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Senior investigative story

This is the story I wrote for my investigative reporting class last semester. I couldn’t publish it though because my main source would only talk to me if it wasn’t published. However, luckily the district and UTLA settled for an agreement on furlough days, etc. so not all these layoffs happened. We find out what schools we’ll be working in in a week or so. I’d love to work in Watts to revisit the very streets where this story started.

Elementary school in Watts faces an unsettling reality: reform in the Los Angeles school district can only go so far

LOS ANGELES —

By Elizabeth Warden

118th Street Elementary School, a school in the heart of Watts, is in the middle of a neighborhood surrounded by one-story houses. Some have bright paint jobs, some look as if the houses came straight out of the 1960s and some are gated.

And just a short distance up 118th Street toward Avalon Boulevard and a left turn and then a right turn on 116th Street – a mere three minute drive or 20 minute walk – is 116th Street Elementary School. Both schools have similar demographics and academic data. Both are located in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Local District 7, which spans across South Los Angeles. Both only feed students into Samuel Gompers Middle School.

But one distinct difference separates these two schools in the coming years: 118th Street Elementary School received zero teacher reduction in force notices and 116th Street Elementary School received 11 RIF notices out of its 25 teachers, or 44 percent, for the 2011-2012 academic year, according to a document obtained through the school district.

One Hundred and Sixteenth Street Elementary School is number 15 on a district-wide list that was issued on Mar. 15, 2011, a measure taken by the school district to help alleviate its $408 million budget deficit. More than 7,000 teachers and staff in the district have received RIF notices based on seniority due to a collective bargaining agreement the district has with the union that represents teachers in Los Angeles.

One Hundred and Eighteenth Street Elementary School was shielded from RIF notices because of a recent settlement in the historic lawsuit Reed v. State of California, et al. that allowed the district to single out low performing schools that have been severely hit by layoff notices in the past.

“I’m seeing so many highly qualified, effective teachers that love teaching, and they’re still going out of the door,” said Kate Collins, a school district attorney.

“The irony of Reed is, ‘okay, we’re protecting these 45 schools, but we’re redirecting [RIF] notices now,” she said.

The terms of the settlement – Collins explained – allowed the district to select 25 schools that met three criteria: highest teacher turnover rate in the past three years, Academic Performance Index decile 1-3, a statewide academic improvement measurement and schools that are recently showing double digit API growth.

The next 20 schools the district picked “showed intense need,” Collins said. Ten of them met the three criteria in the settlement and the 10 others were newly opened schools or schools undergoing reconstruction, a process where a low performing school forces its teachers to reapply for their jobs.

“In the end, we felt good,” she said.

But some schools – like 116th Street Elementary School – just slipped through the cracks.

One Hundred and Sixteenth Street Elementary School, according to Collins, had a 16 percent turnover rate, as opposed to 118th Street Elementary School’s 23 percent and Gompers Middle School’s 30 percent three-year average turnover rates.

But 116th Street Elementary School’s API score is 755 and up a double-digit growth of 49 points from 2008-2009. This number is just three points ahead of 118th Street Elementary School’s score of 752, which is up 40 points from the last school year, according to 2009-2010 district data.

API is a measurement on a scale of 200 – 1,000 that focuses on how students score on California standard tests in English, science, math and social studies. The California State Board of Education placed the target for schools to meet at 800. Both elementary schools are nearing this target.

An inside source at 116th Street Elementary School, who wanted to stay anonymous because of fear of district retaliation and the already unstable environment the school will face next year, said that teachers and administrators at the school believed they could reach the 800 API mark by next year. But now, amid the vast amount of layoffs that could hit the school, it will have to focus on training new teachers – some that may have never taught at the elementary level before – instead of focus on improving student test scores.

This is not the only trouble 116th Street Elementary School will have. Most of the teachers that received RIF notices are veterans of the Transformational Models School Program, a program that was started in 1987 to give additional funding to the ten lowest achieving elementary schools in the district with a predominately African-American student population. The district added 116th Street and 118th Street elementary schools to this program in 1998.

The source said that teachers at 116th Street Elementary School have completed extra training through this program – before it consecutively began to lose funding over the years – to prepare themselves to work in an urban environment like Watts. However, some of these teachers received RIF notices, even though they have played a significant role in the school’s double-digit API growth in the past years.

At 116th Street Elementary School teachers and administrators are not angry that 118th Street Elementary School was protected under the Reed lawsuit. 118th Street Elementary School, according to the inside source, has a harder time keeping teachers around – or those that are effective, to say the least.

They are only confused about why there wasn’t an exception for them, considering the elementary school also feeds into Gompers Middle School, which is one of the schools that filed the Reed lawsuit in the first place.

The inside source doesn’t think it’s fair that 116th Street Elementary School is being punished because it has successfully been able to keep more of its teachers.

Administrators at 118th Elementary School could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Richard Vladovic, the Local District 7 Los Angeles Board of Education member, said he is pleased with the outcome of the Reed lawsuit in his local district because the “last-hired, first-fired” is not a policy that works in such schools that need stability the most, like those in Watts.

“However, the large impact of this round of RIFs made it impossible to protect all our schools from dramatic changes,” he wrote in a statement, mentioning that both 116th Street and 118th Street elementary schools differed in evaluation.

“I have 11 schools in Board District 7 that are exempt from RIF notices under the Reed settlement. I have 100 schools that are not.”

Teaching in urban areas is a challenge because teachers must also address the social and economic issues that pervade these schools like single-parent homes, foster children, violence and hunger.

“Sometimes [teachers in urban schools] face unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve with the student population … a number of issues teachers aren’t ready to handle,” said Bill Celis, a journalism professor at USC and an expert in K-12 education in the United States, who also mentioned that the pay in many school districts around the country does not correlate to how difficult the job is.
Ninety-two percent of students at 116th Street Elementary School and 95 percent at 118th Street Elementary School are economically disadvantaged, according to the district’s 2009-2010 school report card on the two schools.

With these factors, it’s sometimes hard for a teacher to stick around. This is the main issue that drove families from Samuel Gompers, Edwin Markham and John H. Liechty middle schools to work with the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Counsel and Morrison & Forester, LLP and file a lawsuit against the school district and state in the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

From the 2009-2010 layoff notices, for example, Gompers Middle School was hit disproportionately hard because many of the teachers are young and new to the job. A Los Angeles Times investigation, however, uncovered that young teachers in urban environments are just as effective – some even more – regardless of their seniority.

Fifty-one percent of teachers at Gompers Middle School, or 38 of its 75 teachers, received RIF notices, which is outlined in the plaintiff’s complaint. Some of the 20 vacant positions remained open for even as late as winter and spring of the academic year.

“Certain classes had 12 substitute teachers over the course of the semester because there had been no permanent teacher found when the vacancy was declared,” said David Snapp, an ACLU attorney who worked on the lawsuit.

One student at Edwin Markham Middle School, plaintiff Sharail Reed, wrote in her court statement she did not learn in such an environment and felt cheated of a proper education. Substitute teachers were in-and-out of the classroom, didn’t know the subjects they were filling in for and didn’t even know students names.

Teachers that lost their positions at other schools but had high enough seniority to not be fired from the district were redirected to fill vacant positions in urban schools such as these, but spots still weren’t filled.

“There’s sort of like this priority-list problem,” Snapp said.

“[Teachers] were happy to stay unemployed rather than teach at some of these schools.”

The families and administrators at these schools knew that the next batch of layoff notices for the 2011-2012 academic year were coming, so they took the matter to court.

“They knew they were going to get hammered again,” he said.

And because of a student’s right to an equal education under the California Constitution, Judge William F. Highberger ruled in favor of the families and ACLU. The Los Angeles County Superior Court worked with the school district to create the settlement that resulted in 116th Street Elementary School’s dilemma. The teacher’s union – the United Teachers of Los Angeles – has filed an appeal that has yet to be resolved.

A.J. Duffy, president of UTLA, said that the union opposes the settlement because it does not deal with the root causes of why teachers leave hard-staffed schools; he predicts that after the country recovers from the recession teachers will start leaving these urban schools again.

“They leave because they don’t have secure, safe, clean and healthy environments to work in and administrative backup in student discipline,” he said.

A solution to the problem – the teachers union believes – is more funding for staff development in such urban schools, like what 116th and 118th Street elementary schools previously received through the Transformational Model Schools Program.

The teacher union’s alternative to the Reed lawsuit comes full circle back to why the 2011-2012 RIF notices have been sent out: the district’s huge deficit.

Because the state government could not reach a bipartisan agreement for a special election in June to vote on a tax parcel that could have brought in an additional $183,000 to the school district, the Board of Education is evaluating quick options they have. State law requires that the district must notify the teachers who received RIFs if they were laid off or not by June.

Right now, the district’s funding is around the same amount it was during the 1999-2000 academic year, which Supt. John Deasy said is not sustainable to operate schools in 2011.

“We realize solutions are not going to come from Sacramento,” Deasy said at a school board meeting on Apr. 12, 2011.

The Board of Education drafted a one-year proposal to alleviate about 80 percent of district layoffs. The plan, which is currently being discussed with UTLA, would make each employee take 12 more furlough days – five instructional and seven non-instructional – on top of the 12 furlough days teachers took last academic year.

The school district would also borrow $127 million from an employee health welfare and reserve fund. If the district reaches an agreement with its labor partners and the school board approves this proposal, which Deasy said will have to be done by mid-May at the latest, it could save $304 million for the year. The Board of Education reasoned this would give Gov. Jerry Brown a year to work out his budget proposal and respond to the public education crisis in California.

Deasy cited part of the problem with the school district’s budget shortfall is because education funding in California has declined steadily from 2007. The recession has also hit a high rate of unemployment and foreclosures in California that has led to less tax revenue that would be funneled to public education.

From 2006 and on, the district has made cuts of 53 percent in-office and 58 percent of local district cuts, has reduced roughly 5,000 employee positions since 2008, on top of the recent 7,300 RIF notices that are looming, and has instigated a hiring freeze.

Enrollment in the district is down by 1,600 students this year, Deasy said, which has also had a direct effect on the district’s funding.

School board member Dr. Vladovic worried that if the district does not find a solution, the county or state would soon take over the matter.

“This is the worst thing I’ve seen the 42 years I’ve been in education,” he said at a school board meeting on Feb. 16, 2011, the day the school board voted on the 2011-2012 academic year budget.

“We’re victims of a calendar, victims of a state that says this or that, and we’re trying to make do with what we can.”

But this year – with such high budget cuts and actions such as the Reed lawsuit that can only mend a little part of a larger problem within the district – school board members only hope that it will raise a red flag for the state government and federal government to see.

“Maybe it’s more important to stand up and say it’s not acceptable, that we cannot educate children when [the state and federal governments don’t] give us the resources we need.” said school board member Yolie Flores on Feb. 15, 2011 at a board meeting.

“It’s not only impossible; it’s wrong and immoral.”

If the one-year proposal passes, 116th Street Elementary School should see fewer layoffs. But the inside source said the elementary school is still weary of the proposal until the school sees exactly how it will benefit from it in written words.

Come June, if this proposal does not pass, 116th Street Elementary School will have to let go of qualified and experienced teachers. Classroom sizes will increase. A whole grade level of teachers will be laid off. And everything the school has been working toward to improve for the past 10 or so years will be put to a halt. Although administrators at the school will not know until it happens, the insider source said they can only hope that vacant spots are refilled.

These children of 116th Street Elementary School, just like the children of 118th Street Elementary School, will be Gompers Middle School students in as little as one to as long as five years from now. Then they will move onto the neighboring high school, John Locke High.

This snapshot of these urban schools in Watts is one of many schools – some protected and some that may struggle next year – in the Los Angeles school district.

Gary Orfield, a professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education, who worked on the Reed lawsuit with the ACLU, said many people don’t realize that there are very few elite schools in the district. It only makes sense, he said, that some that weren’t protected by Reed – like 116th Street Elementary School – will hurt next year, regardless of how historical the ruling of the Reed lawsuit was.

“[Reed] was a good idea, but the only thing it did was protect extremely hard hit schools” he said.

“You can’t solve [the district’s problems] within the existing budget.”

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