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MONTCLAIR, New Jersey (Reuters) - When Scott Brooks got laid off by American Express in February he decided to turn his back on finance and revive a dream he gave up on many years ago -- to become a math teacher.
He happens to live in New Jersey, where state education authorities have long worried about a dearth of math teachers.
Last week he heard about a new program called "Traders to Teachers" being set up at Montclair State University to retrain people in the finance industry who have been laid off in the deepest crisis to hit Wall Street since the Great Depression.
"You get really comfortable with your career, and I was making six figures, and it was nice," Brooks said shortly after an interview at the university to determine his eligibility for the program, which starts classes in September.
"Sometimes the house has to be on fire before you leave its comfort and start on your journey. The credit card business and Wall Street overall is like that house on fire," he said.
Brooks, 39, has two children aged 8 and 10 and has been coaching soccer and baseball at local schools for several years -- an experience he says revived an interest in teaching that dates from his undergraduate studies in math and education.
The university's 101-year-old College of Education received 146 applications for 25 spots in the first round of the program, which offers three months intensive training followed by a job at a high school in January. The first year on the job includes close mentoring, and after two years probation they can become fully certified math teachers.
The United States has one of the worst high school dropout rates in the industrialized world and its students rank below those in other Western countries in reading and math scores.
Elected after a campaign that emphasized service and giving back to the community, U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to place greater value on education and raise standards.
New Jersey, which borders New York and is home to many Wall Street bankers, has obtained federal funding for $4,000 grants to cover tuition for the Traders to Teachers program.
To be eligible, candidates must have been laid off and have at least a bachelor's degree, though not necessarily in mathematics. There is also a math test, which is tough enough that only 69 of the applicants passed.
"It's a completely new pool of individuals," said Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the College of Education, adding that the average age of applicants is in the 40s. "Most of these people didn't major in mathematics, they majored in finance or accounting. They all had strong math background, then in their work they had to use math regularly."
Tony Malanga, a 46-year-old former asset-backed securities broker who was laid off by Natixis Capital Markets in February, said bankers' reputations had suffered due to public anger at the meltdown, but many on Wall Street had long harbored a desire to "give back socially."
"I don't view myself as being ... a traditional Wall Street demon," he said. "I don't belong to a country club. I drive a Honda pickup truck. I go to church on Sunday."
With six children aged 4 to 16 who are accustomed to a lifestyle based on an income many times that of a teacher, Malanga, who lives in Verona, New Jersey, said he knew there would be sacrifices and they may have to dip into savings.
"We're in a situation where we can satisfy all of my family's needs. Whether we can satisfy all of my family's wants is another thing," he said. "Hopefully the quality of life and job satisfaction will make up for that."
Cutler said schools that hire them may give credit for work experience outside teaching. "What they can expect is to earn between $45,000 and probably $60,000 (at first)," she said.
Good healthcare benefits and a defined benefit pension scheme make the package more attractive, Cutler added.
The "Traders to Teachers" program has funding to cover four intakes, or a total of 100 students over the next 18 months, with applications for the next class opening in the summer.
"If we're successful ... we could change in a very significant way the quality of math instruction in the state of New Jersey," said university President Susan Cole, noting that many schools rely on substitute teachers because there are not enough certified math teachers to fill the positions.
Malanga said the hours may be better than on Wall Street but "I have a healthy respect for how hard it's going to be."
"I don't know what's going through other people's minds -- these are all people who have been very successful and are very confident in their own abilities," he said. "I wonder if they really understand how difficult this is going to be."
Editing by Cynthia Osterman