For six years a group of foreign teachers worked the jobs no one else would. They worked to motivate struggling math and science students at inner-city middle and high schools and saw to the needs of wheelchair bound adolescents with severe developmental disabilities.
In 2011, after four years of service, Savannah-Chatham public school officials agreed to spend $185,600 to sponsor permanent residency for them but abruptly ended the process after deciding there are now probably enough qualified, American teachers who might want those jobs.
As the foreign teachers' temporary work visas begin to expire at the end of the school year, they will have to leave their jobs — and the country.
"We have had very valued international teachers," said school board president Joe Buck. "But in today's economy, as a result of the recession, we've had huge numbers of citizens who are looking for work, and we are not needing to go abroad to recruit anymore."
In 2004, the public school system went to the Philippines and recruited 58 educators from top schools and universities to fill critical areas of need in Savannah's public schools.
For more than a decade the district has recruited teachers from Jamaica, India and Romania to teach math, science and special education.
Few Americans choose to specialize in those academic areas. Many find the responsibility of teaching students to master a complex subject like calculus hard enough. Being held accountable for math progress at poor performing schools with students who come to class struggling and behind can be downright unappealing.
As a result, public schools all over the country spent the last decade scrambling to fill positions. Despite the offer of state bonuses for certified Americans with math, science and special education certification, many of those teaching jobs were vacant year after year in Chatham County.
Until the district started overseas recruitment, some of the most challenging and critical classes were filled with too many students because there weren't enough teachers to have lower class enrollment. Or the classes were taught by substitutes.
Tricia Fairweather, a native of Belize with a degree from an American university, had been teaching math in her homeland for six years when she heard about the teacher shortage in Georgia and contacted the Savannah-Chatham school district. She was hired along with the 58 recruited Filipinos. They hold all certifications and training required by the state of Georgia.
"I passed their tests and met all of their requirements," Fairweather said. "I taught math at Beach High School my first three years. They had vacancies every year I was there."
Over the past six years Fairweather and the other foreign teachers were trained to use the district's multimillion-dollar investment in new technology and schooled in the state's new Common Core Curriculum. During the Beach High reorganization district officials tapped Fairweather, a skilled math teacher, to prepare students for college-level courses at the highly celebrated Early College specialty program.
Many foreign teachers earned tenure and honors for their dedication to the work of educating Savannah students. One of them, Bernardino Cabahug, was the district's 2012 Teacher of the Year runner up. As they became a part of their schools and communities, many of the foreign teachers joined local churches, purchased homes and even started families.
Some said they were required to spend about $1,300 to renew their work visas after their first few years on the job and were prepared to pay for their green card applications, believing that the school board's decision to sponsor their permanent residency in 2011 marked the start of new lives for them as Savannah-Chatham school teachers.
But just as their temporary work visas were set to expire, they were notified that things wouldn't work out after all. Fairweather and the others were told they have to leave their jobs, and the country, at the end of the school year.
"Six years is a long time when you're dealing with human lives," Fairweather said. "To diminish what this is putting people through is inhumane almost."
Before U.S. employers can petition for permanent residency for foreign workers, they have to certify that there are not enough Americans who are able, willing, qualified or available for the jobs.
Over the summer, when the district advertised the foreign teachers' math, science and special education jobs, they received an unexpected glut of responses. More than 30 applicants applied for one biology position alone, according to Human Resources Director Ramon Ray.
So school officials decided it was time for the public schools to go local and time for the international teachers to go home.
"The district cannot proceed to sponsor a green card, because it cannot represent to the federal government that there are no other qualified applicants," Ray said.
The majority of the teachers' work visas will expire June 30, Ray said. But the district has foreign teachers whose visas are due to expire in 2014 and 2015 as well. When time is up, they can't legally work or live in the U.S.
Many of the foreign teachers say they feel used, as if the district strung them along for six years, gave them a false sense of hope and security by agreeing to sponsor permanent residency, then waited until their visas were set to expire before bothering to survey the labor force.
District officials say they followed federal law and the teachers knew the risk.
"The system never promised, and could not promise, that it would sponsor permanent residency. No provision of law requires it to do so. The fact is the board did fund the effort to sponsor them," Ray said. "We, and they, are bound by federal laws and rules. They are well aware of requirements for visas, and the length of time visas are effective. They have been free to exercise any option available to them just like any other employee."
Some of the teachers' American colleagues have spoken out on their behalf, pointing out that the district advertised their positions in the spring when teachers across the country, who have no real interest in moving, put out feelers as they wait out the contract renewal process.
"Look on the Savannah-Chatham County public schools website right now and you will see job openings," said Rodney Lovett, interim president of the Savannah Federation of Teachers. "These are hard working, very highly qualified teachers who were asked to come here and have been an asset to the district. It doesn't seem right to use them when you need them, then cast them aside to fend for themselves."
There are indeed advertisements for open secondary science and special education teacher positions on the school system's website. And Ray said he does not have replacements lined up for jobs the foreign teachers currently hold, although he anticipates a sufficient pool of applicants to be available if market trends continue.
Others argue the district isn't pursuing permanent residency because labor department officials are questioning whether the district has paid its foreign teachers a comparable wage. The district is required to certify that they're not shortchanging their foreign teachers by documenting that their salaries are comparable to those of American teachers.
Superintendent Thomas Lockamy said their wages are comparable, if not higher than other districts in the region, but documenting regional income averages to the government's satisfaction is a complicated process, which the district has not been able to do. Without that documentation, Lockamy said, the district would have to bump the foreign teachers up $10,000 on the pay scale, which it cannot afford to do.
Holding out hope
With just months left before they have to leave the country, Lovett said it is highly unlikely that other employers will be willing to sponsor permanent residency for newly hired foreigners. It puts the foreign teachers in a precarious position.
Some say their only hope of hanging on to the lives they've built in Savannah is to go home when their visas expire, then reapply and come back if the district can't fill their jobs after all.
Lockamy said he is empathetic and values his foreign teaching staff.
"They're excellent teachers and I'd love to try to retain them, but I'm also glad we have Americans who can fill jobs," He said. "We're still working to see what openings will be available. We've been able to find Americans to teach math, but there may still be openings in special ed."
No matter the outcome, Fairweather said she plans to spend the year focused on the success of her students.
"My students will always get the best from me, no matter what," she said. "That's the pledge I've made as a teacher."