PORTLAND, ORE. — WANTED: Potential elementary school teachers willing to trade the idyllic Pacific Northwest for smoggy, traffic-jammed and crime-riddled Los Angeles. Experience not necessary. Adequate classroom space and supplies not guaranteed. Need for Spanish fluency near-certain.
That is not the way the advertisement in the Oregonian read when Cheryl Williams spotted it and decided to respond. But it sums up the concerns she brought to her interview in a downtown Portland hotel room last weekend with Los Angeles Unified School District recruiters.
"I know it's extremely crowded down there--traffic, smog," said Williams, 34, a Northern California native who moved to Portland two years ago to escape urban sprawl. "I'm wondering if I could handle it. Really wondering."
So why did Williams answer the ad? Teacher layoffs in Portland last spring dashed all hopes of translating two years of substitute teaching into her first permanent job.
As public school districts throughout California hunger for enough teachers to comply with a new state program that pays schools to shrink primary grade classes to 20 students, Los Angeles Unified finds itself the greediest among them.
The district's immediate goal of hiring up to 2,600 extra teachers would gobble up more than half the 1996 credentialed candidates from all California teaching programs combined--and most of those graduates had found jobs by midsummer, when the state approved the class reduction plan.
So Los Angeles and a handful of other large districts are reaching out of state to regions with a surfeit of teachers. In a season when the hiring cycle traditionally winds down, recruiters are madly combing through their applicant files, attending hastily organized college employment fairs and advertising on the Internet: "Come and Teach by the Beach!" Long Beach Unified implores on its Web site.
Never before have so many districts needed so many teachers at the same time. Even the post-World War II baby boom provided schools with several years' warning that kindergarten classes would swell.
"This is certainly the broadest recruitment and the most focused--just a particular group of grades, so you're in one single teaching pool, the generalist primary grades teacher," said professor Michael Kirst of Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.
Under the program, schools can share a pot of $971 million if they scale back classes, initially in first and second grades, followed by either kindergarten or third grade. Most districts aim to start school in September with smaller student-teacher ratios, but they have until February to prove that they have hired enough teachers and found enough space for the added classes.
Personnel administrators in Los Angeles Unified realize that it is unlikely that the district will find all the teachers it needs in time. The sprawling district has some of the state's largest elementary classes--averaging 32 pupils, two above the state average. It also has a giant bureaucracy and an abundance of poor, non-English-speaking students, making it a hard sell even in less competitive eras.
Teacher hiring honcho Michael Acosta uses a thermometer chart to monitor his department's progress. At the top is the 3,500-teacher mark--which includes the elementary teachers needed without the reduction--and at the bottom is red ink indicating the 700 hires made so far.
Still, realism is offset by growing recognition that no matter how difficult the challenge, no public school system can afford to be viewed as a laggard, least of all the oft-criticized Los Angeles Unified.
"If we don't see the L.A. school district acting fast enough, it will send a very sharp message that the public schools are not doing their job, that they are not taking advantage of an opportunity," said Cynthia Simmons, whose middle child, Chela, enters second grade next month in Silver Lake. "The question would then become for me: 'What's your excuse?' "
So Los Angeles Unified is trying to get a head start on its better-heeled competitors. It is the only district advertising for teachers in the popular press--in Portland and in Cleveland, where recruiters are headed today. Next month they plan to hit Kansas and Miami.
It is the only district setting up a special office for principals to interview teacher candidates--a bungalow moved onto the parking lot at its downtown office. It is the only one offering jobs to teachers without knowing where it will send them, confident that some principal will take them in.
And for the first time, Los Angeles Unified is holding its 32,000 teachers to their one-year contracts to prevent other districts from raiding its staff. Although allowed under the state Education Code, the move has infuriated teachers who see the new class size plan as a ticket out.
"I am not an indentured servant," said one special education teacher blocked from taking a job in a neighboring district.