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Retirements Magnify O.C. Teacher Needs

September 24, 1996|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Retired teacher Sharon Clunk can't help but feel a sense of deja vu.

Nearly 40 years ago, amid the baby boom, schools seemed to pop up overnight, with administrators scouring the country to meet the phenomenal demand for new teachers spurred by the postwar population growth. Clunk, fresh out of college in 1958, was swept from her South Dakota hometown to teach in the Garden Grove Unified School District.

Fast forward to 1996, with another aggressive drive in California for new teachers, this one created by the prospect of more state money for districts that decrease class sizes in primary grades.

"What's happening is just mind-boggling," said Clunk, 60. In 1958, she added, "I was doing some of the same things the young teachers are now doing."

But today there is a key difference: Just as districts scramble to find teachers, those hired like Clunk during the boom are expected to retire in staggering numbers that will greatly thin the teacher work force.

The question on many administrators' minds: How will schools prepare for the twin challenge of replacing retiring veteran teachers while continuing to hire others to meet the demands of class-size reduction?

Educators count California's current rush to reduce class sizes and the baby boom era as two of the state's most aggressive efforts to recruit teachers en mass.

For the past few months, districts have madly recruited new teachers to take advantage of a state program that pays $650 per pupil in primary grades reduced to 20 students per teacher. The program, which applies to kindergarten through third grades, is designed to reverse sliding reading and math scores statewide.

The statewide movement to cut class sizes has prompted Orange County schools to seek a total of about 1,000 teachers by February. Statewide, only 5,000 new teachers received full accreditation last year.

The baby boom took flight shortly after the end of World War II and peaked in the early 1960s. School districts were building schools at remarkable rates to keep up with the population explosion. In Garden Grove, for instance, six schools opened in 1962.

By the 1970s and '80s, student enrollments had dipped. But since the early '90s they have surged again, prompting some districts to build or expand schools and others to switch to year-round schedules or other means to address rising overcrowding.

At the same time, retirements are expected to grow as teachers hired during the baby boom leave the classroom. Teachers in California become eligible for retirement at age 60.

U.S. Department of Education officials project that 30% of the nation's 2.5 million teachers will retire over the next 10 years.

The state Department of Education does not forecast teacher retirements, but past reports show an increase. From 1992 to 1995, the number of California teachers who retired jumped from about 6,900 to 7,140.

Orange County does not tabulate retirement figures either, but Mike Kilbourn, the county Department of Education's legislative liaison, estimates that the annual rate has been about 500 teachers per year, though it is beginning to increase. Early retirement plans offered by districts seeking to save money in the 1980s contributed to the exodus, but Kilbourn said departures in recent years have been attributable to the aging of the teacher force.

Districts that boomed in the '50s and '60s are seeing even greater retirement upswings.

For example, Garden Grove Unified lost 45 administrators and teachers in 1994. Two years later, the number jumped to 75. A total of 40 teachers retired from Orange Unified this year. That's up by almost a dozen from last year, officials said.

The trend leaves these school districts bracing to lose some of their best talent in the next three to five years.

"Older school districts like ours were products of the baby boom," said Garden Grove Unified spokesman Alan Trudell. "The postwar growth attracted many people to California and the teaching profession. As a result, many of them are nearing the retirement age."

Said Malcolm Seheult, an Orange Unified assistant superintendent: "There's increased awareness, anxiety and sensitivity to the retirement issue. We have more senior teachers because this is a stable community. People stay in Orange."

"Teacher retirement has been a concern for us," said William Nunan, Newport-Mesa Unified's director of human resources. "We do have more senior teachers in our district. The most we can do each year is make the best guesstimate."

Nearly 19% of Newport-Mesa Unified's teachers were hired during the late 1960s, Nunan said. About five years ago, he added, this district's teachers had an average of 24 years of experience. That average has fallen to 18 years as younger teachers are being hired to keep up with the district's student growth.

"It's very hard to predict teacher retirements," Nunan said. "When they elect to retire is a very personal decision for them."

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