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Maria "Bambi" Rodriguez, right, says goodbye to Maria Suarez and her daughter Katherine, 3, at the end of the day in Rodriguez' classroom in Oakland, Calif. Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010. Rodriguez, a special needs preschool teacher from the Philippines, recently learned she had to return to her home country because she was denied permanent residency and her visa expires this month. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

OAKLAND

An immigration roadblock has cost the Oakland school district an experienced and respected special-education teacher, right in the middle of the school year.

Maria Elena Rodriguez, better known as Bambi, said goodbye to her students, their parents and her colleagues Wednesday in a tearful send-off at the Burbank Preschool Center.

"Bambi, I know your quiet strength," said Vicki Van Steenberg, a Mills College professor of education who has sent many student-teachers to Rodriguez's classroom. "I cannot believe you're not going to be here."

The Filipina citizen has lived in San Francisco for 11 years. She earned a master's degree in special education from San Francisco State and has taught special-needs children in Oakland since 2003. But she learned two weeks ago that a critical step for becoming a permanent resident -- a petition that has been pending since 2008 -- was denied by the United States Department of Labor. Her guest worker visa expires Dec. 23, leaving her no time to appeal.

Oakland Unified has for years hired teachers of other nationalities for positions that are difficult to fill. About 45 of its teachers have temporary work visas. While the

district no longer recruits special-needs teachers from overseas, it still relies on a "visiting teacher program" to staff some of its bilingual elementary school and Spanish positions, said Jeff Dillon, recruitment supervisor for the school district.

Rodriguez has an H-1B visa, which requires special knowledge or skill in a certain field. But the permit can only be renewed for up to six years, unless a green card application or other petition for long-term residency has been filed.

District spokesman Troy Flint said Oakland Unified uses immigration law firms to help teachers gain permanent residence if they wish to keep teaching in Oakland. Without a spouse or other close relative who is a U.S. citizen, some -- such as Rodriguez -- apply for a green card on the basis of their skills and employment.

When Rodriguez came to Oakland almost eight years ago, she took a position that had been vacant for months; she started in February. But Marion McWilliams, a lawyer for the Oakland school district, said the U.S. Department of Labor determined there were enough U.S. citizens who could fill the teaching position -- at least, by the minimum standard set by the federal government. Without the stamp of approval from the labor department, Rodriguez couldn't apply for a green card.

Parents and staff members at Burbank, a program for special-needs preschoolers near Mills College, say Rodriguez's knowledge, caring nature and sense of calm will be hard to replace. They also worry about the effect of such a sudden transition on young children with autism and other disabilities. Some said they were heartened to know that a friend of Rodriguez's -- also an experienced teacher -- is in line for the position.

Alana Rosen, a special-education teacher at Oakland's Howard Elementary School, said she leaned on Rodriguez for guidance and support during her first year in the classroom. They worked together at Tilden, a school that's now closed.

That was five years ago. To this day, Rosen said, when she finds herself losing patience or in a difficult spot, she thinks to herself, "What would Bambi do?"

When she realized her time in the United States would be short, Rodriguez did what she so often does: She thought about the children in her class. To tell them she was leaving and assure them it would be OK, she made a photo book titled, "How do I love thee? (with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)."

"For my Portable 4 kiddos, I will really, really, really miss you," she wrote.

While dismayed by the sudden turn of events, Rodriguez has no shortage of prospects. She might move to Australia or return to the Philippines, where her family lives. After a year, she'd be eligible for another guest worker visa in the United States, should she decide to return.

"It's hard to leave because of the kids," she said. "I would have loved to stay until the end of the school year."

Read Katy Murphy's blog at IBABuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.