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Tess Vigeland: This just in: Next month, President Obama will appear in a back-to-school special with American Idol Kelly Clarkson and basketball star LeBron James. The 30-minute documentary will air on Viacom stations like MTV and BET. It's part of an education initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called "Get Schooled."
Of course, to get schooled, you need to have a qualified instructor. And you'd figure in this job market there'd be plenty of teachers vying for every slot. But from Maryland to California, school districts are turning their focus overseas to fill certain teaching jobs. From Birmingham, Ala., Gigi Douban reports.
GIGI DOUBAN: Evangeline Amen's 18-hour journey from the Philippines ended here in a sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment. She was exhausted, but she's managed to unpack most of her things.
Amen came to teach physics at a public high school in Birmingham. She paid a recruiting agency about $10,000 to get here. That fee covers her teacher credentials, the immigration visa, travel, and the first few months' rent.
But she says it's worth it. Teachers in the Philippines make about $6,000 a year. Here, she'll be on the same pay scale as any other teacher, making more than $30,000. The hardest part was leaving behind her husband and two college-aged kids.
EVANGELINE Amen: This is for our family, to help our family.
Amen got connected with the Birmingham system through the recruiting firm Avenida International. Birmingham school officials visited the Philippines this summer and interviewed 89 candidates. Amen was among the seven teachers that they hired.
But in Alabama, the overall unemployment rate is more than 10 percent. So the decision to hire from abroad drew an enormous amount of criticism.
Michael Todd is with the Alabama Education Association, a teachers union. He says Birmingham should have scoured its own back yard -- even looked to neighboring states -- to fill those vacancies.
MICHAEL Todd: If you had to take a chance on someone, why wouldn't you take a chance on those folks who are already available in the pool?
That pool isn't as large as some might think, says April Williams. She's president of the Birmingham school board.
APRIL Williams: Math, science and English as a second language. Those are all critical needs areas around the country, and for Birmingham it's been a constant problem.
Williams says they've tried everything. Job fairs, partnering with universities, paying substitutes four times the regular rate. They've even offered a $6,000 signing bonus for math and science teachers. Still, none of it was enough to fill every teaching job by the first day of school.
Williams: You look at the salary. You look at some of the challenges that instructors face in urban settings. So then we said, well what else can we do?
What they say they couldn't do was fill those jobs with local applicants. Jeff McDaniels, director of human resources for the school system says that yes, there are many teachers out of work, but...
JEFF McDaniels: We need the credentials and experience to match what our instructional needs are, and we can't waver on that.
And they need teachers who will, say, show up for work every day. McDaniels says that was a big draw with the Filipino teachers.
McDaniels: All of these teachers have had perfect attendance with their current or previous employer. For us that means a lot.
Here at Parker High School, which sits across from a public housing project, Amen is teaching the first physics class offered at the school in years. The hallways are dismal and cramped. She has 17 students. But in the Philippines, she'd have 60 in a classroom.
Amen: For one textbook there would be two students using it. That's how we do it.
Just like in Birmingham, many of her Filipino students came from poverty. But her pupils in the Philippines were very motivated to study hard. Motivation, she says, will be the challenge with her American students.
In Birmingham, I'm Gigi Douban for Marketplace.