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Seminar Part of Statewide Effort to Improve Teaching of Literacy


Surrounded by children's books, illustrated alphabets and phonics posters at Cal Lutheran University, Ventura County teachers bent on improving their skills created colorful bumper stickers.

"Reading can change your world." "Every child is a reader." And the class favorite, "Readers know more four-letter words."

About 100 teachers from eight districts attended a five-day institute last week, part of a statewide effort to improve reading instruction in classrooms throughout California. Altogether, 6,000 primary teachers in California are attending summer seminars to learn new ways to teach literacy.

And responding to the push for more teacher training, local universities and colleges are holding workshops to better prepare teachers for the classroom, and elementary and high school districts are offering seminars on everything from mathematics to classroom management.

They are also pairing new and veteran teachers, to provide a mentor and a sympathetic ear to rookies.

"Teacher training is the No. 1 in the equation for improving instruction," Conejo Valley Unified Supt. Jerry Gross said. "This training is going to have a long-term effect, not only on teacher retention but on the kids' education."

Three of Gov. Gray Davis' four education bills this year focus on making teachers more effective. The first mandates the summer reading institutes, open to all teachers. The second, a peer assistance and review bill, requires veteran teachers to critique their colleagues and help them improve.

The third gives money and help to teachers and administrators at low-scoring schools and holds the schools accountable if their students don't improve.

County Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis said the heightened emphasis on accountability places more pressure on today's teachers. In addition, higher expectations for students and greater diversity in the classroom require teachers to be more prepared and versatile than ever before.

"Match those things up, and you get the demand for extremely well-trained teachers," Weis said. "It is more difficult to be a teacher today than it has ever been."

In Ventura County and throughout California, many of those teachers are new and inexperienced, hired to fill spots created by class-size reduction. About one-sixth of the county's teachers have been in the classroom two years or less, Weis said.

Judith Quintero is one of those new teachers. She just completed a credential program at UC Santa Barbara and starts her first year at Oxnard's Rio Real Elementary School in the fall. She took notes feverishly at last week's reading institute, trying to get as many ideas as possible before the first day of school.

"I feel pressure because I really want to do a good job," she said. "I want to get all the help I can get."

Adrianna Ocegueda, a second-year teacher at Walnut Canyon School in Moorpark, said she signed up for the Cal Lutheran seminar to learn more methods for teaching reading.

"This is really good because we get a lot of new ideas and input from other teachers," she said.

The heightened emphasis on training not only benefits teachers but also helps districts with recruitment and retention.

Often, teachers choose the district that will pay them the most. But they also make the decision about where to teach based on how supportive a district is and how much training it offers.

The Rio Elementary School District is in partnership with Cal Lutheran and USC, which allows Rio teachers to attend workshops at both schools and enables university students to complete student teaching hours in Rio schools.

"It's our own built-in recruitment," Assistant Supt. David Lopez said. "But we are also training effective teachers."

Keeping teachers is almost as hard, administrators say. Frequently, new teachers leave after their first or second year because they have little guidance or support.

Santa Paula Elementary School District Supt. Bonnie Bruington encourages her new teachers to participate in the county's Beginning Teachers Support and Assessment program, which helps them improve classroom skills.

And any effort toward developing better teachers inevitably benefits the students, she said.

"It's the hands-on and personalized approach to [teacher training] that makes it trickle down to the classroom," she said.

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