by Nadra Kareem | Contributing Writer The Watts Times
April 16, 2009 -- Lamar Queen considered applying to three school districts in Southern California upon graduating from Louisiana’s Grambling State University. In the end, the math teacher settled on the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“They had a nice incentive program for new teachers who were going to teach math, so I went with LAUSD,” Queen recalled.
Two years later, however, Queen has yet to receive the cash incentives that lured him to the district and is facing the prospect of not having a job to return to this fall at Los Angeles Academy, the South Central middle school where he teaches. In light of state budget cuts, the school board voted April 14 to cut about 5,000 LAUSD employees. Queen has already received a pink slip notifying him that he may potentially be laid off.
At L.A. Academy in particular, 38 out of 120 teachers have received pink slips. That’s about 32 percent, a number that Queen and others at L.A. Academy feel will adversely affect the school.
“The newer teachers will be replaced by people who haven’t been in a classroom in a long time,” said Leticia Martha Infante, coordinator for L.A. Academy’s Gifted and Talented Education program.
While L.A. Academy may lose a significant amount of its staff if all teachers who received pink slips are laid off, Infante said that the school isn’t the only one that will suffer. South Central schools collectively will bear 40 percent of teacher cuts, according to Infante, who arrived at that figure based on information given to her by United Teachers of Los Angeles.
UTLA is the union that represents LAUSD teachers.
South Central schools will bear the brunt of staff cuts because they contain the most new teachers, and layoffs are determined by seniority, with the newest teachers being cut first, Infante said.
“I think that at some point, someone needs to look at how new teachers are distributed in the district,” Infante said. By doing so, she hopes that South Central isn’t disproportionately affected by future staff cuts.
A 15-year LAUSD veteran who has taught at L.A. Academy for three years, Infante said that she has seen young teachers at the school make great progress in recent years. The strides of these teachers have helped to turn L.A. Academy around, Infante said.
“These teachers have flourished,” she said. “They’re young. They’re energetic. They have a lot of initiative. If they’re gone and replaced by teachers who have no idea what our school culture is, a lot of the progress that we’ve been making will have been taken away.”
That progress includes the creation of elective classes in dance, choir, drama and art. There is also a program for gifted students. When Infante started at L.A. Academy three years ago, no electives or gifted classes were available. In fact, Infante oversees the gifted program.
Queen has also contributed to changing the culture of L.A. Academy by writing songs about math to engage students in the subject.
Now, “I’m trying to complete an album that covers most of or our algebra and pre-algebra concepts,” he explained.
Natalie Umber is also proud of her contributions to L.A. Academy.
“I’m happy here,” explained the math and science teacher. “I feel like I’ve made an impact. I know I can get another job, but I’m passionate about my job here.”
Umber came to LAUSD by way of Teach for America, a national organization that places recent college graduates in disadvantaged schools. Umber said that she has helped her students at L.A. Academy improve their standardized test scores.
On a recent districtwide assessment given to her students, 68 out of 70 received scores that indicated they were proficient in math or science or advanced in those subjects, Umber said.
“Our test scores have gone up significantly,” she continued. “We surpassed our (annual progress) goal.”
To spread the word about the predicament she feels South Central schools are in, Infante sent out a districtwide email that she estimates reached about 60,000 LAUSD employees. She has also helped to launch a blog — dontforgetsouthcentral.blogspot.com — to motivate those who are concerned about local schools to take action, which may include a UTLA strike in May, Infante said.
Because layoffs have been announced but not yet made, LAUSD communication officer Susan Cox declined to say how South Central schools specifically will be affected by the cuts.
“All of our schools and the entire district … everyone is being affected by the downturn in the economy right now,” Cox said. “We have people who are working around the clock to find ways to trim costs, to see if they can save jobs. Right now we’re looking at options like furloughs and giving teachers early retirement to save jobs.”
Cox said that everyone who received a pink slip won’t necessarily be laid off.
“It’s a precautionary notice,” she said. “We don’t know what the final outcome will be. We’re working with the collective bargaining unit, so we don’t impact the classrooms.”
Queen is hoping that the district explores a variety of options before cutting teachers’ jobs. He said that he tells his math students that there is always more than one way to solve a problem.
“They may feel (cuts are) the best way,” Queen said. “I’m not on the inside. I don’t know the logistics, but I’m pretty sure a lot of other expenses can be cut before teachers are cut. A teacher should be the last thing you should let go of.”