Twice a week for the past three years, Shirley Kornfeld has driven from her home in Lake Forest to Palisades Elementary School to be a classroom volunteer. Now she is turning her part-time project into a new career at age 74: substitute teacher.
Officials of the Orange County Department of Education say that Kornfeld might be the oldest person in the county to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test, required of substitute teachers, and seek a permanent job at a school.
"Who in their right mind would do this at my age?" asked Kornfeld, who took classes at Rancho Santiago College and hired a math tutor to prepare her for CBEST.
"I really didn't expect to pass it," she said of the test. "Who takes it at 74?"
Palisades Principal Jayne Canfield was not surprised by Kornfeld's success, though. After seeing her work with hundreds of elementary students in the classroom, Canfield was among those who urged Kornfeld to become a substitute teacher.
"She's so conscientious," Canfield said. "She really takes a personal interest in the kids."
Kornfeld's career path has been unconventional, and teaching will be her third vocation. A New York native, she was a department store buyer before earning her college degree in her 50s. After moving to California in the 1980s, she worked as a drug rehabilitation counselor.
With CBEST certificate in hand, she is waiting for paperwork to be completed and hopes to become a regular substitute at Palisades within the month.
Fifth-grade teacher Stephanie Waikle was another Palisades staff member who urged Kornfeld to get her certificate.
Whether reading "Paul Bunyan" to students, reviewing math concepts with them or teaching them dance steps, Kornfeld is enthusiastic and dedicated, Waikle said, and "the kids love her."
On a recent day when Kornfeld arrived for her volunteer session, students surrounded her, bombarding her with questions and vying for her attention.
"She's nice because she helps me a lot with my work," said fifth-grader Jeff Lake, 10. "I've learned a lot from her."
Kornfeld said the students' warm response is what really persuaded her to take up teaching.
"They give me so much," she said. "When I walk on campus, kisses and hugs. . . . I never knew I loved kids so much."