Laid-off teachers get new 'degrees' in computer field

They were not ordinary graduates. Not only was there a dearth of mortar boards and gowns among the 34 individuals clustered on the stage of the vocational high school in this Boston suburb. But the "graduates" already held teaching degrees and had taught in public schools around the state. They shared one other characteristic: They all had lost teaching jobs as a result of a statewide tax-slashing measure.

Now, however, they are being given a new career opportunity under a unique program that retrains former teachers as computer programmers. Already, the program is being eyed for duplication in other states.

The federally-funded project is sponsored by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the state Department of Occupational Education, and the Massachusetts High Tech Council. Its goal is not only to retrain teachers but also to help fill the wide employment gap at many of the flourishing computer companies in the greater Boston area.

The program may be coming just in time. The MTA currently estimates that for the coming school year 10,000 to 12,000 teachers statewide will be laid off, largely as a result of the voter-enacted Proposition 2 1/2. The project currently is the only of its kind. And unlike similar training courses offered by computer manufacturers -- all at significant cost to the trainee -- it is free to participants.

It is also not yet a year old -- having graduated its first class last December and the second group this June. But pending review, the program is due to be replicated at four other sites in Massachusetts as early as July. The new projects are slated to open to all personnel affected by state budget cuts. Currently there is a waiting list of 400 applicants for the Framingham project alone.

The course, which requires an initial aptitude test to determine eligibility, lasts 23 weeks. A typical day is divided into approximately three hours of lecture and three hours of lab time at the terminal. Three textbooks are used and 17 terminals are available to the students.

Instructor Jim Wisdom, a former teacher in the Cambridge, Mass., school system, is enthusiastic about the program. "These are thinking people," he says , adding that the competition for the program is high and the teachers' "motivation factor" correspondingly good.

Former math teacher and program participant Joanne Skowronski agrees."I'll miss teaching," she says but adds, "I'm glad to be out of it. I feel much more challenged as a computer programmer than as a teacher."

Not everyone need be a former math or science teacher to succeed at the program. According to State Education Commissioner Gregory R. Anrig, the elementary-school teachers scored the highest on the aptitude test.

Steve Hedrick taught eigth-grade social studies for two years in Wellesley before he was laid off. He interviewed for a new position for nearly eight months before being accepted into the training program in January. Echoing the sentiments of many of his classmates, Steve is glad to at last "have control over my future," and "would start work tomorrow."

When questioned as to the ease of securing employment with his newly acquired profession, he says, "If you can't find a job here, you can't find one anywhere."

So far the program has a good track record for placing its "graduates." All the members of the first class found jobs in the area within a few months of graduation. Their new salaries averaged from $18,000 to $20,000 -- several thousand dollars more than what many of them previously earned.

About half of the first class found their jobs with companies such as PRIME Computer, Wang Industries, and DATA Incorporated. The rest located with regular business firms.

According to Paul Bento, counselor and workshop coordinator for the project, the best opportunity for job placement will be in regular business firms. This is because the teachers are trained to be entry-level programmers, a position more readily employable by such companies than by computer manufacturers. Moreover, the computer "language" taught in the program is COBOL (computer business oriented language), which is most often used by business.

There is a momentary lull in the computer job market. But most agree with Brenda Keene of DATA Institute that overall, the job outlook is "fabulous." William Lewis of Wang Industries, a computer company that currently is reviewing 12 of the project's participants, says that the two people hired from the December graduating class, "worked out fantastic ."

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