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An actor joins a crop of new Phila. teachers

Second row from the back, wedged in the middle of the long Edison High auditorium row, with the black briefcase stuffed full of paperwork - yo, new teacher!

Second row from the back, wedged in the middle of the long Edison High auditorium row, with the black briefcase stuffed full of paperwork - yo, new teacher!

How are you feeling about the first day of school?

Tony Danza - actor, soon-to-be reality TV star, and newly minted Northeast High English teacher - didn't hesitate.

"Scared," he said yesterday.

Sept. 8 is city students' first day of school, and that's really hitting Danza, who wore a gray suit, white shirt, and no tie to the Philadelphia School District's new-teacher orientation, which continues today.

"It takes a certain amount of hubris that you think you might be able to do this," said Danza, 58. But, he said, "I'm determined."

Danza and 800 other new teachers - most of the Philadelphia School District's bumper crop of about 1,000 new educators - crowded into Edison's auditorium and spilled over into the cafeteria.

Come the first day of school, district officials say, they expect few or no teacher vacancies - a shift from previous years, when vacancies remained in the triple digits months into the term.

Of the 1,000, most are state-certified. Fifty-three teachers are applying for emergency certification. Danza is not certified, but will share the classroom with a veteran teacher. It is not known what teaching duties Danza will take on.

The newbies ranged from confident to jittery.

Somewhere in the middle were Jillian Vaccaro and Sarah Shields, brand-new graduates of St. Joseph's University, where they met as elementary and special education majors.

Vaccaro, 22, will teach kindergarten at Barry School in West Philadelphia. Shields, 21, will be a math special-education teacher at George Washington High in the Northeast.

They said they felt well prepared by district and union orientations, and were excited to get into their classrooms. But the unknowns are daunting, they said.

"I student-taught first grade, and now I'm in high school," said Shields, whose special-education certification allows her to teach at any level. "That was the job they had that day, and I wanted a job, so I took it."

Jeremy Park, who speaks Spanish and Mandarin, will teach Spanish at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in the Northeast, and help with the school's Chinese-speaking population. He is a new graduate of Pennsylvania State University who came to the district through the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program, which prepares those with college degrees in subjects other than education to become permanently-certified teachers.

His summer has been largely given over to preparation - Teaching Fellows orientation, workshops sponsored by the teachers' union, graduate school orientation, and, now, district basics.

Park, 25, said he is "excited more than anything." His parents are coming to Philadelphia this weekend to help him move into an apartment in Northern Liberties and to help set up his classroom.

Mom and Dad are proud of their son, but "they're nervous about the inner-city thing," Park acknowledged.

Carmen Butler, 54, has been a substitute teacher in the past, but this will be her first time with her own classroom. She'll teach dance at Austin Meehan Middle School in the Northeast, and yes, she's a bit nervous at the thought of an age group she has never really worked with.

"I know it's going to be a challenge," Butler said. "But I like the energy they bring."

For some teachers, this summer has also been an introduction to the city.

Luke Davis has a lot invested in Philadelphia. He left a job teaching fourth grade at Moorestown Friends School.

Davis, 34, hopes to be an administrator, and said he thinks teaching in the city will help him gain the experience to do that job well someday. At the moment, the seventh- through 12th-grade social studies-certified teacher has no assignment. Some Philadelphia teachers will start the year without classrooms, then fill positions that open up in the first weeks of school.

That has not deterred him.

"I'm looking for a change and a challenge," Davis said. "At Moorestown Friends, I learned to teach - the students are very academic there, with no behavior problems. But I really need classroom-management skills."

Wanda Graham, executive director of new-teacher support for the district, remembers vividly her first day teaching in Philadelphia, 28 years ago at Kinsey School in West Oak Lane.

She had beautiful, artistic bulletin boards and plans for how the day would unfold. Then her second graders thundered into the room and pulled things off the walls. She was devastated.

"I sat with my head down at one of the little tables at the end of the day," Graham said.

Eventually, she said, she got it: Have a plan, but be flexible. Respect what children have to say, no matter their ages.

"This is not for the faint-hearted," Graham said. "We can help, but for some people, this is not for them."

There will be lots of school-based support for the 1,000, but fewer new-teacher coaches than in the past - 25, down from 125.

"I hope that we find funds to increase our ranks," Graham said.

Back in the auditorium, Danza was paying close attention to keynote speaker Harry Wong, a teacher and author from California. He knows classroom management is paramount, Danza said.

And he's ready for his first day, said Danza, whose students are being cast from among the school's budding artists and actors.

"I've rehearsed it," said Danza of his first-day script. "I come from the school of preparing, anyway, as an actor."