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Program Aims to Keep Teachers From Quitting : Education: Cal State Dominguez Hills professors help train and counsel young teachers to cope with the realities of inner-city schools.

June 03, 1993|MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH AREA — Because he saw teaching in the inner city as a mission, Daniel Sievers thought he knew what to expect when the Los Angeles Unified School District assigned him to an impoverished Watts neighborhood.

But nothing he learned in teacher training, Sievers says, prepared him for the sadness he felt watching children come to school hungry and exhausted, sometimes crying in frustration because no one put them to bed at night or got them up in the morning for breakfast.

"Imagine 8-year-olds having to get themselves up on time . . . get dressed and get themselves to school," says Sievers, 31, the father of two young boys.

Guy Morales of Baldwin Hills comes from a family of educators. His father and mother, aunts and cousins are teachers. Nevertheless, Morales vividly recalls his shock when, as a first-year teacher in Los Angeles, he visited the home of a troublesome 12-year-old.

"Here's his mom on the floor smoking crack," Morales says. "I just stood outside (the screen door) looking at her. I opened the door and I'm trying to tell her about her son. The woman tells me, 'I can't get my own life together, how am I going to get his life together?' "

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Like thousands of other new teachers across the Southland and the nation, Sievers and Morales found themselves suddenly all alone in classrooms where they were responsible for children whose needs outstripped their own teaching skills and the district's resources.

As veteran educators will testify, the profession's most time-honored tradition for new teachers is sink-or-swim. But, according to a spate of recent studies, it is also driving teachers to drop out of the profession at rates higher than those of inner-city high school dropouts.

In some of Los Angeles' toughest schools, according to two professors at Cal State Dominguez Hills who studied retention rates, more than half the new teachers leave the profession within three years. Statewide, California loses more than 50% of its new teachers within five years, according to another study commissioned in 1990 by the state Department of Education.

Replacing new teachers who leave the classroom costs taxpayers $15 million a year to recruit, orient and train the replacements, according to a state report on teacher retention.

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Sievers and Morales were luckier, though, than most beginning teachers. They were part of a three-year, pilot teacher retention program developed in the Los Angeles schools by the two Cal State Dominguez Hills education professors, Joel A. Colbert and Diana E. Wolff.

Now, having recently received a state grant of $825,000, the professors are expanding the program into four other districts, Long Beach, Compton, Lennox and Hawthorne. The grant is part of a $5-million effort this year by the state to promote teacher retention in the face of mushrooming school populations and a severe shortage of credentialed teachers.

The Colbert-Wolff program gives new teachers psychological support and technical assistance in two key ways. New teachers are assigned to small support groups led by experienced teachers at the school where they work. They are also enrolled in such university education courses as classroom management and planning.

"When you're first in a classroom," said Ida Alba, director of personnel for the Hawthorne School District, "you're thinking, 'What am I doing here? I'm going to fail . . .' This program will let them know it's all right to ask for help."

Beginning teachers, Colbert said, are the ones assigned to the most difficult schools with the most needy children. Veteran teachers with seniority can choose easier assignments.

The pilot program served 118 new teachers over a three-year period beginning in the 1988-89 school year, and the bulk of the participants were teaching in the city's toughest neighborhoods. With the new money, the program can serve 175 new teachers, Wolff said.

Teaching is lonely anywhere, said Melba Coleman, an instructor at Dominguez Hills and former principal of the 102nd Street School in Los Angeles, which participated in the pilot program.

"It takes a long time to learn the craft . . . and along the way you get beat up and you get burnt out," she said.

Also, schools such as the 102nd, Coleman explained, are a tough assignment for even veteran teachers. The school serves Jordan Downs, one of the city's largest housing projects, and children living in such concentrated areas of poverty have special problems and special needs, she said.

"The level of activity, the noise, is higher," Coleman said. "They can be easily distracted; you have a lack of social graces; you have absentee parents; you have a lot of incarceration in fathers."

And, she added, the transiency rate is high and the children often need special grief and loss programs because they witness violence that injures or kills their loved ones.

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