L.A.'s Urban Schools Hardest Hit By Teacher Layoffs

California's budget problems mean that thousands of public school teachers are being laid off in the city of Los Angeles.

Urban, low-income schools are the hardest hit because they have the greatest number of beginning teachers.

For example, at John Liechty Middle School, created not long ago as a shining example of innovative education, more than half of the teachers are being laid off.

The school is located in the heart of downtown L.A.'s rough Pico-Union neighborhood. It opened its doors just two years ago and is heavily staffed with young, nontenured teachers.

"Originally when we hired, new teachers were the ones that opted to our program," says Principal Jeanette Stevens.

The school is aimed at reinventing the traditional Los Angeles school, Stevens says. Classes start later, there are two lunch breaks and two snack breaks, and teachers plan curricula together. Veteran teachers mostly weren't interested in coming to Liechty when it first opened.

But now Stevens says the veterans have to come here because they've lost their own classes, and the young teachers are being fired to make room.

"I'm having to go out and pick up teachers who may not be vested in the program [because] they are displaced and they have a right to the position," Stevens says.

Even administrators, long out of the classroom, may replace the young teachers. Stevens says she's devastated.

"I don't know if I'll ever see another group of educators that are so passionate and committed to the work that they are doing." And Stevens says she'll really miss the young teachers' innovation.

This year they tweaked the math curriculum and incorporated it into a home movie — actually a horror movie — written and performed by the definitely-not-ready-for-prime-time seventh grade teachers.

In the movie, the school is haunted by a crazed kidnapper named Pythagoras. He's the one with the theorem about calculating the sides of a right triangle. You never see Pythagoras' face, just his yellow-dish-glove-covered hands. He kidnaps one teacher after another, leaving behind a rhyming ransom note masquerading as a math lesson: "Find all the squares and don't be late, you need to find eight. Pythagoras."

Seventh grade math and science teacher Julie Van Winkle says the video may not be your typical approach to teaching junior high math, but the lesson has stuck.

"Even the kids that really struggle with math know the Pythagorean theorem," Van Winkle says.

Seventh grader David Nova has been with Van Winkle for the past two years. Here, teachers move up grade levels with their kids. Nova says they're the best thing about his school.

"They're nice, and they really focus on the students," he says. "They try to help you if you are bad. They don't just give up on you. They do their job."

Van Winkle has gotten a pink slip. So have most of her fellow teachers. She says the district should have cut bureaucrats instead of firing teachers and increasing class sizes.

"Ultimately, it's kids who are paying the highest price," she says.

Roy McClane is one of the few veteran teachers at Liechty.

"I would give anything to save these teachers' jobs," he says. "You know, the whole country is a mess. Why should we be spared?"

McClane says he's willing to accept a pay cut or a furlough, but he hasn't heard the union offer those concessions. Both the union and the school district are still negotiating. L.A. Superintendent Ramon Cortines says he hopes to find a way for the hard hit urban schools to keep most of their staff. Many may have to return as day-to-day substitutes.

UCLA education professor John Rogers says the massive budget cuts hurt not only teachers currently employed, but those coming up the ranks.

"We may be losing this generation of highly trained committed educators who are not just there for this year, but who want to make a difference for years to come," Rogers says.

UCLA's graduate program usually places 150 new teachers into the L.A. Unified School District's urban schools every year. Rogers says that this year, not one graduate has been hired.

Liechty Middle School Principal Stevens says she hopes something will be worked out before she has to start school in the fall with a whole new team.

"Honestly, I have to be hopeful because I can't imagine the situation for Sept. 9. It's beyond my capacity to think about it," she says.

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