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Calif. Protests Highlight Teachers’ Frustrations

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(credit: Getty Images)

(credit: Getty Images)

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 SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Teaching was a calling for Jennifer Teguia. She says the long hours she spends grading papers, writing exams and calling parents are worth it to help young minds thrive.

But as she has seen her 9th and 10th grade English classes balloon from 20 students to 36 or 38, she and her colleagues at John F. Kennedy High School in the eastern San Francisco Bay area city of Fremont are getting burned out.

“This year has been by far the most difficult year in my career, including the first couple of years where you don’t even know what’s going on and you don’t know the system,” said Teguia, 34, a teacher for 11 years.

“I rarely get any time that I’m not working. I think the first day, including weekends, that I didn’t work was in November. … My parents have helped me score, my husband has helped me score papers. Everybody is trying to help out, and I’m still barely able to still have time to sleep,” she said. “The workload is unbelievable.”

Teguia was among the hundreds of teachers who converged on the state Capitol this week to press lawmakers for more education funding as schools face the prospect of billions of dollars in cuts to balance California’s budget.

Amid frustrations over past and potential budget cuts, another reality has been emerging for many of those in the profession: Teaching has never seemed less appealing.

Prospective candidates are proving it: Enrollment has plunged at teacher colleges in California at a time when the state says it needs more highly qualified educators in the classroom and a wave of baby boomer teachers is getting ready to retire.

Teachers face increasing expectations from the state to boost student performance and must deal with a growing population of non-English speaking students, yet classrooms are being hit hard by the state’s ongoing fiscal woes. The budget turmoil of recent years has led to larger class sizes, furloughs, program cuts and the annual threat of thousands of layoffs.

“I think that we can conclude from the drop in the numbers of individuals who are going into teaching that it is, in fact, less attractive. They see the stories in the newspaper about the high numbers of teachers, especially new ones, in the profession that are being laid off,” said Margaret Gaston, executive director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit that studies the teacher workforce.

“The state of California lately has not done very much, if anything at all, to encourage these bright and capable young people into going into the teaching profession.”

The center praised state leaders in its annual report last December for engaging in a robust public debate about how to boost teacher performance and match the most qualified teachers with students. But it added that the state “essentially has little capacity to do what is required to build a teaching force able to meet the high professional standards set for them.”

“Instead, California’s fiscal crisis has so severely damaged the pipeline for recruiting and training new teachers, and for supporting existing teachers, that the quality of the teacher workforce is likely to be at risk for many years to come,” the report said.

The state Department of Education says 30,000 teachers and 10,000 teacher aides, clerks and other support staff have been laid off over the past three years. Education spending has declined 9 percent during that period, while school enrollment has fallen by just 1 percent.

The 300,000 teachers who remain are coping with more students in each classroom, more responsibilities, less preparation time, and often, lower pay because of furlough days.

The National Center for Education Statistics, which compiles education data for the federal government, ranks California 47th in the nation in the number of students per classroom teacher as of 2010.

On top of that, California has among the most rigorous academic standards in the nation but is scaling back on professional development programs that help teachers improve their skills.

Budget cuts also have forced many schools to cut support staff such as counselors and nurses, and eliminate or reduce art, music and physical education programs, which produce well-rounded students and help hold their interest throughout the day.

Enrollment is expected to grow in the next few years beyond the 6.2 million students who are in kindergarten through 12th grade public schools today. About 1.5 million students are classified by the state Department of Education as English-learners who require additional instruction to gain proficiency. Only about half of California students score as proficient or better on standardized English language arts and math exams.

The teachers gathering at the Capitol this week are petitioning lawmakers to extend recent increases to the personal income, sales and vehicle taxes for five years as a way to help the state close its remaining $15.4 billion budget gap. If those taxes are not renewed, Democrats warn of devastating cuts throughout state government, including education.

School spending accounts for more than 40 percent of the state’s general fund, but total spending has fallen from $71.1 billion in the 2007-2008 fiscal year to about $64.4 billion this year. The figures include federal spending, which will fall further next school year when the government’s stimulus program ends.

Beverly Gonzalez, 53, one of California’s five 2011 teachers of the year, said teachers are “the silent funders of education.” She has bought copy paper, pencils and even playground balls for her students to use at recess.

“We’re asked to do everything. We’re asked to solve every problem — obesity and English-language learning and reaching the state standards — and we do it. We work so hard,” said Gonzalez, an 18-year teacher who teaches fourth and fifth graders at Santa Fe School in Baldwin Park, near Los Angeles. “I tutor for free five hours a week so that my students have what they need. I don’t ask for any money for that. … It is my pleasure to be able to do that, but at some point it becomes a choice of paying bills or funding the schools.”

The average annual starting salary for a California teacher is $40,000, with the average maximum at $80,000 for the most experienced teachers.

Yet many teachers say they feel unappreciated and are scapegoated for poor academic performance that likely has its roots in many areas of society.

That has hit home every spring the past few years as school districts throughout the state have had to issue pink slips amid the state’s continued fiscal problems and chronically late budgets. While most teachers are eventually rehired, thousands have lost their jobs.

This year, an estimated 20,000 teachers and other school staff have been issued pink slips and could be laid off in September.

Pat Kaplan, a fourth grade teacher at Bridges Academy in Oakland, said the wait and uncertainty can be agonizing. The process, she said, is taking an emotional toll on many of her colleagues.

“They gave layoff notices to six of our teachers. It’s very traumatic for the whole school — the parents, the children,” she said. “And then they rescinded those layoffs, but it’s still very traumatic and difficult.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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