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California Schools Chief Pays Visit To San Diego

Del Norte High School special education teacher Megan Gross and State Superin...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Del Norte High School special education teacher Megan Gross and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson talk with art students who are preparing for a school festival, June 1, 2017.

The California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson was in San Diego Thursday to draw attention to California's teacher shortage. Only about half of the teachers needed are entering the workforce each year.

He said the profession has gotten a bad rap.

"There were too many years of teacher bashing and not enough teacher praising, and so one of the other purposes of this visit is to put a spotlight on the positive things going on in California public schools," Torlakson said.

He got a tour of Del Norte High School in Black Mountain Ranch from Megan Gross. The special education teacher was a national finalist for Teacher of the Year.

RELATED: Hear Megan Gross discuss special education on KPBS Midday Edition

All of her students are on the autism spectrum — one introduced himself to Torlakson through an electronic tablet — but are integrated into mainstream classes. Torlakson observed them alongside their typical peers in band, art and media classes. He said he wants young people to see the doors teachers like Gross can open for their students, and hopefully be inspired to pursue a career in teaching.

Photo by Megan Burks

A Del Norte High School student introduces himself to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, June 1, 2017.

However, getting the word out is made harder by news of school layoffs. Districts are dealing with increasing pension bills, forcing some to shift existing staff into the classroom and lay off many of those who remain.

Torlakson said a strong economy would help districts pay their bills. He added voter-approved propositions and bonds show Californians recognize the funding need.

Last year they approved Proposition 51 to earmark $9 billion for school infrastructure, and Proposition 55 to extend a 2012 income tax increase to benefit schools. Torlakson said 95 percent of local school bonds also passed.

When asked how to help young teachers in low-income neighborhoods — they are more likely than their peers in more well-off areas to leave the profession — Torlakson drew on his own experience teaching in a Title I school.

"I found it very rewarding that I could help those students, lift them up even more than I could other students because they were so far behind and needed help coming forward," he said. "I think we provide good equipment, safety on those school campuses, the chance for those teachers to have professional development and extra funds to do extra hands-on projects with the students."

RELATED: San Diego Teachers: What Makes Them Stay?

The state recently shifted its funding model to direct more dollars to high-need schools. A bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, to increase transparency on how much the schools receive passed the assembly Tuesday. Reports have shown the neediest schools are not always receiving all that they are due.

This week the assembly also passed a bill to help school districts build housing for their teachers. The cost of living in California, coupled with low pay, is one reason fewer and fewer people are pursuing teaching. And lawmakers are considering a bill that would reduce the income tax teachers owe and help cover the cost of their credentials.

Torlakson also visited another Teacher of the Year finalist, Jenny Anderson at the Casita Center for Technology, Science and Math, a magnet school in Vista, and San Ysidro School District leaders. He’s expected to attend a childhood obesity conference in San Diego Friday.

The California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson was in San Diego Thursday to draw attention to California's teacher shortage.

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