community they fit in really well, and they’re doing a great job. They’re excellent students,” he enthused.

He confesses that he was only exposed to the Filipino community through the teachers. “I first was introduced to the Filipino community about a year ago. One of the Filipino teachers came to my school and through her I met the community, started going to prayer meetings and last year I attended this event.”

“It was a good experience because last year, after this event, I actually returned to the Philippines for the first time in 30 years, I hadn’t been there since I was a boy.”

“It’s raised awareness of half of my culture but more importantly, it’s just made me appreciate how difficult it is to come half way around the world to be a teacher. I told them that when I first taught, I moved to New York City, I didn’t know anyone there but it was only 200 miles where I grew up and it’s in the same country so I have a lot of respect,” Japzon explained.

“I think a lot of the things I learned from my father and have made me successful, are attributes that a lot of Filipinos have,” he averred.

Leadership in and out of the classrooms

Excellence is something that Filipino teachers strive for and constant source of pride. Thirteen Filipinos were honored that evening after they were named “Teacher of the Year” by their respective schools.

The outstanding teachers are Angelina Bayani of William Pinderhughes ES; Imelda Calacal of Reginald Lewis HS; Rodolfo Erfelo of Frederick Douglass HS; Edna Fernando of Baltimore Rising Stars Academy; Junabeth Gendran of Friendship Academy of Science & Technology; Dorotea Godinez of Renaissance Academy HS; Rico Molato of Federal Hill Preparatory MS; Jovy Munoz of Guilford ES/MS; Eden Fernando of College Summit Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship; Marie Rebecca Rayos of Alternative Learning Center; Rommel Soriano of Garrison MS; Dr. Agnes Taguines of Youth Opportunity Academy; and Ma. Cecilia Yuson of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor ES.

The FEMI also gave out special honors to four other teachers – Genieveve Bandas and Norman Mago for winning the Cougar Courage Award from Calverton Elementary/Middle School; Annie Padayogdog for reaping awards for best plan presenter, best classroom presenter and best demonstrator at Calverton ES/MS; and Shirley Ucol-Cobaria for being selected as one of the “Baltimore Metro Area Stem Teachers”.

But the honors aren’t limited to the classrooms.

Eileen Mercado cut a trail for Filipino teachers in Baltimore City. She belonged to the first batch of teachers, assigned to one of the toughest schools in the city. She shattered barriers with skill and patience. The Baltimore Sun newspaper followed her around for one year, and reported how Filipino teachers were changing Baltimore schools.

She helped organize and was elected the first president of FEMI. But Eileen has now expanded her horizons outside the classroom.

“The Baltimore Teachers Union heard about my work with Filipino teachers and invited me to run as one of the officers of the union.”

“I won, which is a good thing because Filipino teachers are now represented which is not that common in all the districts in the US,” she explained.

The Baltimore Teachers Union is affiliated with the influential American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Mercado revealed that the AFT invited her to join a visit to the Philippines later this month, to work with unions there and at the same time help prepare US-bound teachers.

“When we got here, we didn’t know anyone. We didn’t know how to ease our way into the system. On a larger scale, I’m working with the American Federation of Teachers not just the Baltimore teachers, because there are a lot of Filipino teachers all over America.”

“The American Federation of Teachers recognizes that the Filipino teachers in Baltimore is strong force because we are united and work well with the union which they say is the ideal setting, so they want to replicate this in other places,” Mercado tells Balitang America.