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L.A. Unified Gains From Others' Loss

The district is happy to hire time-tested teachers laid off by other districts suffering budget woes.

June 04, 2003|Duke Helfand and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

Heather Coats got some bad news recently: a pink slip from her Ventura County school district.

But Coats' bad news was a boon for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which snapped the high school English teacher up just weeks after her layoff notice arrived in the mail.

L.A. Unified is reaping a talent bonanza as it hires experienced teachers such as Coats who have been laid off by other districts and are unable to find jobs elsewhere because of budget cuts.

Even as it struggles with its own budget woes, the giant L.A. school system remains hungry for credentialed instructors because of a long-standing shortage. Its administrators hope the new arrivals will help fill that gap and improve classroom learning and discipline.

"We'll take them," said Deborah Hirsh, L.A. Unified's chief human resources officer. "We're able to get cream-of-the-crop people."

The district expects to hire about 3,000 teachers for next year, trying to keep up with staff attrition and student enrollment growth that force it to hire while many other smaller districts are suffering layoffs. More than 2,000 of the new employees will be fully credentialed and have completed the course work and teacher training that usually take a year after earning a bachelor's degree. That is nearly twice as many as last year.

And about 300 of these credentialed veterans, including Coats, are expected to come from districts that have issued layoff notices.

Coats holds onto some slim hope that the Santa Paula Union High School District will hire her back. But she was relieved to land the job in Los Angeles, and wants to be assigned a slot in the San Fernando Valley, which she said would make for a tolerable drive from her Santa Paula home.

"It's kind of my last resort," she said. "I am qualified to wait tables and teach English -- that's it."

Other large and growing districts, such as those in Long Beach, Garden Grove and San Diego, are enjoying a similar surge in credentialed applicants.

"It's a silver lining of the bad news that's hitting school districts up and down the state," said Richard Van Der Laan, a spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, which plans to hire about 300 teachers for next year, including a still-undetermined number who received pink slips elsewhere.

But the sheer numbers of laid-off teachers applying to Los Angeles Unified puts the district of 746,000 students at the forefront of the unexpected educational gold rush.

The applications are coming in even as the district is pushing austerity measures short of layoffs, such as dropping 2 1/2 paid vacation and preparation days for teachers and most other employees and big cuts in administrative costs. The district already has raised class sizes in some grades to more than 40 students, and officials say they can't go much further while enrollment is increasing without causing chaos and violating state regulations. Coincidentally, the new hires actually can save the district money because they often replace retiring teachers at the top of the pay scale.

"I've been in the game 35 years, and I've never had this phenomenal success filling mathematics openings," said Stephen Walters, principal of L.A. Unified's San Pedro High School, who is planning to hire credentialed teachers to fill all seven openings he has for September. He and other principals say the veteran instructors bring a solid understanding of their subjects and invaluable classroom experience.

"They are off and running on Day 1," Walters said.

In the past, L.A. Unified brought in more teachers on an emergency or provisional basis, including some who had bachelor's degrees but no teacher preparation. "It was on-the-job training," he said. "What they didn't know was how to manage 30 to 40 rambunctious teenagers sitting in front of them."

About a fourth of the 38,000 teachers in the district are not fully credentialed, and 500 to 700 of them will lose their jobs next year because they have failed to become fully certified within a five-year time frame set by the state, officials said.

Many of the veteran teachers coming to Los Angeles could fill those spots, as well as hard-to-staff specialties in math, science and special education, principals said. And the new hires are helping the district meet the demands of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, which requires all teachers to be fully credentialed by 2005-06.

Some principals said they are not impressed by credentials alone. Many said they look instead at intangible qualities in teacher candidates, such as can-do attitudes, outgoing personalities and a willingness to learn and work as team players.

"You can't say 100% that having a credential automatically is the recipe or the necessary tool you need to instruct in a classroom. We've had remarkable teachers who have not been credentialed," said Dorrie Woods, assistant principal of Charles Barrett Elementary School in South Los Angeles. "It is important to have credentials, but it's not everything."

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