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Sunday, October 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Booming Vegas searches far and wide for teachers

Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS — Retired as a management consultant and eager to launch a new career, Paul DeBruyne got certified as a teacher last year but could not find an opening anywhere near his hometown of Reading, Pa.

So at age 61, the affable, silver-haired DeBruyne has just moved to Las Vegas, where he is teaching English to sixth-graders at a school so new that hundreds of boxes of books and band instruments were still sealed on opening day. "Sure, I would have liked to stay home," he said, "but the opportunity was here."

Dominic Bailey, 47, was watching a Pistons playoff game on television in his Detroit home last spring when a recruiter from Las Vegas called. Facing a layoff notice in a city school district with a declining enrollment, Bailey, a retired Air Force veteran, said yes to a job teaching language arts to fifth-graders.

Bailey is also working at a new school, Liliam Lujan Hickey Elementary, set on a ridge at the northeast tip of Las Vegas, where the desert gives way to a chocolate-brown ridge of mountains.

And Albert Cabreira, 37, was 7,000 miles from Las Vegas — in Manila, Philippines — when the recruiter came knocking in February. Making a painful but financially rewarding decision, with his pregnant wife staying behind, Cabreira flew to Las Vegas and reported for duty in the special-education department at Paradise Elementary School.

All three teachers were enticed through a massive recruiting drive by Las Vegas' Clark County School District, the nation's fifth-largest with 300,000 students and one of its fastest-growing.

With 12 new schools opening this year — and at least 138 more needed in coming years for a student population expected to mushroom to at least 528,000 by 2018 — Las Vegas has put the word out with advertisements across the United States and in several other countries: teachers wanted.

"It's getting to where the principals don't interview the teachers, the teachers interview the principals," joked Hickey Principal David Harcourt, who has made three recruiting trips to his native Midwest in the past year. "The competition is fierce."

Facing acute shortages in math, science and bilingual and special education, Las Vegas hired 51 teachers this year from the Philippines and 14 from Spain, officials say.

That total may rise because of Hurricane Katrina, said Walt Rulffes, district co-superintendent. The district has fielded dozens of inquiries from casino workers at devastated Gulf Coast resorts who intend to look for work in Las Vegas and wanted to know about schools for their children.

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Reflecting the Las Vegas area's huge economic boom, the district's student population has more than doubled in a decade, and so much growth is projected that still-rising housing complexes surround some schools on the city's ever-expanding frontiers.

Hickey Elementary and William H. "Bob" Bailey Middle School are next door to a huge, dusty quarry, into which trucks rumble throughout the day, departing with loads of crushed rock for yet another construction project.

The schools opening this year, as well as dozens under construction, are all part of a $3.5 billion bond issue passed by voters in 1998 and intended to put 88 new schools in place by 2008. A new, even-larger bond package is likely to be put to voters then, and even now, officials worry about where to put future schools.

"It's become increasingly difficult to find places with the proper size and other characteristics," said Frederick Smith, director of construction management for the district.

But the more-immediate task is finding teachers and convincing them that Las Vegas home prices are affordable on salaries that start at about $30,000.

Another problem is that even if teachers are willing to move from districts with declining enrollment, mainly in the Midwest and Northeast, they could lose pension benefits if they leave a longtime position to start over in Las Vegas.

At Bailey Middle School, Principal Karen Stansfield-Paquette said recruiting was a huge part of her job. Just in the past year, she said, she has hired teachers from California, Hawaii, Washington state, New Mexico, Wyoming, Ohio, Illinois, New York, Florida, Louisiana and even Saudi Arabia (an American who taught at an international school there).

She moved to Las Vegas 18 years ago from San Jose, Calif., and was pleasantly surprised.

"I was a single mom with three young kids, and I thought it was going to be a really strange place to be. I thought maybe there'd be showgirls walking up and down the street at all hours of the day," she said.

"But what you find here," Stansfield-Paquette continued, is "actually a very strong middle-class community, a very strong spiritual community — and in many ways it actually has a small-town feel."

Bailey is a school roughly evenly divided among white, Latino and black students, and Stansfield-Paquette said she was proud that the teaching force roughly matched the student body's diversity.

On a recent school day at Bailey, as a school mariachi band practiced in one room and a music teacher opened boxes of violins, violas and cellos in another, DeBruyne was talking to his students about how literature could help them find their place in life.

It was not lost on him that he, too, was finding his way in a new place, while his wife was back in Pennsylvania, settling various domestic matters — including selling a house — before joining him in Las Vegas.

"There's a lot to be done, closing up a life of 25, 30 years there," DeBruyne said as his third day of teaching in Las Vegas drew to a close. "These kids keep me young. The way we're trying to look at it, it's a whole new adventure out here."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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