Plan for Smaller Classes Sets Off Hiring Spree in Calif.

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California school districts have embarked on a massive teacher-hiring spree sparked by a nearly $1 billion state initiative to reduce class sizes in the primary grades.

The overheated market for elementary teachers in the state has set off a complicated series of consequences. Some Californians who have long complained about their class sizes--the largest in the nation--now worry that quick hiring could create problems if untrained teachers are placed in classrooms.

The hiring binge is expected to affect the entire state education system. Observers foresee pressure on colleges and universities, stepped-up district recruitment and training, strain on school buildings, and possibly higher teachers' salaries and a run on the staffs of private schools.

"It's just like a pinball machine, where the ball hits one place and rebounds to another," Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University in California, said last week. "There are a lot of ripple effects throughout the system in ways I don't think were anticipated when everybody said, 'Oh, 20-to-1, that's just great.'"

The new state budget signed this summer by Gov. Pete Wilson provides $771 million to cut class sizes in grades K-3 from as many as 30 students to 20. Lawmakers set aside another $200 million for facilities needs to create extra classroom space.

Despite the new demands, few educators are complaining about the incentive program, which will pay $650 per student if class sizes are reduced by Feb. 16. Districts must start with 1st and 2nd grades.

In arguing for lower class sizes, Gov. Wilson, a Republican, cited California students' poor showing on national reading assessments. The new budget also contains $200 million for a statewide initiative to improve reading.

Experts question, however, whether hiring large numbers of novice teachers will pay off in improved reading scores. Some districts, such as San Diego Unified, plan to offer teachers in the upper elementary grades the opportunity to teach 1st and 2nd graders to avoid staffing the key early grades with new teachers.

"It's hard not to be supportive, but certainly there are issues of quality," said Gary Hart, a former state senator who is the director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, based in Sacramento.

Reserve Pool

State officials estimate that reducing class sizes in all grades from kindergarten to grade 3 would require 6,500 teachers per grade--a total of 26,000 new teachers. The state Commission on Teacher Credentialing licensed just 5,000 elementary teachers last year.

But California districts, which employed 218,500 teachers last year, can draw from a "reserve pool" of another 200,000 people who hold valid state teaching licenses, according to one analysis. The demand for teachers is likely to push up salaries, Mr. Kirst predicted, which could help lure such people back into teaching.

Districts with attractive pay and working conditions generally are finding enough qualified teachers. But some urban districts with overcrowded schools and large numbers of non-English-speaking students are hiring teachers with emergency credentials who have little or no formal preparation to teach.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest district, would need to hire 2,200 to 2,600 elementary teachers to reduce class size in both 1st and 2nd grades, said Michael Acosta, the district's administrator of employment operations. Another 950 are needed to fill regular vacancies.

Los Angeles administrators are recruiting aggressively, including in Portland, Ore., and Cleveland, where teachers are plentiful. They also have invoked a provision of the state education code that allows them to bar teachers, for one year, from quitting for better jobs in other districts.

By last week, the district had signed up 1,500 new elementary teachers, about half of whom were hired with emergency credentials. These teachers, who have bachelor's degrees and have passed the state basic-skills test, will be required to take education coursework on their own.

The district also is doubling to about 500 the number of elementary teachers enrolled in its internship program, which provides on-the-job training to teachers who have passed the basic-skills test and a subject-matter test and have completed 120 hours of coursework in teaching. Interns are assigned to work with mentor teachers and are eligible for full teaching licenses after two years.

Intern Programs

Gov. Wilson recently signed legislation that lets districts expand internship programs without having to prove that they were unable to hire licensed teachers. Only a handful of districts now operate such programs; it is unclear how many will now launch them.

The California State University system is examining ways to meet the demand for teachers. Universities, in partnership with school districts, also can run internship programs to allow teachers to work while they take steps toward certification.

The state program will not pay the full cost of reducing class sizes. The San Diego Unified district will spend about $7 million from its general fund to bring down the size of 1st- and 2nd-grade classrooms, but cannot afford to do more without more money for facilities, said Norma Trost, a spokeswoman.

The majority of the 270 new teachers needed to reduce class size in 1st and 2nd grades have been hired from the substitute pool, which Ms. Trost said is now "decimated."

In Fresno, administrators have hired 300 new elementary teachers, about 95 percent of whom hold full teaching credentials, said Florentino Noriega, the associate superintendent for educational services. Some of the new hires had worked in surrounding rural areas with lower pay, although Mr. Noriega said he tried not to take teachers away from other districts.

In Oakland, meanwhile, despite the negative publicity from a bitter teachers' strike last winter, 2,000 people turned out for a district job fair last month. Administrators hired some teachers on the spot and held an orientation session for people without teaching licenses to explain how they could get them.

"The job fair was on the 4th floor," said Ken Epstein, a history teacher who helped organize the event, "and the line went down all four flights, out the front door, and around the corner. It was two blocks long."

Vol. 16, Issue 01

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