What Teachers Want

‘A lot of people are looking to California’: What L.A. teachers are thinking about as a strike looms

America’s second-largest school district appears headed for a teachers’ strike, with more than 30,000 Los Angeles educators prepared to walk out as early as Thursday.

Contract negotiations between the teachers union and Los Angeles Unified School District have reached an impasse over class sizes, charter schools, funding for additional counselors, nurses, and librarians, and how to spend down the district’s $1.7 billion reserves.

It’s a thorny tangle of issues. So Chalkbeat asked five teachers to explain which ones they’re thinking about most this week, and whether they feel connected to the broader national “Red for Ed” movement for higher teacher salaries and more school funding.

For this cross-section of teachers, smaller class sizes and more school nurses and counselors mattered most. Pay was top of mind for a few but was not widely cited as a sticking point. (L.A. Unified, which serves some 620,000 students, has offered teachers a 6 percent salary increase. But the district contends it would go broke were it to meet some of the union’s other demands — something the union, United Teachers Los Angeles, refutes.)

Several teachers who spoke to Chalkbeat felt aggrieved by the expansion of charter schools — including a teacher at one of Los Angeles’s district-affiliated charters. All of them felt some connection to the national teacher-protest movement.

“We have a huge part of the national population, so I think people want to know what’s going on here in Los Angeles because that will likely be mirrored in the country,” said Michelle Youngblood Jarman, a literature teacher at Eagle Rock Junior-Senior High School.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

What issue or issues under negotiation matter most to you?

Rafael Jimeno, teaches sixth-grade math and world art at Southeast DREAMS Magnet Middle School in South Gate: I think the top three would be lowering class sizes; the need for more counselors, nurses, and psychologists; and raising wages to close the gap with inflation.

Any teacher, but especially the ones in places like South Los Angeles, sees that students come to our classrooms with a lot of trauma that they bring from home. It could be the death of a parent or a loved one, it could be violence, it could be poverty or hunger. You can’t effectively cover content and at the same time give students the emotional and psychological supports that they need to contend with those things they bring into our classroom.

We’re not going to attract all these bright, energetic young teachers to our classrooms if our salaries aren’t competitive with what a graduate could get in the private sector. It’s not like any teacher goes into it thinking they are going to be rich, but the gap can’t [be] so wide as to be unreasonable.

Pat Lingard, teaches kindergarten at Castlebay Lane Charter School, a district-affiliated charter school in Porter Ranch: For me, there [are] two aspects that are most important in this negotiation. The first is to make sure our schools are fully funded. They deserve a nurse and a psychologist and lower class sizes and aides in the classroom and a librarian in the library and a music teacher and an art teacher. Those are all fundamental components to a successful education.

The other part of it for me, which is as important, is to prevent the privatization of public education, which is a big part of what this negotiation is about. The more private charters that are allowed to co-locate on our campuses, that draws students away from our public school system and draws money away from our public school funding.

Jennifer Harmon, teaches fifth grade at Kester Magnet in Sherman Oaks: The biggest issue, for me, is class size. In the magnet program, the fourth and fifth grades cap out at 34, which is quite a lot of kids. In non-magnet schools, class sizes can be even higher. One teacher, no aides, no additional support staff involved. We want a section of our contract deleted that says that in times of financial crisis, LAUSD can ignore state class-size caps. Every year it feels like L.A. Unified says it’s in a crisis.

If I’m doing a math lesson, say, for 35 kids in my class, sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint those students who are having difficulty with the concept or standard until later on, and then it’s hard to go back and re-teach it in a meaningful way. And as an elementary school teacher, it’s really important to make personal connections with your students and sometimes that’s hard to do when you have so many kids — especially when they are kids who need a lot.

Michelle Youngblood Jarman, teaches literature and language at Eagle Rock Junior-Senior High School in Eagle Rock: The cost of living has gone up so much, and it’s really difficult for the district for the district to pay so much in salaries. I do think 6 percent is really reasonable — I don’t think that’s a sticking factor at all.

An issue for teachers in some schools is high class size. It’s eked up from a reasonable number to something that’s out of control. I have more than 40 [students] in several of my classes. It’s impossible to really wrap your head and your heart around really getting to know that child’s needs. Another big issue is that a nurse isn’t on campus. Our school of 2,500 was given a nurse one day a week. It’s not reasonable.

Leonard Goldberg, teaches sixth-grade math and science at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar: It’s not the money. If I had gotten into education for the money, boy, did I make a mistake for the last 30 years. What’s challenging to me right now is the unraveling of public education. I see a drain of money leaving our district and going to unregulated charter schools — which is not to say all charter schools are bad. What I’m saying is we’re taking taxpayer money and it is not being held to the same standard that my school is being held accountable to.

[Another issue is having] a nurse five days a week to help students who need to take medications and have them properly dispensed, or, heaven forbid, an accident; a full-time librarian; counselors with a caseload to instead of putting out fires and behavioral issues and instead of being reactive, they can be proactive. Right now, the number of students they need to service is crazy.

What’s one thing readers might not know about what it’s like to be a public school teacher in Los Angeles?

Jimeno: There will be people who will talk about “our failing schools.” But when you’re in the district, when you’re meeting all the people who compose the individual school sites, you have so many passionate, devoted, caring people who are doing their absolute level best to help students meet their own goals to provide them a quality education. All of that goodwill and all of that passion gets buried in data.

Lingard: Being a public school educator — it’s not a formula. You are dealing with living/breathing humans who come with all kinds of family traumas and issues and all different backgrounds. It takes working weekends, getting there and early, working late, working through lunch and recess, and taking classes in the summertime and on weeks.

Harmon: We’re really lucky in my school, where I feel supported by my administrator and by my grade-level colleagues. But there’s a lot we have to figure out on our own, especially when we’re moving to new programs or new sets of standards we have to teach — and there’s really a lack of support, training, and guidance from the district. That part is really difficult. We don’t have any new science textbooks, we don’t have any new supplies, and we’ve had virtually no professional development to teach the Next Generation Science Standards.

Youngblood Jarman: I think a lot of people would be surprised at what is not funded, such as the nurses or counselors. Most people are surprised by our hours. I often work 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., even to 6, 7, 8. People who don’t see the daily life of a teacher wouldn’t realize how much is put into it.

Goldberg: I don’t know how much of the public realizes how much money I spend out of my own pocket —  and not just myself, but my fellow teachers at my school and schools across LA Unified [on] everyday supplies like pencils and erasers, notebooks, and backpacks for students who do not have them or cannot afford them. I probably spend $200 to $500 a month.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Michelle Youngblood Jarman
Michelle Youngblood Jarman, left, with a student.

Do you see this contract fight as being connected to the Red For Ed movement?

Jimeno: In many ways, it’s in the same spirit, but the key difference is what drove all these educators to the streets was that in these other states, unions either didn’t exist or had been severely weakened by legislation. That’s the difference: We’re lucky we have a very strong union that is continually in the process of making sure our district does right by our students and by teachers.

Lingard: I think that our struggles are very similar in a lot of ways to the struggles all the school districts are facing — funding is not sufficient, supports are not sufficient. We’re reaching a point nationally where we realize that if we don’t do something now, our public education is in serious trouble.

Harmon: I think it’s completely aligned. Nobody wants to go on strike, but it’s a fight worth fighting for the kids we have now and the kids in the future. I think that what has been going on in some of the other states in the nation is really picking up speed — and is helping to give voice to teachers that, maybe, we didn’t realize that we had that voice within us.

Youngblood Jarman: I was elected [as a representative] to the California Teachers Association and to the National Education Association, so I see the larger picture more than other teachers might. A lot of people are looking to California and what’s going to happen with charters, a lot of people are looking at the allocation for education in general. We have a huge part of the national population, so I think people want to know what’s going on here in Los Angeles because that will likely be mirrored in the country. To me, ideally, LAUSD and UTLA would work together, not just on our contract but also on our advocacy for public education spending. We really need to be on the same page and go to Sacramento and advocate together.

Goldberg: It’s education as a whole, and especially in the state of California. We’re the [world’s] fifth-largest economy and yet we’re underfunding schools. The folks who need to do the heavy lifting are the folks in the trenches — the teachers, the counselors, the librarians, the support staff. It’s time we speak up, not for ourselves to get a raise, but for the rights of our students who deserve a quality education in our schools. My brothers and sisters are uniting across America to say enough is enough.

Francisco Vara-Orta contributed reporting. 

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.


Testing, vouchers, and pre-K: Tennessee legislature’s new ed leader weighs in

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Mark White is the new chairman of Tennessee's House Education Committee, a legislative gatekeeper for hundreds of bills dealing with public education. The Memphis Republican has served in the House since 2010.

With a major shift in leadership happening at the State Capitol, the new chairman of Tennessee’s House Education Committee wants to make sure that the state doesn’t backslide when it comes to public education.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican in office since 2010, was tapped by House Speaker Glen Casada last week to lead the powerful committee, while Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee.

White and Gresham believe that Tennessee’s gains on national tests beginning in 2013 stem from stronger academic standards in classrooms and test score-driven systems for holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable. Both have said they don’t want to see dramatic changes to the state’s school improvement policies.

“There’s always things you can tweak or make better, but we don’t want to kill the things that are working,” White said. “We’ve made so many positive gains in the last eight years under Gov. Bill Haslam that I want to make sure we don’t go backward.”

White, 68, holds an education degree from the University of Memphis and was a science teacher and principal in the 1970s at Harding Academy, a private high school in Memphis, before starting an event business

Before his appointment, he spoke with Chalkbeat about issues on the horizon, Tennessee’s testing dilemma, the buzz on school vouchers under governor-elect Bill Lee, and whether there’s an appetite to invest more money in pre-K. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some of the big issues you expect to tackle this year in the legislature?

We need more alignment between K-12 and higher education with more opportunities for students to pursue dual enrollment [which enables students to take college-level courses while they’re in high school]. We also want more vocational and technical education courses so that students are being introduced to marketable skills during high school. We want more of our students to come out of high school with not only a diploma but also a certificate for a particular skill. If you can get them interested in a skill in high school, students much more likely to move on and, if they like working with their hands and have a certification, maybe go straight to work.

Tennessee has yet to cleanly administer and score its TNReady test during the last three years. Can the state restore the credibility of its testing program?

No superintendent has come to me and said we don’t like the test. They like the data that TNReady generates based on our higher standards. The issue has been online administration. I’m pleased that we’re just testing high school students online this year. I don’t know that elementary grades should ever test online. But for all grades, we’ve got to get testing right this year. We can’t afford another year of problems.

What about the amount of testing? Even with the elimination of two high school exams this school year, many teachers and parents are concerned that students test too much, especially in high school where Tennessee exceeds federal requirements.

We’re going to keep looking at that. Through the work of the state’s testing task force, we eliminated chemistry and English III this school year. But I believe that, if we’re going to test to the highest standards, we’ve got to test to make sure there’s been a full year of growth and that teachers are teaching effectively.

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

School vouchers are a perennial issue in the legislature and, with a new governor wanting to give parents more education options, do you think this will be the year that some type of voucher bill passes?

There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet. With the Lee administration being new, I don’t know if they’re going to push it. And even if they do push it, it probably won’t be this year.

I believe in parental choice, but the problem with vouchers moving forward is accountability. We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it. If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.

You’ve been a point person on early childhood education. Is anything happening there?

I’ve talked a lot with Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, and they’re wanting to expand our pre-K programs. I don’t want to lose the conversation around pre-K dollars, but I do think it would be better to think in terms of pre-K through the third grade. Right now only a third of our kids are reading on grade level by third grade, so how do we invest our money up until that milestone grade? I think that would be an easier conversation.

I also think that these are the issues that really matter in Tennessee and are going to lead to improvements. This year in the legislature, I’d like to talk about the things that make a difference and not just sit there and debate whether you like TNReady or not. Those conversations don’t move the needle. It’s old news.