Last June, Kimberly Merritt held a dream job as co-coordinator and teacher of a college prep academy that so successfully prepared its inner-city, mostly minority students from Hawthorne, Lennox and Lawndale that they landed spots in some of the nation's most prestigious colleges.
"We take away that stereotype, and we tell them that they are better than that," says Merritt, a six-year employee of the Centinela Valley Unified High School District. She was instrumental in reviving a defunct Marine Science Academy program at Lawndale High School when she arrived at the district.
From the outside, everything about Lawndale High's program looked rosy after that. The Marine Science Academy could point to two of its students, Adrian Castro and Kenny Hoang, being named in 2010 as Gates Millennium Scholars. Their photo was even proudly published in the district newsletter.
Hoang went on to attend UC Berkeley, while Castro went on to attend Williams College in Massachusetts, rated the top liberal arts college in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. Castro gushes with praise for science academy teacher Julie Ichiroku: "People constantly said Ichiroku's seminar courses were AP level. It was so hard, so intense and so full of work."
The program's students and teachers were elated when the Marine Science Academy sent student Erik Tamayo to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology three years ago, and when Melissa Bejarano became the first student in the program to be named a Gates Millennium Scholar two years ago.
"This program has succeeded in empowering young adults to reach for higher education, proving statistics about our district wrong," writes Bejarano, now a sophomore at Amherst University, by email. "I can honestly say I saw the growth in my classmates and in myself change drastically as we drew a close to our four years."
But now, the Marine Science Academy is described by students as a shadow of its former self, and bitterness has taken hold.
A labor grievance filed by the South Bay Union of Teachers is moving toward arbitration, with the union accusing the district of violating the teachers' collective bargaining agreement by undertaking a round of punitive June 2010 teacher transfers. The program's teacher-coordinators and a staff member were among those transferred.
Students and teachers say that Merritt and the other teacher-coordinator, Tali Sherman, along with Ichiroku, were vindictively transferred away from Lawndale High School last year after involving parents in their fight to challenge the district's 2009 decision substantially cutting back the school's marine science curriculum.
Sandra Goins, executive director of South Bay Union of Teachers, which represents teachers at Lawndale High, says the attitude of Centinela Valley Unified administrators was: "If [teachers] ask questions, or if you veer from what I tell you to do, or if I think you do — if the teachers go against [the district], the district will go out to publicly humiliate you. They will try to get you in as much trouble as they can."
Centinela Valley school district officials, led by Superintendent Jose Fernandez, refuse to comment on what went wrong in the once-vaunted marine sciences program. They responded only to formal requests from the Weekly under the California Public Records Act for public documents such as office emails, which they are required to provide.
But teachers and students say things went sideways long before last June, the month that district officials abruptly ordered the involuntary transfers of Merritt, Ichiroku, Sherman and one other staffer who made up the core of the marine science program staff.
Sitting in a small coffee shop, Merritt stares into the distance when asked what led up to June 16, the day, she says, she was approached without warning in her classroom by the principal and informed, as were Ichiroku and Sherman in their own classrooms, that she was being transferred away.
Such involuntary transfers are a form of discipline, typically used against incompetent or problem classroom teachers who, under California laws that have long been shaped by teachers' unions, are all but impossible to fire.
"I try not to think about it, because it makes me so sad," Merritt says. "I wish I had a better word than 'sad.' "
Merritt and Ichiroku knew in early 2009 that their program was facing serious problems with the upper administration, but they never expected to be treated like incompetent or problem teachers. After all, some 90 percent of their 125 students were accepted into four-year universities in 2009.
Merritt, Ichiroku, Sherman and several other employees of the school district, which serves a largely Latino, low-income community, claim that the three educators, known among their students as "the Trio," were pushed out because they challenged the school district's administrators too many times.
Things came to a head after district officials canceled several key science classes, and Sherman and Merritt reacted by informing parents they had no choice but to cancel the entire program, setting off an uproar.