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ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : End of a Class Act? : Crisis Puts Program Supporting New Teachers on Hold

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An acclaimed program that trains nearly 200 beginning teachers in Orange County faces cancellation because its state funding is trapped in the county’s frozen investment pool, officials said.

The Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program helps young teachers survive their tough first and second years by providing mentors, seminars on improving teaching and tools for making their classrooms more stimulating.

“Every day in teaching is great, but some days can be more difficult than others,” said Rick Blazer, a first-year, fourth-grade teacher at Springbrook Elementary School in Irvine. “It’s great to have somebody there to talk to. This financial situation trickles down, and not only do the teachers suffer, but the kids do too.”

UC Irvine administers its $398,000 program with six local school districts, and Cal State Fullerton runs its $90,000 project with teachers in two districts.

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The statute that created the program, introduced by then-state Sen. Marian Bergeson, dictated that universities entrust the grants to one of their participating school districts.

Cal State Fullerton’s grant went to the La Habra City School District, and UCI’s went to the Irvine Unified School District. The districts, in turn, invested the funds in the county’s investment pool, in accordance with state law.

The money--like that of other investors--is now tied up because the county declared bankruptcy. Educators are waiting to see if any of it will be freed up for the program.

“We can’t go forward, and at some point in time we’ll have to scuttle the program,” said Dennis Evans, assistant director of UCI’s education department.

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Evans said UCI’s nearly $400,000 grant “probably doesn’t mean much to people dealing with the total picture, but it means a lot to the teachers participating.”

In addition, UCI’s education department fronted $41,000 for the first phase of the program, expecting reimbursement from money that’s now on hold.

UCI and Cal State Fullerton participated in the programs by providing experienced educators who were scheduled to observe the classrooms of new instructors to evaluate their teaching.

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“It’s one of those things that has really helped teachers begin to feel at home,” said Pat Puleo, director of instructional services at the Fullerton School District. “It’s one in a pot of other grants we have to take a look at too. Everything is postponed.”

UCI’s educators worked with 120 teachers at Capistrano Valley, Irvine, Newport-Mesa, Saddleback Valley, Santa Ana and Tustin unified school districts. The Cal State Fullerton program involved about 75 teachers from La Habra and Fullerton school districts.

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Second-grade teacher Heather Biniasz, 24, is among the first-year crop. She spends long hours in Room 4 at Santiago Elementary School in Lake Forest, which is part of the Saddleback Valley district.

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Biniasz learned the latest trends in instruction when she got her teaching credential at Concordia University in Irvine, but some things can’t be taught in college. That’s where Holly Voigt, her program mentor and a second-grade teacher at Santiago, comes in.

Voigt tries to answer the overlooked mysteries of teaching--such as where to find scissors and envelopes, or how to balance time and have a life outside of work.

“Any question I have I go directly to Holly,” Biniasz said, giving Voigt, 40, a hug. “She’s my answer book.”

Voigt added: “When I was just starting, I didn’t have anybody (to rely on). That’s why this program’s so great.”

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The pair already have attended teaching seminars through the program, and were given a paid day away from work to discuss innovative ways to make course work more fun for students.

Biniasz was supposed to get three more paid days away from class to attend upcoming workshops. Now, all have been put on hold.

“Those days are like gold,” Biniasz lamented.

Teachers were to receive $300 stipends, and $100 to buy classroom materials that they often pay for from their own pockets. Mentor teachers were to receive $600.

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Blazer said he depends on his mentor, fourth-grade teacher, Robyn Beeson, every day. They teach next-door to each other, and sometimes chat by walkie-talkie.

“It would be sad to see this program go--all the great ideas you get when you go to meetings,” said Blazer, 30. “This is one of the few places that teachers become a community.”

Mike Lawrence, 24, a first-year English teacher at Costa Mesa High School, said he not only fears losing the program, he fears losing his teaching position. “We’re all worried we won’t get a job next year,” he said. “But we’re just trying to keep it out of our minds so we can do our jobs.”

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