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Dot-Coms' Bust Is a Boon to Classrooms

Education: Laid-off tech employees are rejoining work force as public school teachers.

June 03, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tera Creech has cracked genetic coding as a researcher for a biotech firm and taken apart software programs as a skilled technician for a booming dot-com.

But that's nothing compared to what she plans to do next: teach high school science.

Creech is one of about 200 laid-off technology workers in California who are rejoining the work force as public school teachers.

With help from a $1.6-million state grant, they are bringing their science degrees and high-tech backgrounds into a public school system that is facing a severe shortage of qualified math and science instructors.

Creech, 25, a biology major from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, used to spend most of her days sitting in front of a computer in an isolated cubicle. Her job was trouble-shooting software programs.

She was laid off from Camarillo-based eLabor.com in September--along with about 90 other workers--just weeks before she gave birth to her daughter, Abigail, now 7 months old.

This fall, Creech will stand in front of 30 hormone-charged teenagers and attempt to get them excited about biology and chemistry.

But she's confident she is up to the challenge.

"I'm a little bit nervous, but definitely excited," said Creech, who also worked as a research assistant at biotechnology giant Amgen Inc. "Part of the reason I went into science was because I had teachers who made it fun and interesting. I want to open that world to kids."

Ventura County and four government agencies in the Silicon Valley were awarded grants from the state Employment Development Department in March to create the Technology to Teacher program.

Participants can apply for grant money to pay for tuition, books, testing fees, counseling and other support services, said Suzanne Schroeder, department spokeswoman. The program is run through local job centers.

The idea was for the incentives to make the difference for displaced tech workers who otherwise would not choose to go into teaching, particularly because the job pays at least $20,000 a year less than most private-sector technology positions.

"I think it has been an influence," said Amy Fonzo, who is coordinating the effort in Ventura County. "Many of them were looking for another technology position, and decided to go into teaching instead."

The largest chunk of the state money--$536,000--went to the North Valley Job Training Center in Sunnyvale, which is the part of the state hardest hit by the dot-com crash and tech-industry downsizing.

About 100 people likely will take part in the program there, said Director Mike Curran, including 25 who will start taking classes toward a credential at San Jose State University later this month.

Those students plan to get internship jobs at schools while they complete their classes at night, Curran said.

Amy DeMasi, a technical writer who was laid off last fall from Santa Clara-based Applied Materials, is one of them. With a bachelor's degree in geology and a master's in geochemistry, she worked for five years as a technical consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program.

DeMasi moved to the Silicon Valley from northern Virginia two years ago, for a job at Applied Materials that doubled her salary.

But the whole time, she said, she felt her career lacked meaning.

When she lost her job and heard about the state's new teacher training program, she knew it was the right thing to do.

"They need teachers here, and I really feel like my work experience is very valuable," said DeMasi, who wants to teach environmental science in an inner-city high school. "So many people don't understand basic science to be able to do what's right for our country."

With thousands of teachers retiring each year and student populations continuing to grow, K-12 schools across the state are struggling to fill positions, particularly in specialty science fields.

Needs are greatest at middle schools and high schools in urban areas, where percentages of poor and non-English speaking students are highest, state education officials said.

Last year, the state issued nearly 2,700 emergency permits for science teachers, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

That's about 20% of the entire science teacher work force, and is the highest number of permits issued for any single subject, said Marilyn Errett, a consultant with the commission.

An emergency-permit teacher may only be hired if a credentialed instructor cannot be found, Errett added.

Creech, whose parents and husband are also teachers, said going into the profession had crossed her mind before.

But when she graduated from college, she said it was tough to choose a lower-paying job with more hoops to jump through in education over a higher-paying and seemingly easier job in business.

"Becoming a teacher can be a very daunting process," Creech said. "I probably would never have done it, and I think what this program is doing is great."

Creech will enroll in Cal State Northridge's credential program in the fall, while also teaching in a public school classroom under an internship program.

It should take her about two years to be fully credentialed.

"I think I'll be feeling a lot more reward, and job satisfaction," Creech said. "I will be able to see that I'm making a difference."

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