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When you’re one of the scores...

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To David McEntyre, 30 usually means the number of years he put into the aerospace industry before he lost his engineering job in 1991, or the number of months he has watched his new auto body shop struggle to stay afloat during increasingly hard times.

But suddenly, 30 holds a new significance. It’s the number of alternately curious and bored young faces ranged before him every hour, the faces of his students at Olive Vista Junior High School in Sylmar.

At 61, the former Hughes Aircraft employee is a brand-new teacher, a late addition to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 27,000-strong teaching corps. Despite having almost no experience teaching young teen-agers, McEntyre is suddenly a full-fledged member of Olive Vista’s math faculty--one of the scores of “emergency” instructors thrown into city classrooms to fill in the gaps left by retirees and other departed teachers.

“I have absolutely no expectations,” McEntyre said as he waited somewhat nervously for the first wave of students to file into his classroom on a recent Monday. “A lot of prayers, but no expectations.”

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His appointment earlier this month to the Olive Vista staff came not a moment too soon for both him and the school system.

For the district, it meant one fewer among the 674 teaching posts that were vacant when the fall semester opened Sept. 7. The system was left with the largest total of vacancies in a decade after an unusually large number of teachers walked away after two years of bitter labor strife that produced a cumulative slash in pay of 10%.

To fill the breach, officials have relied heavily on emergency-credentialed instructors, men and women with bachelor’s degrees who are hired on the strength of their performance on state and federal skills tests and on the premise that they will work toward a full teaching credential.

The program has proven a godsend for McEntyre, who is nearly at the end of his financial tether after being let go from Hughes and sinking nearly all his life’s savings--as well as money gained by mortgaging his longtime Simi Valley home--into the body shop he started with his son. The venture has lost money since it began.

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“We’re enough on the edge that if somebody came in and said to me, ‘Dave, pay me what you owe me,’ I’d have to go bankrupt,” McEntyre said in his plain-spoken but genial manner. His new salary of $26,637 a year is barely a third of what he pulled down as an electrical engineer, “but I wasn’t making anything for two years,” he said.

With the start of his new job at Olive Vista, he has found that every cent is hard-earned in the teaching business--at least in Room 6, where the slightly grimy, cream-colored walls were still bare of any of the posters, charts and examples of student work other teachers have used to personalize their classrooms.

The first hurdle for McEntyre was the confusion of taking attendance while he was still unfamiliar with the names of his 150 students amid the chaos of class shuffling that starts every school year.

Then there was the task of finding textbooks in decent condition--increasingly rare in a district strapped for funds. Many of McEntyre’s basic math and pre-algebra books, to be used by seventh- and eighth-graders, have unsightly scrawls on the inside covers, ripped-out pages or spines that barely hold up.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, has been how to deal with a roomful of hyperactive, hormone-driven teen-agers for whom attentive and well-behaved are merely vocabulary words. McEntyre had hoped to import some of the tricks of the trade he picked up as a onetime adult-school teacher, but his current classroom dynamics are more difficult.

As he tried to explain the concept of rounding numbers one morning, giggles punctured the silence. Whispers flew. Restless boys kicked the seats in front of them, while newly makeup-conscious girls passed compacts back and forth. Other youngsters sauntered in late, got up to sharpen pencils or even laid their heads on their desks.

“I need to bring another shirt,” McEntyre said after morning classes on his first Monday as a teacher, sweat seeping into his light-blue shirt from the effort of maintaining classroom discipline and from an attack of first-day nerves.

“Obviously, the math’s not challenging (to me). What’s challenging is the communication process,” said McEntyre, who has a master’s degree in engineering and says he once patented a calibration device for NASA.

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In his first few classes, the lecture flow was disjointed, as he interrupted himself often, doubled back over certain points or veered off briefly on tangents. As the day wore on, he refined the process and eventually reaped some of the rewards of teaching.

“The real payoff is seeing the light go on in someone’s head,” the bespectacled McEntyre said. “That’s a stroke of joy--a small miracle. You don’t see those often.”

He promised his students that he would make math “as interesting as I humanly, possibly can.”

But with his appointment so late in the game, McEntyre has been forced to craft lesson plans on the run, staying just one jump ahead of his charges. Indeed, he first laid his hands on the textbooks for his classes only a day before he started.

The same is true for many of his fellow emergency teachers hired within the last few weeks. Emergency-credentialed instructors make up about 6% of the district’s total teaching force, and about half of the new round of hires are emergency-credentialed, according to school officials.

“It’s a little bit more than we would like, simply because of the number of vacancies that occurred this year,” said Michael Acosta, administrator of employment operations for the district. From 500 to 550 positions still need to be filled, most of them math, science and bilingual teaching slots, he said.

Proponents of the controversial school choice initiative, the November measure that would give parents state-funded vouchers to help send their children to private or parochial schools, say the use of such emergency teachers points up the hypocrisy in the public education Establishment’s denunciation of the voucher proposal.

They say the criticism that the voucher measure would harm children by turning them over to unlicensed, untrained private school teachers rings hollow when districts such as Los Angeles use similarly uncredentialed instructors.

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“It’s two-faced,” said Kevin Teasley, executive director of the campaign for the initiative. “On one side,” they criticize private schools for not having credentialed teachers, “but at the same time the public schools are hiring . . . uncredentialed teachers. They may be working toward it, but they don’t have credentials.”

But teacher organizations, among the most outspoken opponents of the initiative, note that at 6% the proportion of emergency teachers is extremely small and that they are working toward a credential, which is not required of private school teachers.

“What we prefer, of course, is that all these teachers be credentialed,” California Teachers Assn. spokeswoman Tommye Hutton said. “We think people in the classroom ought to have training to teach children.”

Los Angeles teachers union officials contend that emergency instructors are often handicapped by lack of experience, often to the detriment of their students.

“They have to learn on the job, and that’s not necessarily good for the kids,” said Catherine Carey, spokeswoman for United Teachers-Los Angeles. “A lot of emergency-credentialed teachers come screaming from the classroom because they’re not prepared or they don’t know the types of students we’re dealing with nowadays.”

Such complications--problems with students and the hard feelings between teachers and the district management--do not worry McEntyre “in the least,” he said.

Indeed, like any seasoned teacher, he has already begun sizing up his students and assessing their abilities and attitudes. “Some of them are sharp,” he said after class one afternoon, “but they won’t necessarily be good students.”

His students have also been appraising their new teacher, who told them candidly on their first day together that he is new to the profession.

“I think he’ll be easier,” seventh-grader Monique Ledbetter, 12, confided as she labored on an assignment at her back-row desk. “He goes around the class and helps us.”

Olive Vista officials picked McEntyre because they felt that he would be able to establish a good rapport with students. Three other applicants included a biochemist, a Russian with excellent math credentials and a British subject with some experience.

“But Dave seemed to have a feeling about it, the kind of personality and human skills you need with middle school kids,” Principal Charles Baldwin said.

Some of those skills were on display last week, as he encouraged his students by pointing to himself as an example of someone who was able to succeed in math despite being “in the middle intelligence range.”

“I was a very average student when I was in school. I got a few A’s, some Bs, a few Cs and sometimes worse than that,” McEntyre told them.

“Our culture has sort of given math a bad rap. It’s made it look so hard that it appears that nobody short of Einstein can do it. But that’s not true,” he said. “It’s hanging in there, and the light will go on--I promise you that. But you gotta hang in there.”


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