LA Times Editorial
November 25, 2009 -- Even in these difficult times, many teachers would rather remain jobless than work at Markham Middle School. The school is located in a crime-plagued Watts neighborhood that encompasses the Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens housing projects and their rival gangs. Its test scores are among the lowest in Los Angeles, and during the 2006-07 academic year, more than 500 students were suspended, at least half of those for "attempted physical harm," including 19 assaults on staff members. Its reputation was further tarnished after an assistant principal, Steve Thomas Rooney, was arrested on charges of molesting students. He was sentenced in September to eight years in prison.
As a result of its unpopularity, Markham has six teacher openings in a year when hundreds of L.A. Unified School District teachers have lost their jobs. The school's leaders know of qualified teachers outside the district who would love to work there, but cannot hire them because of state regulations and contract rules that govern layoffs and rehirings according to seniority.
Instead, while Markham goes through the byzantine hiring process laid out in the L.A. Unified teachers contract, those classes are being taught by substitutes who rotate every month. That means students not only have under-qualified teachers, but enjoy no continuity of instruction. They're already on their fourth teacher of the year in those classes.
Taken over last year by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Markham hired mostly new, idealistic teachers. But when California's budget crisis forced mass layoffs at L.A. Unified, the school, with one of the lowest-seniority faculties, lost close to half of its teachers. Under contract rules, Markham had to rehire for its vacant spots from pools of laid-off district teachers who had the most seniority. But after all the openings were filled last summer, several teachers changed their minds.
The school then had to go through the process all over again, hiring from new pools of teachers with successively less seniority. It made its latest round of offers two weeks ago -- and again, teachers who had accepted changed their minds. The school could hire long-term substitutes regardless of seniority, but of the relative few with the credentials Markham needs, none have accepted its offers.
Though various improvements have been made at Markham under the mayor's partnership, its already miserable score on the state's Academic Performance Index slipped another 10 points last year. But all efforts to turn around Markham or any other low-performing school are doomed if the state, the district and we as a society accept the idea of denying students qualified, coherent instruction even when teachers who want to help them are close at hand.
●●smf's 2¢ + a million dollars worth from the Times’ archives: Compare and contrast this editorial with this article: SECURE IN THEIR STUDIES: An anti-violence effort at Markham Middle has opened a new chapter for the Watts school's students.
In the interim a number of things have happened:
- The economy and the budget cuts …these effect socioeconomically challenged communities disproportionately but they apply to all schools in the district, including charters and schools run by outside operators.
- The mayor's partnership (PLAS) took over Markham. The new management and/or the fear of new management triggered an exodus of staff and management from Markham through transfers, reassignments and early retirement. The PLAS hired the staff it hired.
- The City Attorney/LAUSD partnership at Markham described in the article expired and was not renewed. This had to have been a conscious decision by the City Attorney’s Office, PLAS.and LAUSD.
- The City Attorney Partnership model has been replicated at other LAUSD middle schools – but it is doubtful with the change at the top in the City Attorney’s office that that office’s commitment remains the same. Absent that this becomes another pilot program that worked but was not implemented. In the end it was not the infusion of money from the City Attorneys office or outside partners in this program that made the difference for the bright shining moment – it was the hard work invested by hard workers.