By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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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.
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.