An airline worker whose company folded. A laid-off engineer. A down-on-his-luck real estate agent. These victims of California's battered economy and scores of others like them have been crowding offices at the Los Angeles Unified School District for a week, hoping to land new jobs as public school teachers.
Stable work, a starting salary of $26,000 a year, medical benefits and the chance to help children were enough of a lure for many of these unemployed, college-educated professionals, despite a bitter teachers union dispute that racked the district last year, ending with an unprecedented 10% pay cut and morale at an all-time low.
Tom Cody, who was hired Monday to teach fifth grade at Blythe Street School in Reseda, said he decided to take the plunge into teaching after losing his job as an operations manager with Eastern Airlines, which folded in 1991. He could not find satisfaction in another airline-related job.
"I'm extremely nervous. I'm shaking in my boots. I've never done the academic part of teaching. I thought now I could get paid for what I have been doing on a volunteer basis with coaching (sports)," Cody said.
"This is about economics," said Garry Holm, 34, a former real estate agent hit hard by the plummeting Southern California housing market. "I'm basically unemployed. For me, anything is good. . . . Even though there are problems with the school district, it is still better than where I came from."
Every new teacher like Holm--who will teach fifth grade--fills the void left by a more experienced teacher. With the opening of the fall semester Tuesday, the district has been scrambling to fill 650 to 700 vacancies, more than it has had in the past 10 years, officials said.
About half the teachers being hired have little or no classroom experience and have qualified for a position with emergency credentials, which require a bachelor's degree and passing state and federal skills tests and medical exams. In addition to those requirements, teachers with full credentials have taken a fifth year of college, including training in teaching methods.
United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein, who publicly predicted a massive "brain drain" of teachers last spring, criticized the district for its lack of foresight on teacher flight.
"An emergency credentialed teacher is like an emergency credentialed surgeon. I don't know anyone who wants to be cut open by a person like that," Bernstein said. "I suppose to someone who is unemployed, teaching is better than nothing. But that is some young person's life who is being put in their hands."
Assistant Supt. Irene Yamahara, head of the personnel division, said Tuesday that the district, with a teaching force of about 32,000, is in a constant hiring mode. She added that even though the office is unusually busy this fall, the last-minute rush to hire teachers is typical of the beginning of any school year.
School officials have provided substitute teachers so that no classrooms are without supervision. By the end of business Tuesday, the district had offered 961 teacher contracts, but it was not known how many would be accepted. District officials said they believe that all elementary school openings have been filled.
This fall, Yamahara said, "there is a whole series of problems at work. It's not just the pay cut. . . . Teachers are leaving the city because of crime and violence. As a city, as a school district, we need to improve our image. . . . Things are catching up with us."
Furthermore, teacher recruiting efforts have been scaled back because of budget cuts, Yamahara said. The district offers several programs to train teachers, but the demand cannot be met in all areas.
More than half the vacancies are in the hardest-to-fill areas: special education, bilingual education, math and science. Teachers with these credentials are in such high demand that they can find a job virtually anywhere in the state.
Hiring emergency credentialed teachers is "not by any means our first priority" said Michael Acosta, head of teacher employment. "But when we are short of full credentialed teachers we have few other options. . . . There is an emergency situation and we must have emergency teachers."
At Gledhill Street School in North Hills, Principal Janice Walsh was searching for someone to fill a last-minute vacancy created when a teacher took a position on another campus.
"I have 28 little bodies that need to be taken care of," Walsh said of the combination third- and fourth-grade class taught by the departing instructor, who will stay until a replacement can be found. "There are people out there--it's just finding the right person for the right place."
She has interviewed two applicants for the post and has a lead on a third. Constraining her options, however, are federal regulations that require minority representation on school faculties, an issue important in the Los Angeles district, which serves an 87% minority student population.