CSULB Media Relations Director
When Cherrell Harris was laid off after more than seven years of employment with the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), it was both surprising and heartbreaking.
“I knew layoffs were coming, but I never considered it really happening to me,” Harris said. “It greatly affected my self-confidence, knowing that I had dedicated countless hours, including personal time, within the district. Then, to be cut was damaging to my current life and what the future would hold.”
But the former 4th/5th-grade combo teacher from Hudson K-8 School isn’t sitting around at home wallowing in self-pity. She is back in school adding to her résumé, educational background and marketability as a teacher. The best part– it’s not costing her a penny.
Harris is one of 11 laid-off LBUSD teachers enrolled in a new accelerated special-education credential program at Cal State Long Beach (CSULB). The one-year program was made possible by a $140,000 National Emergency Grant to California, which is being administered by the Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network (PGWIN) and covers all tuition, fees and textbook costs (about $12,770 per student) for the students.
The purpose of the grant monies is to fund the workforce development of dislocated workers, and the CSULB special-education program is intended to do just that– preparing the laid-off elementary and secondary school teachers for re-employment in teaching positions for which there is a greater demand.
“When you think about the high-need areas where there is a shortage of teachers, you think math, science and special education,” said Shireen Pavri, associate dean for graduate studies and research for the CSULB College of Education and a professor of special education. She is also the principal investigator for this grant project. “Even in districts that are not currently hiring, there is usually some hiring in these three areas.”
Many of these types of programs for laid-off teachers began with a focus on math and science. In fact, CSULB offers single-subject credentials in foundational-level mathematics and general science for LBUSD teachers laid off last year through its College of Continuing and Professional Education with 30 students in each math and science cohort. Again, PGWIN is administering the funding so that the courses were offered at no cost to the unemployed educators.
A collaborative effort between CSULB’s College of Education, the CSULB Research Foundation, LBUSD and PGWIN, the accelerated special education program began classes in late August and will conclude in May with the students having earned the additional credential.
Work on the program actually began last spring when program organizers worked with the personnel department at LBUSD and obtained a list of all of the teachers laid off during the 2009-10 or 2010-11 academic years. The district mailed these teachers a flyer and survey to gauge their interest in a special-ed credential program. Everyone who returned the survey was invited to an informational meeting, and about 25 showed up to that initial meeting.
“Those who attended the initial meeting obviously were overwhelmed, and I would say there was a sense of concern and urgency for their employment future,” said Kristin Stout, a full-time lecturer for CSULB’s education-specialist credential program and one of the instructors for the accelerated program. “But, I think that the students stood out as an amazing group in that they asked where else they could turn their passion. They looked into another field of teaching.”
Stout can relate to the former teachers’ feelings of concern for employment and being overwhelmed in the credential offerings. In the 1990s, she was a general-education teacher in Orange County, and she was laid off from her job. She, too, went back to school, choosing CSULB, and earned her special-education credential.
“I have walked in their shoes. I definitely feel like I can relate to their experiences as a teacher and hope they can relate to me,” Stout said. “It is inspiring to see a whole new group of professionals come through this program who have the same passion and desire for teaching all students as I do.”
And it’s a passion and desire they will need for the program, she added. “Special education is a very difficult field, and this isn’t a simple add-on of a few courses. We are not cutting out any of the expectations for students who are coming in through this cohort versus students who are coming in through a traditional program. It’s a pretty intense pace.”
In fact, going into the program, Stout said she was wondering if the students were going to feel “entitled” to just get a tack-on to their existing credential.
“That is not the experience that I am having with this amazing cohort. What I am seeing is a group of students who take the class discussion to an elevated level, asking for more background, experiences and insights into the field,” she pointed out. “I find this to be a very expressive and talkative group. They are into the content, and they are prepared. So, overall, I am really impressed with the caliber of students that we have in this cohort.”
The students meet Mondays and Tuesdays and are taking three courses this semester. Stout is teaching one of the courses and is serving as their advisor. The program originally started out with 16 students, but a handful of them were able to find teaching jobs before the start of the academic year.
The one-year program includes seven classes in all– five regular courses and two student teaching opportunities. It is an accelerated program, and students receive credit for having previously taught as elementary- or secondary-school teachers. Once they complete the program, they will have a California Teaching Commission credential for special education focused on students with mild to moderate disabilities.
“This program is a wonderful opportunity for these teachers to build their skills and to teach all students. They will be prepared to teach a wider group of students, and not necessarily just students with special needs,” Pavri said. “I also think this is another outstanding example of the great partnership we have with the Long Beach Unified School District. When the district has a need, we step in and work closely with them on multiple levels to help meet that need. Our hope is that these teachers will get rehired, either in special education or general ed, as positions open up in the district.”
For Harris, who was laid off after seven years, special education has always been an interest of hers. In fact, her first position with LBUSD was as an inclusion college aide working with students who had learning disabilities. Later, she was persuaded to teach in the multiple-subject area.
“From the program, I’m hoping to gain knowledge that I can use within any classroom. I think this program also will strengthen my teaching techniques and outlook on education as a whole,” Harris said. “I am very grateful that I chose teaching because I feel that I have impacted many lives. I really cannot think of another career I would have gone into.
“Yet, there is a sense of urgency regarding future employment,” she continued. “We are all unsure when or if things will turn around for the better.”