LANAI CITY, Lanai — Ninez Abonal paces the length of her classroom, laptop cradled in one arm, as she leads a lesson on linking verbs. Six students are seated at their desks behind clear plastic partitions, some peering over their own laptops as they follow along.

The third-grade teacher, who teaches math, science and English language arts, moves and speaks with assurance, a sign of 15 years of teaching experience back in the Philippines. In this Lanai Elementary classroom, however, the veteran teacher is still new, still adjusting to the U.S. curriculum.

Abonal is one of three Filipinas who arrived on one of Hawaii’s smallest inhabited islands late last year, part of a first-ever international teacher recruitment initiative by the state Department of Education as it seeks to ease a major shortage in educators, particularly in remote, rural areas.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said Lanai was Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island, but in fact that is Niihau.

“So far, so good,” Abonal, a 39-year-old mother of three, later says with an easy laugh, seated behind her desk at the end of a recent school day. She has just exchanged goodbyes with students connecting virtually from home, wishing them a happy weekend before signing off.

Lanai High and Elementary School. Elementary school teacher Ninez Abonal gestures during a lesson in class.
Ninez Abonal, a third grade teacher at Lanai Elementary who is from the Philippines, gestures to students during a recent Friday morning at the school. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The new program is aimed at bringing to Hawaii highly qualified teachers from the Philippines to fill the teaching gaps, particularly in areas like math, science and special education. In addition to the three on Lanai, another Filipina is teaching science at Nanakuli High and Intermediate on Oahu.

The teachers traveled to Hawaii on a J-1 cultural exchange visa that allows up to a three-year residency followed by a possible two-year extension, providing a degree of relative continuity in a state where only about half of the teaching recruits from the mainland reach the five-year mark because they often end up quitting and returning home, to be closer to family or due to the state’s high cost of living.

The four teachers from the Philippines were supposed to arrive in Hawaii last June, but their journey was troubled from the start.

A DOE recruitment visit to the Philippines early last year found 71 potential candidates and recruiters were prepared to move forward with 28 of them. But then COVID-19 hit and complications with the visa process followed.

First, the previous Trump administration paused all work-related visas, including the J-1 cultural exchange program, and then the Filipino government imposed a moratorium on participation in programs to the U.S., according to James Bell, chief operating officer of Texas-based Alliance Abroad Group, the vendor DOE is using to facilitate the teachers’ arrival on island.

Following legal action and a special exemption for teachers offered positions before the pandemic took hold, some new J-1 teachers who were supposed to start in the summer were able to pick up after the winter months, he said.

“Teachers who were hired prior to the moratorium were permitted to still participate, and in the fall the U.S. Embassy in Manila resumed visa appointments,” Bell explained via email. “We were granted dispensation by the (U.S.) State Department to allow these teachers to begin their placements after the holidays through the academic year.”

According to Kerry Tom, director of personnel management for the DOE, the arrangement with Alliance Abroad Group is cost-free for the state, with the visa costs shouldered by the teachers themselves. AAG charges participants $4,300 for something called a “teacher exchange full placement,” but in some cases the cost can be much steeper.

Lanai High and Elementary School teacher Daisy Lyn Dela Rosa.
Lanai Elementary special education teacher Daisy Lyn Dela Rosa hopes her husband, also a teacher back home in the Philippines, can soon join her in Hawaii, along with their three young children. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Daisy Lyn Dela Rosa, 30, an elementary special education teacher on Lanai, said the total cost to come here has been upwards of $12,000, which she is slowly starting to pay off on a monthly financial plan. However, she still comes out ahead thanks to the salary paid by the DOE.

Abonal, and her two fellow Lanai teachers, including Dela Rosa, and Erica Dianne Esmeria, 28, arrived from the Philippines on Dec. 18 but had to quarantine for 10 days on Oahu before traveling to Lanai.

That meant they had to spend Christmas in quarantine, at a hotel in Kapolei, ordering food for delivery and drinking wine “just to feel better” for their first Christmas without family, Abonal says with a laugh.

The newly arrived teachers took over their classes at the start of the second semester on Jan. 4. Elementary school students are currently attending classes in-person on Lanai — alternating times on campus so classrooms are not too crowded.

None of the women had ever traveled outside their country before but all said they felt welcomed by the Lanai community, which is 50% Filipino, as are the students.

The out-migration of teachers in the Philippines has been an ongoing trend for some time now, driven by low compensation and high workloads back home where the monthly pay is roughly $640 a month in U.S. dollars, according to Dela Rosa. Other states facing teacher shortages have turned to this option in recent years, but it’s the first attempt for Hawaii.

Lanai High and Elementary School. Elementary school teacher Erica Dianne Esmeria gives us a tour of her house which 2 other colleagues live together.
Lanai Elementary second-grade teacher Erica Dianne Esmeria in the 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house she shares with her two colleagues from the Philippines. Rent is $500 apiece per month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The overseas teachers receive the same salaries as their American counterparts with comparable years of experience and training — meaning their salaries range from $40,000 to nearly $57,000 because they have master’s degrees and are “Class III,” according to Tom.

“At least for Hawaii, we’re paying what any other teacher would get if they came here from Texas or California,” he said. “What they get in the Philippines is probably not even close.”

And indeed their U.S. salary is much, much higher here. Dela Rosa said her current monthly income is around $5,000 compared to the $640 per month in equivalent U.S. dollars she would be making in the Philippines.

She sends a portion of her salary back home to her husband, who is also a teacher, and three children, ages 1, 2 and 6, while saving the rest for an emergency fund.

“We already spent a lot of time for the applications here,” she said. “It’s very frustrating for us when we didn’t get to get here last June and July because of COVID. We’re thinking it’s an opportunity for us, so we continued the application.”

‘Tough to Find Teachers’

Lanai High and Elementary Principal Elton Kinoshita says that without his three new Filipina teachers this year, he would have had to rely on substitute teachers to fill those positions. It would have been doable this second semester, he said, but the subs were burning out and requested the school find other contingencies.

“It was just great timing and circumstances, this all fell into place,” he said.

Lanai High and Elementary School students arrive in the morning before school starts.
Lanai Elementary students arrive on campus. Most elementary kids are back on campus, while middle and high school in-person instruction is still largely limited to vulnerable learners. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The island, with a population of 3,000, is one of the hardest to staff due to its remote location. Mokulele Airlines is the only inter-island airline currently flying there while a 45-minute ferry ride takes residents to Lahaina on Maui where they often stock up on supplies. To accommodate a student population of 594 this year across pre-K-12 grades, the school employs 55 teachers.

Some teachers not originally from Lanai have lasted a decade or more at the school but plenty also turn right back around and return home. Kinoshita said the lack of available housing is a constant challenge — there are only about 10 teacher cottages — and the school historically has had to rely on long-term substitutes.

In addition to the international recruiting program, Kinoshita has advocated for encouraging more locals to become teachers.

“This is an amazing community,” he said. “We’re slowly getting teachers with roots here. Statewide, it’s tough to find teachers. You’re not going to attract teachers from big metropolitan areas.”

The DOE overall had 364 teacher vacancies as of December 2020, compared with 400 at the same point the year before. If that number sounds low, Tom, the DOE recruiter, says it’s because a salary differential that pays an annual $10,000 bonus helped fill a number of special education positions. The differential also provided $3,000-$8,000 bonuses for hard-to-fill positions in remote areas like Lanai.

Lanai High and Elementary, the only school on the island, is perched at the edge of a very small town center. Many items on the Larry Ellison-owned island are more expensive than other parts of the state, including gas that costs $5.49 a gallon.

Lanai High and Elementary School teacher Daisy Lyn Dela Rosa walks with Principal Elton Kinoshita.
Teacher Daisy Lyn Dela Rosa walks with Lanai High and Elementary Principal Elton Kinoshita. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The community is so tight-knit that pastry chefs at the Four Seasons Hotel created small individual cakes topped with a decorative graduation hat and diploma nestled inside a green and gold lunch box, the school’s colors, for each of the 39 graduating seniors last year.

Kinoshita, who will be retiring at the end of the school year, took the helm of Lanai High and Elementary School seven and a half years ago after serving as vice principal of Oahu’s largest high school, Campbell High, which has a student population as high as the entire island of Lanai.

Kinoshita, whose father grew up on Lanai and who is a graduate of the school, says he tries not to oversell the place to potential recruits. “We are in a remote location,” he said. “We have fishing, hunting. It’s a 45-minute boat ride to Lahaina.”

But he also emphasizes the friendliness of residents. “When you drive here on this island, it’s 20 miles per hour in the city and everybody waves at each other when you’re driving.” (This is true, as Civil Beat’s reporting confirmed).

The three Filipina teachers share a three-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage just 25 yards from the school campus. It’s a modest space furnished with items donated from the community. They also supplied appliances and canned foods and bags of rice as a welcome.

“They are the ones who approached us, ‘Oh, come here, you drop by my house, I will give you something so that you can have something in your house,’ ” Dela Rosa said. “Most of the things in our house were given by the people here.”

Both she and Abonal, whose children are ages 2, 10 and 13, miss their families but are enjoying new connections forged on Lanai.

“They’re missing me much because it’s our first time to be separated from each other,” Abonal says. “It’s a little bit of sacrifice, for the family of course, and for professional growth also.” Still, she described teaching in another country as “a great privilege” and an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

She says she has about eight Filipino students, but their language exchange is limited to just small talk and banter. Some families have been reluctant to share too much about their shared cultural heritage, though many teachers and cleaning staff have been very welcoming in inviting the teachers to beach outings or other excursions, she said.

Lanai High and Elementary School teacher Luz LaRotta.
Luz LaRotta, a teacher who teaches English as a second language, said her students are predominantly Filipino with an increasing number of Kosraean students. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“They embrace the community and the community embraces them and they tend to stay longer,” Jennifer Kaaikala, a high school special education teacher who’s been at the school 20 years, said of the pattern for teachers new to the island.

Other teachers note the impact of the revolving door on the students themselves.

“It really hurts how the kids do” at school, said Lisa Galloway, a high school teacher who’s been at the school 12 years. “If you’re a new teacher, it takes a year just to get a feel of the place. Often, you’ll turn to other teachers to mentor you.”

But not everyone is as keen on relying on international teacher recruitment as a long-term solution to the shortage issue, seeing it more as a stop gap.

“It might benefit the problem but at the same time, it’s a three-year contract. So, they come and go,” said Luz LaRotta, who has been teaching English as a second language at the school for the last five years. “We still have problems and we have to fix those problems.”

Whether the international recruitment program remains a permanent fixture depends on the data and feedback once this gets going, according to Tom, the DOE recruiter. He said the DOE will consider initial feedback from the participants themselves.

“When we bring them here, we want to make sure they have a good experience here and acclimate here. We’re trying to make it as smooth as we can,” he said.

For now, Abonal — who grew up in a small province in the Philippines — said being here in Hawaii “feels like home.”

“Especially here in Lanai, it’s just a simple, peaceful place,” she said.

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