Imagine if your child came home from school and told you her beloved language teacher was about to be deported back to her home country just six weeks before the end of the school year. That’s exactly what happened a few days go when my 10th grader at Montclair High School came home to share that her Mandarin Chinese teacher, Sichang Gao, was about to be deported when her work visa expires on May 13th, allegedly because of a Montclair School District clerical mistake. There was no email from the high school or school district in my inbox, just a disappointed daughter in front of me recounting a story about how her teacher was being forced to go back to China.
This year, Sichang Gao has breathed new life into the Mandarin Chinese program at Montclair High School. Gao completed her graduate studies at Rutgers University in Mandarin Language Education and her undergraduate studies in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language at Shanghai University. She has been active as a practicum teacher and presenter in the Rutgers STARTALK Chinese Language Program and she did her student teaching at Livingston High School. Most of the students in her class at Montclair High School adore her.
Shock, sadness, disappointment. Could this be true? I immediately reached out to John Jeffries, assistant principal at the high school, to verify the information. Jeffries confirmed the possibility of deportment, saying the issue was brought to his attention in late March and that the district worked quickly to help Ms. Gao obtain the necessary documents needed to submit her application.
“The district has also provided appropriate assistance regarding this matter including connecting district legal counsel with her immigration legal counsel. We will continue to work on finding a solution with the district’s support,” Jeffries told me in an email. “We hope to have more information soon about a possible replacement to finish out the year. “
According to Dr. Felice Harrison, the district’s interim personnel administrator, the school district has done everything in its power to secure an extension of Gao’s work visa. She says the district is ready with all of the necessary paperwork and checks.
“There was no clerical error or any error on the part of the Montclair Public Schools. We didn’t misstep,” said Harrison. “We stand behind the teacher, we think she is fabulous. We want her, but we can’t file the visa application on her behalf. The application is filed by the individual through legal counsel.”
What went wrong? Right now the details are a bit sketchy. Did the district’s attorneys not move quickly enough to gather and file the necessary paperwork for Ms. Gao to extend her work visa? Did Ms. Gao’s immigration attorney file appropriately on her behalf? There appears to be some confusion over who was supposed to file what, and when. Deadlines were clearly missed. But in this parent’s mind, it isn’t over until it’s over.
So what’s a parent to do? Join a small group of parents in my daughter’s class in an 11th hour campaign to do what we can to keep their beloved teacher here, complete with letters to the Superintendent, calls to Senator Robert Menendez, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, local attorneys and media alerts to local press.
They say the power of parents can move mountains. Let’s just hope for Sichang Gao and Montclair High School’s sake that this is really the case.