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On the Backs of Children 

How UTLA's teacher-layoff rules are devastating inner-city L.A. schools

Thursday, May 13 2010
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Two years ago, when Principal Tim Sullivan, who saw educating inner-city children as his life's work, walked onto the Markham Middle School campus in Watts for the first time, it seemed like a "movie set," where Denzel Washington, star of Training Day, might suddenly appear. That's how much chaos Sullivan saw inside the school and on its nearby streets.

But the former college track star with limitless energy, who sees his sometimes-three-hour daily commute as a small sacrifice, fell in love with the kids and the community, and set about creating a high-performing inner-city school.

Adorning his office with a Muhammad Ali poster that bears the message "Impossible is Nothing," Sullivan dreamed that long-failing Markham could be turned around and serve as a model for national reform.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Fresh talent: Markham Principal Tim Sullivan (left) and former Teach for America teacher Nick Melvoin
  • PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
  • Fresh talent: Markham Principal Tim Sullivan (left) and former Teach for America teacher Nick Melvoin

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Now all of that is in jeopardy. Five thousand students who attend three of inner-city L.A.'s toughest middle schools — Markham and Gompers in Watts, and Liechty Middle School in Westlake, near MacArthur Park — face a second year with classes haphazardly overseen by roving substitute teachers, many of whom watch the clock while students fall further behind in science, math, English and history.

Pink-slip chaos is hitting hardest in L.A.'s inner-city schools, and far less so in more affluent areas, such as the Westside and West Valley, where layoffs have been minimal.

Under two longtime job-protection rules won by United Teachers Los Angeles, veteran teachers get to choose where they work — the school principal has little real control — and in addition, these older teachers are protected by a "last-hired, first-fired" rule.

The dual rules protect employees, not students. The dirty secret is that many veteran teachers prefer to work in nicer areas with less crime and more attractive surroundings, where students are better-behaved and better-educated. They choose West L.A., for example, or Woodland Hills, not Watts. When teacher layoffs come, L.A.'s middle-class schools are protected, while schools like Markham, with its many young teachers, are devastated. The ACLU says that's unconstitutional. Sullivan agrees.

Last fall, working-class Markham — a school controlled by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Schools reform group — lost 50 percent of its credentialed teachers, some of whom were rehired as long-term substitutes. Liechty, filled with mostly poor Latino kids, lost a staggering 72 percent.

But in nicer areas of LAUSD, with well-protected veteran teachers, just 10 percent or fewer were laid off.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Public Counsel and Morrison & Foerster LLP sued LAUSD, asking Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger to halt a second wave of layoffs at Markham, Gompers and Liechty this fall while a solution is worked out. On May 12, Highberger granted a preliminary injunction protecting from layoffs 70 recently hired teachers at the three schools.

"I blame the system and the structure for refusing to look at other solutions," Sullivan says. "The district office and the union need to sit down and talk about alternative solutions that are in the best interest of the kids. Until they do, they are the problem."

ACLU chief counsel Mark Rosenbaum says, "If you wanted to take apart these schools and the reform efforts, and to tell the students they don't matter, this is the process you would use."

Superintendent Ramon Cortines largely agrees with ACLU's efforts. The cautious Cortines, seen as a caretaker rather than a reformer, uses a standard teachers' union line that "teachers need protection from capricious superintendents," but adds, "there also needs to be some flexibility, where principals can hire and retain the people they think are the most qualified."

Cortines feels a settlement can be reached if UTLA makes limited concessions. "[Union leaders] say they're reform-minded and want to help struggling schools. In conversations with them, they've told me that," Cortines says.

And UTLA President A.J. Duffy, in a statement, says, "UTLA's general counsel is in conversation with the ACLU attorneys, exploring ways to resolve this situation, which would be good for students and fair for teachers."

But is that really possible? Duffy and teachers' unions statewide have staunchly defended the teacher-seniority rules enshrined in California law. This year, they fiercely fought Senate Bill 955, backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was designed to give schools latitude to retain some newer teachers targeted by the "last-hired" rule.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the most powerful legislator in the California Senate, yanked SB 955 amid teachers' union opposition, and is instead meeting with the various stakeholders.

Duffy has tried to move the subject away from teachers' union seniority rules — a stance that suggests any compromise Duffy might make could be minimal.

"It is unfortunate that the governor and his allies continue to choose to distract the public from the real question, which is, 'Why won't the governor and Legislature adequately fund public schools?' " Duffy asks.

The kids at Markham know an adult battle is raging — at their expense. Lead plaintiff Sharail Reed, an intense eighth-grader at Markham, flashes a sparkling grin. At 13, she dreams of attending Spelman College in Atlanta to become a lawyer or psychiatrist. She endured nine substitute teachers in her U.S. history class before a permanent teacher appeared.

"It was a waste of time, like lunch in a classroom," Reed says, clutching a cell phone and a book bag covered in purple hearts. The sub had so little control that students littered on the floor and "would write graffiti on the board."

She says substitutes were "babysitting" instead of teaching, which caused students to slip behind. Despite help from the permanent teacher finally brought in, Reed herself hasn't caught up on the material she missed. Yet she faces a standardized test this month.

"Most kids have trouble at home, and they come here to get away from it," Reed says of Markham. "They come for stability, and they get all these subs. It's unfair. And we're the future."

She said Principal Sullivan held the school together with humor and commitment. "Without him, it would be chaos." Yet this fall, even Sullivan is on the chopping block.

Another plaintiff, eighth-grader Liliane Rodriguez, was getting an F in history — as 10 substitutes paraded through her history class last fall.

This month she was named "most improved student" and got a B in history, after getting a "real" teacher. A petite girl with fingernails each painted a different color, who hopes to attend UCLA to be a pediatric nurse, Rodriguez says the LAUSD substitutes repeated the same lessons, then kicked her out when she complained.

In March, shortly after the ACLU filed its lawsuit, 34 of Markham's 70 teachers and long-term subs were notified that they wouldn't be returning this fall. So were 26 of the 78 teachers at Gompers.

At Liechty, where 72 percent of returning teachers were laid off last year, with half later returning as subs, only 11 core-subject teachers are considered safe from layoffs this fall.

While Duffy talks of insufficient funding, LAUSD wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars training these new teachers — then forcing them out under the union's "last-hired" rule. Sullivan estimates his school spent $1.5 million, including about $300,000 from the mayor's Partnership, on professional development and educational resources — only to see much of it disappear.

Marshall Tuck, the Partnership's CEO, says that if the judge upholds the layoffs, "Markham and Gompers will be forced to repeat the cycle of teacher vacancies, substitutes and stop-gap measures that have left these schools reeling."

Joan Sullivan, Villaraigosa's deputy mayor for education, says the mayor supports the ACLU lawsuit and is "interested in the question of how to gain greater flexibility, and local empowerment and control. ... He is also committed to in-district reform working with the union."

Nick Melvoin, 24, an enthusiastic teacher of English as a second language who came from Teach for America and who is deeply committed to the inner city, returned to Markham as a long-term sub this year. Then he got a permanent job. He's being laid off in June.

"A higher moral calling can only sustain a young teacher for so long," says Melvoin, his tidy classroom walls resplendent with students' work.

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