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L.A. Unified Gains From Others’ Loss

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

The advantage to many of the transplants, however, is their years on the job, handling the class clowns, keeping restless students focused and dealing with concerned parents.

“There is nothing like experience,” said Chatsworth High Principal Dan Wyatt, who has received about 90 applications for four openings in the fall. “If we have a choice between two people very close in background, and one is a proven teacher, then we go with the proven teacher. I would rather go with a sure thing.”

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Laid-off teachers and others have been descending on L.A. Unified for several months, traveling up and down the state in some cases to interview for coveted openings. California teachers, who on average earn about $52,000 a year, can maintain their state pension plans by working in public schools anywhere in the state.

Other candidates are coming from other states and college credentialing programs. In past years, they would have had an easier time getting hired by more sought-after suburban districts with higher test scores and few year-round schools.

Some of the laid-off applicants could face a difficult transition to Los Angeles classrooms, which are far more crowded and contain more minority and low-income students than the campuses where they taught before.

“There may be some culture shock coming from the suburban or rural areas into the urban, multiculturally diverse climate of our city,” said John Perez, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles. “If they are good teachers and decent human beings, they will learn. But it’s going to take them a while.”

Still, principals throughout the district said they are delighted to review the larger hiring pool and are cherry-picking, going for the very best.

Allan Wiener, principal of Cleveland High School in Reseda, recently filled his one opening but is still getting four to five applications a day, mostly from credentialed teachers fresh out of college or those who have been laid off from other Southern California districts.

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Wiener hired Laura Winters, a fully credentialed 18-year math teaching veteran who worked last year at Simi Valley High.

“People like her also have a lot of training experience they can share with younger teachers, and mentor them,” Wiener said.

Winters said she took the Simi Valley job a year ago, after teaching for 17 years in L.A., because she had been offered a position teaching Advanced Placement French, as well as three second-year algebra classes, which are her favorite subjects. She liked the small suburban district and the fact that everyone knew everyone else.

But after the state budget crisis filtered down to Simi Valley, Winters quit rather than wait for the layoff notice she was certain she would receive. “I thought, ‘Gee, I have a mortgage to pay and all of that,’ ” she said.

Next year, she added, she will have security and be valued in a district with such a big need for teachers.

“I am looking forward to going back to Los Angeles,” she said.

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