Zhaoqing “Mary” Wang never made more than $10,800 a year – barely minimum wage – during her two years working as a first-grade teacher at a popular foreign language immersion school in Baton Rouge.

The original Mandarin Chinese kindergarten teacher the school hired back when the program started in August 2014, Min Zhang, has never made more than $18,900 a year. That’s also what second-grade teacher, Yujie Liu, has been making. That works out to $105 a day or $13.13 an hour.

By contrast, the rest of the faculty at BR FLAIM  — short for Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet — earn more than twice that amount. The starting salary for an East Baton Rouge Parish public school teacher is $44,500 plus benefits, and many teachers’ salaries top $50,000 a year.

Indeed, the two other Mandarin Chinese teachers at this elementary school, both hired last August, earn $44,500 and $45,700, respectively.

The lower pay for the three Mandarin Chinese teachers is the result of their classification as substitute teachers. Despite the fact that they work the same hours as other teachers, they are paid less and get no benefits. And if they get sick or otherwise miss work for any reason, they don't get paid.

School officials say they are finally fixing this long-running pay disparity.

On Friday, Millie Williams, chief of human resources, told The Advocate that the school system has agreed to start paying these teachers $44,500 a year just like other starting teachers. They will get that pay for the current 2017-18 school year, backdated to August, and Williams said her office is prepared to “fix pay mistakes going back up to three years.” That means these teachers could soon earn tens of thousands of dollar in back pay.

“We do not want to lose our Mandarin teachers,” Williams said.

Casey Meyer, a Chinese-speaking parent with a second-grader at BR FLAIM, sat in on a meeting Friday afternoon where district officials explained their decision to teachers Zhang and Liu. Wang was not present; she is taking the current school year off but plans to return to BR FLAIM this fall.

“The teachers were ecstatic, of course,” Meyer said.

Meyer, however, knows this is just a short-term fix.

The teachers have work ahead. They all have had trouble with the English reading and writing tests on the national teaching exam known as Praxis.

Meyer said she hopes the teachers can finally overcome their difficulty in finding a legal route to waive that test, a waiver that some French and Spanish teachers already receive, as well as to gain recognition for the education and credentials they previously obtained in China.

That it’s all taken so long is bittersweet, Meyer said.

“This is something they probably should have been offered to begin with,” she said.

Williams said the teachers in question are dedicated and valued by the school, but they have lacked required teaching credentials. She said her staff have been trying to think of a solution, and decided, with the blessings of Superintendent Warren Drake, to declare the Mandarin Chinese program as a shortage area that justified hiring non-certified teachers.

“That’s because they are hard-to-find teachers,” she said.

Williams struggled to explain why the school system did not go this route much earlier, saying only that the superintendent did not agree to authorize that change previously.

Renewed interest in solving the problem comes as BASIS Baton Rouge, part of the Arizona-based charter school group BASIS Schools, prepares to offer classes in Mandarin Chinese at its school.

A charter school is a public school run privately, via a charter, or a contract.

One competitive advantage Louisiana charter schools have enjoyed since 2012 over traditional public schools like BR FLAIM is the ability to hire uncertified teachers.

BASIS Baton Rouge offers Mandarin Chinese as an elective class for grades kindergarten to four and has been hiring Mandarin teachers in preparation for its first year.

Meyer grew alarmed when she recently ran across a BASIS ad seeking a Mandarin teacher. The ad said that “coursework or experience in education is not required, nor is certification,” and that these BASIS teachers would earn not only a “competitive” salary but also “a comprehensive benefits package.” Meyer sent an email that morning, March 13, alerting the school of the ad and things moved quickly after that.

The low-paid teachers at BR FLAIM saw the ad too and they were immediately torn.

“My first reaction, ‘I want to go there, for the salary,” said Liu, who is in her second year at the school. “I didn’t send in a résumé, because I’m concerned about FLAIM. If I left, what about those kids? I’m thinking about that. That’s a hard decision for me.”

BR FLAIM has made a name for itself as a public school where children can be immersed in a foreign language for at least 60 percent of the day. It started with French and Spanish and in 2014 added Mandarin Chinese.

The school’s popularity has grown thanks in part to high standardized test scores. It has an A letter grade from the state, and last fall was named a Blue Ribbon school of excellence, the nation’s top school honor.

Enrollment has grown to more than 400. With about 60 of those students, Mandarin Chinese program is the smallest of the three language programs, but it’s growing. It is scheduled to add a fourth grade next year and a fifth grade in 2019.

Isabella Huang enrolled her two children into BR FLAIM’s Chinese program in 2016. Echoing other parents, Huang said she quickly became enchanted by her children’s new teachers.

“I absolutely love the teachers,” she said. “They go above and beyond what they need to do with my kids.”

Soon after, though, she had a troubling conversation with Wang where she learned that Wang was being paid as only a substitute teacher. Huang recalled the teacher telling her she was afraid to take off work to undergo needed surgery because as a substitute she couldn’t afford to be out of work so long.

Huang told other parents about their teachers’ predicament, and they began agitating with the school, the school district and the state for a solution, but to no avail.

Huang said she was particularly disheartened by the indifference of some other parents at the school, whose children weren’t affected. She said her family is moving to Knoxville in part because she has doubts whether the school system will keep supporting the school.

"I love the idea of (the school). It’s just not the drama I signed up for,” Huang said “Nor am I going to play Russian Roulette with my children’s education.”

Meyer and fellow parent Hannah Birchman are carrying on the fight. Birchman, in particular, is very invested. She has two children in the program, another enrolling next year, and three more whom she plans enroll when they get old enough.

She’s more optimistic than Huang. She’s joining the board of BR FLAIM’s parent-teacher organization and said she’s determined to get this issue solved. She said she hopes to build more unity across programs at BR FLAIM.

“On one hand, it’s not your kids, it’s not your program, so you’re not as invested. I get that,” she said. “But what’s good for one program is good for all.”

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.