Monday, March 28, 2011

Updated - IT'S THE KIDS WHO LOSE OUT: Targeted teachers worry about students' futures and their own

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer, LA Daily News |

Teacher Jolene Kuebler, left, gets a hug from assistant principal Shanna Sarris at Cleveland High, Thursday, March 24, 2011. Both have been notified they are on the list to be laid off. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

Cleveland High School assistant principal Shanna Sarris has been notified she is on the list to...


03/27/2011 - Updated: 03/28/2011 09:12:27 AM PDT - Manny Banuelos is known for his ability to motivate kids - both in his fourth-grade classroom at Fullbright Elementary and on the neighborhood baseball diamond, where he volunteers as a Little League coach.

Jolene Kuebler is beloved by students and colleagues, who marvel at the stamina that allows her to teach health classes, coach drill team and lead the school band at Cleveland High School.

Despite their success, the two San Fernando Valley teachers are among 5,200 educators who have received layoff notices from the financially troubled Los Angeles Unified School District. With just seven years each in the classroom, they're unlikely to beat the state-mandated system of using seniority to determine who gets to stay and who must go.

"This upsets me because I'm a good teacher ... I work hard," Kuebler said, breaking down in tears.

"What I'm really concerned about is my kids ... In the long run it's the kids that will lose out."

Facing a $408 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, the district has notified 7,300 employees that they could be terminated - administrators, support staff and the certificated educators.

A report obtained by the Daily News shows that roughly two-thirds of the district's 952 schools would be affected by teacher layoffs when classes start in the fall.

Cleveland High in Reseda would lose 11 percent of its 150 teachers, while nearly half of the 16 educators at Fullbright would be lost.

The layoffs could be averted, officials say, if a ballot measure Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed for June is approved by California voters, extending a series of tax increases.

However, weeks of budget negotiations in Sacramento have failed to yield a deal on Brown's budget plan, and hopes are fading for an 11th-hour bailout of LAUSD's finances.

"If the state doesn't want to fund public education, I don't know where we get the money to pay staff and keep programs," said LAUSD school board member Tamar Galatzan.

Galatzan, who represents parts of the San Fernando Valley, is also dismayed by provisions of the state law that mandates seniority - not performance - in compiling layoff lists.

"We're talking about potentially thousands of creative, dynamic, capable people losing their jobs and we'll have no one to replace them," she said. "Our children deserve better."

The prospect of losing even one teacher at a school can cause stress on a campus.

"It's devastating to a school community," said Claudia Ruiz, principal of Fullbright Elementary, where 12 of the 26 teachers have been targeted for layoff.

"As a school, you usually spend more time together than you do with our own family. You build a camaraderie and when you lose a part of that family it's very hard."

Ruiz, who has worked as a teacher and administrator at LAUSD for 24 years, said she was taken aback when she heard how many teachers her Canoga Park campus could be losing in September.

After meeting individually with each teacher to discuss their fate, Ruiz said she was struck by the grace of her staff.

"I work with such wonderful professionals," Ruiz said.

"Obviously they were disappointed ... they don't know if they are going to have a job next year, but they haven't let it impact what they do."

Another Fullbright staff member targeted for layoff is preschool teacher Gabriela Fierro, who has been with LAUSD for nine years.

Inside her classroom last week, a crew of 4-year-olds curiously stuck their tiny fingers into dirt-filled flower pots.

"Make a hole in the middle, throw the seed inside, then we'll water them and see how they grow," Fierro instructed, as she handed each of her youngster a handful of marigold seeds.

Fierro's preschool program, which helps prepare low-income students for kindergarten, is among several being cut by the district to save money.

"It was a little shocking, but I'm taking everything one day at a time," Fierro said. "I stay focused on the kids. Every day I spend with them helps relieve some of the pressure."

At Fullbright, teachers have made a concerted effort to avoid talking about the future. They don't want to affect the camaraderie among the staff, or cause undue anxiety among the students.

At home, though, it's difficult not to worry about the the careers the teachers have worked so hard to attain. The stress is especially high for Banuelos and his wife - another Los Angeles Unified teacher targeted for layoff - who are a month away from the birth of their first child.

"The uncertainty is the hardest part now," Banuelos said. "It's a waiting game."

The narrow lobby of Cleveland High is filled with a row of 19 folding chairs. Each chair sports a sign with a name - one for each teacher who could be cut from the campus next year.

"This teacher changed my life," one student wrote on one of the signs.

"Why her? ... She is so smart," another wrote.

"Don't Fire," was printed on nearly almost sign.

With nearly 4,000 students, Cleveland is one of Los Angeles Unified's largest high schools, so the loss of 19 teachers will be sorely felt.

Administrators and colleagues say each of the 19 has been crucial to the turnaround at the Reseda campus, which a decade ago was among the lowest performing in the district and now is among the highest.

"These teachers give everything they have to these kids and this school," Assistant Principal Shanna Sarris said.

Among those targeted for layoff are physical education teacher Carisa Silva, who recently helped win a $100,000 state-of-the-art fitness center for the campus through the Governor's Fitness Challenge. She has just five years with the district.

Cara Blumenfield, a three-year teacher and the girls' basketball coach, led the Cavaliers to their first city playoffs in years.

What brings Kuebler to tears is her work with the drill team, which she revived when she started her teaching career at Cleveland seven years ago.

Then two years ago, when the band director left the school and there was no money in the budget to fill the position, Kuebler also took on the band.

"Without a band there is no drill team and I couldn't let that happen," she said.

Sarris can empathize with her teachers. She also got a layoff notice - like all administrators at LAUSD.

She expects she'll remain with the district, but may be transferred to another school or - as a former history teacher - reassigned to the classroom.

Still, she would miss her job as an administrator and the campus' disciplinary dean.

Most days find her roaming the sprawling Cleveland campus - iPhone in one hand, walkie-talkie in another - searching for truant students.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spots a student rushing into the boys' bathroom.

"Josue ... where's your pass," she hollers. No answer.

"It's OK, I can wait for you out here."

Sarris has launched several new programs at the school in her short three years, including a new tardy sweep effort that targets students who skip the last class of the day.

After school, Sarris is also the volunteer girls soccer coach. She brags about her team's second-place standing in the highly competitive West Valley soccer league.

"I just hope whatever (legislative) bill needs to pass gets passed, because our kids need teachers like these," Sarris said. "They need these critical programs because it's what gets them to school.

"And that's the difference between the graduation rate going up or down."

No comments: