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Palmdale Goes North of Border to Find Teachers


PALMDALE — To hire teachers in anticipation of the state's class-size reduction program, Palmdale schools scoured the country. But not this one.

Thirty Canadians have traded the northern snow of their homeland for the desert sun of the Palmdale School District, where the first arrivals began work Friday. The hirings capped a four-month search by the district to fill 92 positions created by new state incentives to shrink primary-grade classes to 20 students.

Their employment also points to the urgency among public school districts to attract experienced teachers: California university teaching programs produced about 5,000 graduates this year to fill the estimated 20,000 jobs now available statewide. Not all school districts in the state agreed to reduce class size. Friday was the deadline to apply for a portion of the $771 million in state money available to hire teachers for smaller classes.

"We wanted a caliber of teachers with experience and credentials, and by the time we started our search in late July most of those teachers in California had been hired," said Palmdale Supt. Nancy Smith. "So in order to get some real talented teachers, we tossed out a wider net."

School districts around the state have also extended their search beyond California's borders. Officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, traversed the country during the spring and summer looking for as many as 2,600 teachers to fill the vacancies created by the class-size-reduction program. Most city schools reduced their first- and second-grade classes in September.

Palmdale school officials said they waited to begin their search for new hires, prompting the unorthodox recruitment effort for the 17,000-student district. They plan to implement the 20-student classes in the first, second and third grades beginning in January, Smith said.

"Because we were starting the search late, we needed to be more creative about our method of looking for teachers."

Searching for teachers outside U.S. borders is not uncommon at the Los Angeles district. Officials there have for years hired teachers from Mexico for bilingual classes, said Michael Acosta, a personnel administrator for the district. This year, he said, the district hired 15 Mexican teachers.

But Acosta was surprised by the large number of foreign teachers hired by a relatively small school district such as Palmdale.

"I think it's pretty large for that size school district," he said. "Outside of Mexico, we haven't gone to other countries. We've never gone to Canada."

State officials don't keep track of how many school districts hire teachers from other countries. However, Yvonne Novelli of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing in Sacramento said such hiring is rare.

In pursuing an international search, Palmdale officials say they got lucky.

"Canada was reorganizing their educational system, and they had some people who were laid off," Smith said. "So we just kind of sent up a trial balloon to see how many people were interested, and we got an overwhelming response."

Palmdale's search had taken officials to Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, Idaho and Arizona, where they hired 18 teachers. They also hired many teachers from among their substitute teachers and from a pool of applicants from past years.

But it was in Canada that they struck gold.

Judy Fish, Palmdale's assistant superintendent of educational services, went to Ontario, Canada, in September to interview nearly 60 applicants. She signed contracts with 30.

"We've had three times as many people call us as I've been able to interview," said Fish, who received her teaching degree from an Ontario university and had remained in contact with educators there.

"They've continued to call from Canada even though we have the number of teachers we need."

Jeff Pettipas was preparing to leave Canada to teach elementary school in London when he heard of the jobs in Palmdale. The 26-year-old Toronto native quickly ditched the idea of teaching in Europe.

"It seemed like there were better opportunities here than in London," Pettipas said in a telephone interview from his temporary home at a Palmdale motel. "For one, the pay in California is better."

New teachers will receive about $27,000 a year, said Fish. But Pettipas and most of his colleagues from Canada have experience and degrees in education that will earn them about $29,000 a year, she said.

Pettipas earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in education before working as a special-education teacher in Canada. But teacher layoffs in recent years soured his view of educational opportunities there. It also pushed Ontario native Heidi Janzen to look elsewhere.

"There's absolutely no jobs [in Canada] for teachers. There hasn't been for quite some time," said Janzen. "And it doesn't look like it's going to get any better."

Only two of the 600 graduates who earned their teaching certificates with Janzen in April have found jobs, she said. Janzen, 24, who was working as a nanny and volunteering at a school, was eager for the chance to bid farewell to her country to teach third grade in Palmdale.

"I need a job and I've always wanted to teach," Janzen said. "I'm willing, like these 29 others, to go anywhere we can to do what we want to do."

The newly hired Canadian teachers must apply for visas for work permits and meet state teacher requirements. They will receive emergency permits allowing them to temporarily waive some of those requirements.

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