Almost three years ago, the Downey Unified School District found itself in a jam as a jump in enrollment and a large number of retirements left the district with several vacant teaching positions in the math, science and English departments.
"We found when we declared vacancies and went out recruiting, no candidates were there," said Joe Carrillo, director of personnel services. "It was slim pickings."
The situation did not improve the next year, so school officials huddled to come up with possible solutions to a critical shortage of teachers.
The result is an intern program, begun last fall in conjunction with California State University, Long Beach, that pays people with bachelor's degrees--but no teacher certificates--for one- and two-year internships in Downey secondary schools.
Supporters say students benefit by being taught by someone who is qualified, though not credentialed; the district benefits by training a future pool of teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas, and interns benefit by receiving both experience and a salary. Hailed as a possible solution to some teacher shortages, the intern program will be duplicated in five other districts in September.
The program, which pays interns a beginning teacher's salary and gives them the run of a classroom, has been recognized as an example of how school districts can help each other by sharing innovative solutions to common problems.
As a result, Downey was one of 15 districts that won an Exemplary Program Award last week from the Los Angeles County office of education.
More than 130 nominations were submitted by 24 school districts for the fourth annual competition for programs in curriculum, computer-assisted instruction and other categories. In the southeast Los Angeles County area, six school districts won first-place awards and eight received honorable mentions.
"School districts out there are working very hard. Nobody ever toots his own horn. It gives us an opportunity to do that," said Michaelene Wagner, county Board of Education president. The competition was open to 95 school districts and 13 community college districts in Los Angeles County.
Bob Grossman, a spokesman for the county office of education, said the most important thing to come out of the competition is a booklet that is an "encyclopedia of good ideas." The booklet serves as a "resource for (districts) looking for innovative programs," Grossman said.
When the Downey school district couldn't find candidates after two years of trying, Carrillo said, it decided to "create" them.
Because interns must be working toward a credential, the district steps in and helps trains them as they are finishing their course work with the aid of area administrators, mentor teachers and teacher specialists.
Interns are required to have a bachelor's degree in math, science, or English, have a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher, have passed the California Basic Educational Skills Test and have previous classroom teaching experience, Carrillo said.
Carrillo said the district established the tough requirements because "we wanted people who were geared up to become educators."
For Joel Roszell and Debbie Hinze, their intern teaching positions in the district could not have come at a better time. Both were working toward their credentials at Cal State Long Beach when they signed up for the Downey program last fall. Both aspire to be teachers in the hard-to-staff fields of math and English.
Hinze, who will finish her internship in June, said she taught dance in college but made up her mind two years ago to teach in a secondary school.
The intern program is "exactly what I wanted to get into," she said. "You walk in the first day and you're not any different from (other teachers) on campus. You are on your own, literally."
'I Had to Earn Money'
Roszell said he was an engineering major who decided that that field was "not what I wanted to do with my life." He began working toward his credential in math and had been looking for a paid position because he has a family to support. Before signing up for the intern program, he applied with the Los Angeles Unified School District trainee program and was talking to the Long Beach Unified School District about an emergency credential position.
"I had to earn money," Roszell said. "I was afraid I would not be able to teach."
Both Roszell and Hinze said the program is better than student teaching positions or a trainee program because of the higher salary, better benefits and because they are actually teaching five class periods on their own. The most common course for future teachers, a one-semester student position, pays no money.
Carrillo said one of the aspects most appealing to the district is that administrators have "direct input in the training of teachers."
"We feel more in the driver's seat when it comes to the training of teachers. This is a viable way to provide students with a well-prepared teacher."