Published Online: June 15, 2009

Layoffs Mean L.A. Schools Lose New Breed of Teachers

Sean Leys sat huddled and still in a tent on a sidewalk outside of a Los Angeles middle school, fatigued by an ongoing hunger strike but resolved to protest looming teacher layoffs.

The longtime English teacher, holding a biography of labor-rights leader Cesar Chavez in his lap, was camped outside John H. Liechty Middle School with about 20 colleagues, an occasional motorist honking a horn in support of their cause.

While he may avoid being laid off, thousands of his teacher colleagues in Los Angeles will not. By next school year, 2,100 city teachers are slated to lose their jobs — a 5 percent hit to the second-largest U.S. school district.

Worse still, Leys said, is that the layoffs are concentrated in some of the city's grittiest neighborhoods. Los Angeles Unified's inner-city schools have higher turnover and tend to hire more new teachers, and state education code mandates that layoffs be issued based on seniority.

English teacher Sean Leys, center, watches Aztec dancers perform outside John Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Protesting the recent city teacher layoffs with a hunger strike, Leys is having trouble standing all day in front of his classroom and fending off students teasing him with his favorite pizza bagels.
—Jae C. Hong/AP

"This is about civil rights and education for inner-city children," Leys said.

School districts across the U.S. are facing similar financial crunches, but many have avoided painful layoffs with the help of federal stimulus funds. California, however, is mired in a budget crisis and, despite the influx of federal money, is still moving to lay off thousands.

The National Education Association estimates that some 34,000 teaching jobs will be eliminated this year. California — with Los Angeles Unified in the lead — faces the largest loss of nearly 18,000 teachers. The city's schools have roughly 40,000 teachers.

Some inner-city middle and high schools could lose up to 40 percent of their teachers, according to an analysis by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles.

By contrast, many schools in the district's more affluent areas, such as the San Fernando Valley suburbs, will be less affected because only up to 10 percent of their teachers are new, the analysis found.

Seventh grade teacher Erica Cho, who is being laid off, watches as Gaudy Alvarado, foreground right, gets a hug from Isabel Ceballos, a sixth grade teacher who is also being laid off outside John Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles.
—Jae C. Hong/AP

At schools such as Liechty, located in gang-riddled central Los Angeles, more than half the teachers are losing their jobs. Their classrooms will be filled by transferred senior teachers and administrators whose positions were eliminated.

Administrators say layoffs are spread throughout the district, but Liechty has a large number because it opened in 2007 and was filled with new hires.

District officials acknowledge staff turnover is a problem at certain schools and that layoffs will cut into the hires — including those who request to work in urban areas — that the district has worked hard to recruit in recent years.

Teachers who lose their jobs can join the substitute pool and are placed on the re-employment list, officials said.

"Our hope is to keep them involved in the system," said Vivian Ekchian, the district's chief human resources officer.

Until the district finds the money to rehire the teachers, students will find themselves in bigger classes this fall.

Critics of the layoffs say the district's newer teachers bring sorely needed enthusiasm to the problem-plagued campuses, as well as new teaching methods and ideas.

Many of the district's newer hires are also minorities who can relate to the majority of the district's 650,000 students.

"I share a lot of my life with my students," said Christian Aguilar, a Liechty seventh-grade math and science teacher who's facing layoff. "I tell them there's an opportunity for you to grow up and get out of here. I tell parents I want their kids to get out of here. I can only hope I made an impact on some of them."

Aguilar grew up blocks from the school and shows students the scar on his neck, where he was slashed by a drug dealer, to underscore that he knows firsthand what their lives are like.

Students said they like the empathetic ear that the younger teachers can provide.

"They're easy to talk to," said Marilyn Ann Flores, an eighth-grader at Liechty. "They understand you. It wasn't that long ago that they were teenagers. They tell us their background. Some teachers went through the same things we're going through. We see if that person made it, we can, too."

School board member Marlene Canter said the experienced teachers and administrators who will fill the gaps after the layoffs are also capable of motivating children. What's really needed, she said, is a way to reward higher-performing teachers and a simpler process to weed out poor ones.

"Just because you're a senior teacher doesn't mean you're a bad teacher, or if you're a younger teacher, you're automatically good," she said.

Leys, a 10-year teaching veteran at Lincoln High School near Liechty, said the hunger strike, which started May 27, has cost him a pound (450 grams) a day from his already thin frame. But he appeared determined to continue his protest.

"In these neighborhoods, schools are life or death for a lot of these kids," he said. "It's the inequity of how these layoffs are being done. It's frustrating."

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