When school opened this year in Compton, Lynn Redman's students wanted to know whether she was afraid, and "did I think I was going to be killed the first day."
The new high school English teacher told her students, "Any time you go to a new place, there's a little apprehension."
A UCLA graduate who also has a master's degree from the University of Rochester in New York, Redman, 26, could have spent her first year teaching in a safe suburb. Instead, she chose Compton, with its poverty, gangs, drugs and murderous violence that has claimed 71 lives so far this year.
Patricia Narita of Long Beach made the same choice.
When she heard that 158 Compton teachers resigned this year--complaining about low wages and poor working conditions--she dusted off the teaching credential she never used, gave up a higher-paying job in business, and went to work teaching English at Willowbrook Junior High School.
"These Latino and black kids . . . deserve good teachers, and I feel I can be a good teacher," said Narita, 35.
Marshall Dillard, a recent Stanford University graduate, chose Compton, too. "I just want to make a difference. I mean make a positive difference," said Dillard, 24.
Charles W. McKinney Jr., an honor graduate of Morehouse College in June, said: "There's a need in inner-city schools for teachers who are dedicated."
These four teachers, educators say, represent a growing number who believe it is their mission to work in inner-city schools, although the pay may be lower and the job of teaching tougher.
"I'm beginning to see more of that kind of student," said Myron Simon, acting director of the teacher education program at UC Irvine. In the last four or five years, Simon said, the nation, particularly the White House, has turned its attention to critical education issues and college students are reacting by becoming teachers and directing their attention to disadvantaged communities.
"There is a kind of idealistic stream of people out there who really do want to get involved in education," he said.
Thurman C. Johnson, assistant superintendent in charge of personnel for the Compton Unified School District, said he encountered many new teachers this year who came to Compton "because they were committed to working in inner-city schools. . . . I had several who told me that. They feel they can make a contribution."
At UC Irvine, the number of people opting for teaching careers in general has more than doubled in five years, according to Dominick V. Messina, assistant director of the university's teacher credential program. There were 386 applicants for admission this year, more than double the 169 in 1984.
There is no hard data, Messina said, on how many newly credentialed teachers are going to work in inner-city schools. However, Messina reviewed his department's alumni files and estimated that as many as 20% of the new teachers graduating from Irvine signed contracts in inner-city districts.
Compton schools have some of the lowest achievement test scores in the state. Twenty-five of the district's 32 school buildings are more than 30 years old and have deteriorated badly. Compton teachers are among the lowest paid in the Southland, which is the major reason why more than 13% of them quit this year. Many took jobs in Los Angeles schools. After a strike last spring, Los Angeles teachers received a 24% pay raise over three years.
Starting teachers in Compton earn slightly more than $23,000 a year. Teachers and the district have been at an impasse for months on contract negotiations. In Los Angeles, the starting pay is more than $27,000.
"The money is adequate," said Narita, who lives in Long Beach with her two school-age children.
She waved off questions about the condition of her classroom. There are only hints of paint left on the woodwork. Wires and vents dangle from the exposed heating unit in the back. Sections of the ceiling are bashed in, and a four-letter word is permanently etched, though misspelled, on the blackboard.
Narita always wanted to teach, she says, but family obligations kept her from getting her credential until 1986.
"I always knew I was going to eventually end up in an inner-city school," she said. Narita, who is Japanese, said she wanted to be "somewhere where I would be more effective. I feel I (can) be more sensitive to students who are minority because I am a minority."
Redman, who teaches at Compton High School, lives in Hollywood with her 3-year-old son. "I think I'll manage," she said of her limited earnings. "It could be worse. There are women who can't afford day care . . . so they have to stay on welfare because the only skills they have are (for jobs) at McDonald's."
Student teaching last year in Rochester inner-city schools convinced her, Redman said, that the intangible rewards of teaching are greatest when working with inner-city youngsters who need her attention more than youngsters in affluent communities.