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Visa program draws foreign teachers to a rural Alaska school district facing a staffing crisis

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Visa program draws foreign teachers to a rural Alaska school district facing a staffing crisis

Due to the success of the State Department’s J-1 Visa program, the Kuspuk School District and other rural districts in Alaska are looking at ways to utilize other visa programs to keep foreign teachers in classrooms for longer.

Emily Schwing for NPR/Emily Schwing


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When special education teacher Dale Ebcas moved from his home in the Philippines to the tiny village of Upper Kalskag in Alaska back in the winter of 2020, the warmest layer he brought with him was a trench coat: “I was imagining a weather like, you know, Korea,” he laughs. “Because I’m a fan of watching Korean movies and it’s like, ‘oh, they’re just wearing trench coats… it seems like it might work’.”

The average temperature in the Philippines’ coldest month is just about 78 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, the climate in Upper Kalskag is semi-arctic and snow can blanket the ground for more than half the year.

Needless to say, the trench coat didn’t cut it – Ebcas had to borrow a down jacket from the principal of the school where he’d been hired.

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His school district – the Kuspuk School District in Western Alaska – is about the same size as the state of Maryland. While the region is large, the student population is small: only 318 kids spread out across seven villages and none are connected by a road system. Here, like in many other rural school districts across America, it’s a struggle to fill nearly 40 teaching positions. That’s why the Kuspuk School District is bringing in educators like Ebcas from over 5,000 miles away – so many of them, in fact, that they now make up more than half the district’s teaching staff. It’s one of many school districts around the country who are addressing a shortage of teachers by relying on special visas that allow foreign teachers to come work in the U.S.

Ebcas is from Cagayan de Oro City, on the Philippine island of Mindanao – an island with a population of more than 26 million people. By contrast, there are just over 200 people in Upper Kalskag. While winters are long and the community is tiny, Ebcas says he enjoyed teaching in Alaska so much that he encouraged other teachers he knew from the Philippines to join him.

Second grade teacher Vanissa Carbon said that the adjustment to winter in Alaska took some patience.

Second grade teacher Vanissa Carbon said that the adjustment to winter in Alaska took some patience. “Oh my God, it’s so long,” she laughed. But she appreciates the community in Upper Kalskag for its similarities to Filipino culture.

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His aunt, Vanissa Carbon, now teaches second grade in Upper Kalskag. Although she says the winter in Upper Kalskag is long, she’s been pleasantly surprised by life here, where the population is predominantly Indigenous. “The people here are also like Filipinos – their culture is somehow the same in terms of close family ties, being together on occasions and helping each other,” says Carbon.

In the Kuspuk School District, teachers who come from the Philippines say they can make 15 times the amount of money they could at home, in addition to benefits. And they have access to teaching tools and technologies that aren’t as readily available in the Philippines.

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“I was quite fascinated with the fact that we have resources that are really readily accessible to students with special needs,” Ebcas says. He points to tools like a ‘talking pen,’ which assists students in learning to read, among other technologies. “These kinds of devices, we don’t have them in the Philippines. … It’s very expensive,” he says.

Dale Ebcas is from one of the most populated islands in the Philippines. He travelled more than 5,000 miles to teach special education at an elementary school in the village of Upper Kalskag, Alaska. Just over 200 people live there.

Dale Ebcas is from one of the most populated islands in the Philippines. He travelled more than 5,000 miles to teach special education at an elementary school in the village of Upper Kalskag, Alaska. Just over 200 people live there.

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Aguillard did her PhD research on the special education system in the Philippines. She says the requirements for students working toward teaching degrees there aren’t so different from what’s required in the U.S. “Their studies were purely 100 percent based on the U.S. model of students receiving special education services.” She says her research was in the back of her mind when her school district opted to pursue hiring foreign teachers.

Both Ebcas and Carbon are here on J-1 visitor visas, which are good for three years and can be extended for two more. The J-1 is a cultural exchange visa, and J-1 Visa holders often fill summer service positions related to the travel industry in Alaska. Childcare workers, including au pairs, also use J-1 Visas. Nationwide, there are more than 5,700 teachers in the US on J-1 Visas, according to the State Department. 91 of them are in Alaska.

“They do have program requirements where they do have to share not only their culture, but also learn about the culture that they are immersed in for their job,” says Superintendent Aguillard. “A big part of education in rural Alaska specifically is the emphasis on cultural heritage and keeping that culture alive, whether it be Alaska Native culture, or whatever culture an individual brings with them to the space they’re in,” she says.

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She says the teachers host Filipino-themed events in her school district. “A couple of our teachers have put on informative nights about the Philippines, so they’ll decorate the whole gym, they’ll cook food and do a lecture on Filipino cultural traditions,” she says.

Aguillard says J-1 Visas have had a dramatic positive impact in the Kuspuk School District. “We went from having zero applicants for positions for a year-long posting to over 100 applicants of extremely qualified people with experience and they’re wanting to come teach our students.”

Alaska's Kuspuk School District serves 318 students spread across a rural region equivalent to the size of the state of Maryland.

Alaska’s Kuspuk School District serves 318 students spread across a rural region equivalent to the size of the state of Maryland.

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Still, she says the teacher shortage is so dire that 20% of teaching positions at her schools were never filled this year – even with the teachers on J-1 Visas. Now the Kuspuk School District is looking at ways to keep foreign teachers on staff for more than five years. One option is the H-1B Visa – a specialty occupation visa that paves the way for immigration.

Kuspuk isn’t the only remote school district in Alaska utilizing state department visas to fill teaching positions. More than 350 miles south, the Kodiak Island Borough School District administration has hired an immigration lawyer to secure H-1B Visas and they’re also recruiting teachers in the Philippines.

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At an Alaska Senate Finance Committee hearing in March, Kodiak Island Borough School District Superintendent Cyndy Mika said the district now hosts its own job fair there. “This year, we went to both Manila and Cebu city,” she said. “We went to Cebu, because it’s rural remote and we knew that those are the types of teachers that would be better integrated into our community.”

In Upper Kalskag, Dale Ebcas extended his J-1 Visa for two additional years, but at the end of the next school year, his time in Alaska will run out as well. He’s won a number of awards for his work in Upper Kalskag, and is also among 20 teachers recognized in Alaska as a 2024 Educator of the Year.

He says it’s a disappointing reality of the J-1 Visa program that he can’t stay on to build on the work he’s already done. “I could have continued the things I do with the community and the kids, if only I could go beyond five years,” he said. “I consider this already as my family, the community here, the kids here.”

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Vietnam’s ‘bamboo diplomacy’ triumphs with visits from Biden, Xi and now Putin

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Vietnam’s ‘bamboo diplomacy’ triumphs with visits from Biden, Xi and now Putin

Over the past nine months, Vietnam has hosted Joe Biden, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, balancing geopolitical rivalries with an élan that has eluded other countries.

The string of visits shows how a country adept at attracting manufacturing investment from companies eager to diversify their supply chains is adroitly managing its foreign policy.

By hosting Putin this week for his first visit since 2017, Vietnam, which has a long-standing independent and diversified foreign policy, joins the ranks of North Korea, Iran and China in opening its doors to a leader shunned globally after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s visit, which follows his trip to North Korea and comes less than a year after Washington and Hanoi upgraded their ties, has irked the US but is unlikely to disrupt relations. “Vietnam has played this game quite well,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Vietnam has been “actively neutral” unlike other countries that have been more passive, he said. “Hanoi knows it must actively balance different powers . . . because that’s the way for Vietnam to gain benefits from all three powers. Otherwise it would be drawn into political games without any ability to change the direction of the game.”

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Communist party-ruled Vietnam’s independent foreign policy dates back to the end of the cold war, when Hanoi decided to be a friend to all countries. Long-standing party chief Nguyen Phu Truong, the most senior political figure in Vietnam, calls this “bamboo diplomacy”, citing the plant’s “strong roots, stout trunk and flexible branches”.

Workers in Hanoi manufacturing Russian flags ahead of this week’s visit by Vladimir Putin © Thinh Nguyen/Reuters

Under his leadership, Vietnam has upgraded relations with the US and allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea to “comprehensive strategic partnerships”, the highest level of diplomatic ties afforded by Hanoi.

When Biden visited Hanoi last September, the US president hailed the move to upgrade the partnership as part of the 50-year “arc of progress” between the two former foes.

In recent years Vietnam has become a favoured destination for companies such as Apple as they look to diversify their supply chains away from China. Foreign direct investment in Vietnam hit $36.6bn last year.

Yet Vietnam has managed to achieve this without disrupting its ties with China, its largest trading partner, and Russia, its biggest arms supplier. The two have been strategic partners with Vietnam since 2008 and 2012, respectively.

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Three months after the Biden visit, Xi followed in his footsteps and the two communist neighbours agreed to build a “shared future” to strengthen their ties — despite disagreements and regular stand-offs between their ships in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and Beijing have overlapping claims.

Vietnam has been astute in navigating the relationship with China by striking the right balance “between defiance and deference”, said Susannah Patton, the Lowy Institute’s director of south-east Asia programme.

Vietnam has used its relationships with the US and Russia as a balance against China, she said. “Vietnam has benefited from its omnidirectional foreign policy stance and has made itself relevant to many partners.”

Vladimir Putin being greeted at Noi Bai International Airport
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is greeted at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Thursday © Nhac Nguyen/AFP

Vietnam’s foreign policy direction has withstood recent domestic political upheaval — a result of a long-running corruption crackdown — and is unlikely to change even as geopolitical tensions rise.

Analysts said the Communist party was pragmatic about its foreign policy and understood the importance of having western allies, especially as it looked to cement its place as a crucial manufacturing hub.

At the same time, hosting Putin is a “matter of principle” for Vietnam to show the balance and diversity in its foreign policy, said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow and co-ordinator of the Vietnam studies programme at Iseas.

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The US has expressed disappointment at the visit but said its relationship with Vietnam would continue to strengthen.

“We reiterate that no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalise his atrocities. We cannot return to business as usual or turn a blind eye to the clear violations of international law Russia has committed in Ukraine,” a US state department spokesperson told the Financial Times.

Russia, the biggest supplier of military equipment including submarines to Hanoi, has been a close partner of Vietnam since the cold war. The two countries have run joint exploration projects for oil and gas in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese media has reported that Hanoi is seeking closer co-operation with Russia in natural resources, artificial intelligence, life sciences and energy. Putin is expected to meet Nguyen and other senior officials, with talks focusing on trade, economic and technological prospects, along with international and regional issues. It is unclear if any deals will be announced.

This week’s visit may ultimately prove more beneficial for Putin than for Vietnam, said Iseas’ Le, as it shows that doors still open for him. Vietnam might be cautious in announcing any major deals with Russia as it seeks to remain on good terms with the US and its allies.

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“Vietnam will be wise enough to make sure that the visit will not harm its relation with US and western partners,” said Le. “It has been able to maintain good ties with all the major powers, and that plays an important role in helping Vietnam attract investment from different partners.”

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Louisiana will require the 10 Commandments displayed in every public school classroom

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Louisiana will require the 10 Commandments displayed in every public school classroom

Louisiana has become the first state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom under a bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry on Wednesday. Above, workers repaint a Ten Commandments billboard off of Interstate 71 near Chenoweth, Ohio, on Nov. 7, 2023.

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BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana has become the first state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom, the latest move from a GOP-dominated Legislature pushing a conservative agenda under a new governor.

The legislation that Republican Gov. Jeff Landry signed into law on Wednesday requires a poster-sized display of the Ten Commandments in “large, easily readable font” in all public classrooms, from kindergarten to state-funded universities.

Opponents questioned the law’s constitutionality and vowed to challenge it in court. Proponents said the the measure is not solely religious, but that it has historical significance. In the language of the law, the Ten Commandments are “foundational documents of our state and national government.”

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The posters, which will be paired with a four-paragraph “context statement” describing how the Ten Commandments “were a prominent part of American public education for almost three centuries,” must be in place in classrooms by the start of 2025.

Under the law, state funds will not be used to implement the mandate. The posters would be paid for through donations.

The law also “authorizes” but does not require the display of other items in K-12 public schools, including: The Mayflower Compact, which was signed by religious pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and is often referred to as America’s “First Constitution”; the Declaration of Independence; and the Northwest Ordinance, which established a government in the Northwest Territory — in the present day Midwest — and created a pathway for admitting new states to the Union.

Not long after the governor signed the bill into law at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette on Wednesday, civil rights groups and organizations that want to keep religion out of government promised to file a lawsuit challenging it.

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The law prevents students from getting an equal education and will keep children who have different beliefs from feeling safe at school, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation said in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Even among those who may believe in some version of the Ten Commandments, the particular text that they adhere to can differ by religious denomination or tradition. The government should not be taking sides in this theological debate,” the groups said.

The controversial law, in a state ensconced in the Bible Belt, comes during a new era of conservative leadership in Louisiana under Landry, who replaced two-term Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in January. The GOP holds a supermajority in the Legislature, and Republicans hold every statewide elected position, paving the way for lawmakers to push through a conservative agenda.

Similar bills requiring the Ten Commandments be displayed in classrooms have been proposed in other states including Texas, Oklahoma and Utah. However, with threats of legal battles over the constitutionality of such measures, no state besides Louisiana has succeeded in making the bills law.

Legal battles over the display of the Ten Commandments in classrooms are not new.

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In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar Kentucky law was unconstitutional and violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The high court found that the law had no secular purpose but rather served a plainly religious purpose.

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Officer on Sunak protection detail arrested over alleged bet on timing of UK poll

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Officer on Sunak protection detail arrested over alleged bet on timing of UK poll

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Police investigating bets on the timing of the UK’s general election have arrested an officer from the team guarding Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over the claims.

London’s Metropolitan Police said an officer from its Royalty and Specialist Protection command had been held over “alleged bets”, without identifying whom the officer had been guarding.

A person familiar with the situation confirmed he had been part of Sunak’s protection detail.

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It is the first reported arrest since the Gambling Commission opened a probe into betting on the timing of the surprise election.

The investigation was launched after Craig Williams, a Conservative MP and aide to Sunak, admitted he had placed a wager on a July election shortly before the poll was announced.

The Met said on Wednesday that the Gambling Commission contacted it on Friday saying it was investigating “alleged bets” by a constable from the specialist unit “related to the timing of the general election”.

The force added: “The matter was immediately referred to officers in the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards, who opened an investigation, and the officer was also removed from operational duties. The officer was subsequently arrested on Monday 17 June on suspicion of misconduct in public office.”

The Met said the arrested officer had been taken into custody and bailed “pending further inquiries”. The matter had also been referred to the force watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, it added.

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The Met did not name the officer, in line with normal practice before anyone is charged.

Sunak aide Williams insisted when admitting laying his bet that the Gambling Commission’s investigation of the matter amounted to “some routine inquiries” with which he would “fully co-operate”. He remains the Conservative general election candidate for Montgomeryshire and Glyndŵr in Wales.

The Guardian reported he had bet £100 on May 19 at odds of 5-1 that the election would be in July, at a time when it was not expected before the autumn. Sunak made his surprise announcement of a July 4 election on May 22.

The police officer is the only person known to have been arrested.

The Gambling Commission said it was investigating the “possibility” of offences concerning the date of the election.

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“This is an ongoing investigation, and the Commission cannot provide any further details at this time,” it said.

Additional reporting by Eri Sugiura

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