L.A.'s Inner City Schools Struggle With Layoffs

Teacher layoff's in the Los Angeles school system have hit inner city schools especially hard, and more layoff notices are being sent out this week. Markham Middle School in Watts has lost at least half its faculty since the last round of layoffs. In many cases, school officials haven't been able to find new full-time teachers and have to rely on subs.

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The nation's largest school system is reeling from a budget crisis, and the Los Angeles Unified School District is bracing for another round of layoffs. One school in Watts, Markham Middle School, has already lost half its teachers, and there may be more pink slips to come. That's where NPR's Ina Jaffe went for this story.

Mr. NICHOLAS MELVOIN (Teacher, Markham Middle School): Good morning, Maria. Good morning, Kyla(ph).

INA JAFFE: Students line up outside of Nicholas Melvoin's class as he greets each one of them by name.

Mr. MELVOIN: Morning, Ruby. Morning, Greg.

JAFFE: Melvoin teaches English as a Second Language in this school that's more than 70 percent Latino.

Mr. MELVOIN: Our class average for this test was a 86 percent. I still think we can do better, but I was proud.

JAFFE: Melvoin is just 24 years old. He's a Harvard graduate and began teaching right out of college.

Mr. MELVOIN: I was always interested growing up in education. I have a lot of teachers in my family, so I knew that I wanted to not only teach, but teach in a school like Markham in a community like Watts.

JAFFE: Which has four large public housing projects and dozens of gangs. A lot of the teachers who came here were, like Melvoin, young, idealistic and reform-minded. But because layoffs are decided on the basis of seniority, they were the first to go when the layoffs came last June. Melvoin is now one of about a dozen who came back to Markham as long-term substitutes.

Mr. MELVOIN: My job description didn't change. If anything, actually, my responsibilities increased. I became a department chair. So I came back and actually took on more leadership roles, even though I was being paid by the hour.

JAFFE: And getting no sick days or vacation pay. Markham Middle School has had to get by with a lot of subs this year, but not all are familiar faces like Melvoin.

Ms. CHERELLE REED(ph) (Student, Markham Middle School): In my history class this year, we had so many different substitutes, it was a blur. They write their name on the board, and the next day, it would be gone, and so were they.

JAFFE: That's Markham eighth grader Cherelle Reed. She's a plaintiff in a lawsuit that claims that teacher layoffs have had a far greater impact on schools that serve poor communities. She spoke at a news conference at the school.

Ms. REED: It's not fair for my school to lose so many teachers. It feels like we're at a lower-class school, and we're not thought about as much as other schools.

Mr. TIM SULLIVAN (Principal, Markham Middle School): When I came on board, I had a young individual come to me and ask me: So how long will be here? And that just hit me like a ton of bricks.

JAFFE: Tim Sullivan became principal of Markham in 2008. He was hired to lead a reform effort after the school became one of a dozen taken over by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. New teachers embrace reform, he says, and the school reinforced that with special training.

Mr. SULLIVAN: One of the things that hurts us again financially is we invest professional development - thousands of dollars into these teachers and programs, and that training goes right out the window. And then it's, you know, training a new batch.

JAFFE: And veteran teachers, says Sullivan, are not jumping at the chance to work at Markham.

Mr. SULLIVAN: As we started the school year, I still have open positions.

JAFFE: So, he hired teachers who'd been pushed out of their old jobs at other schools, but they changed their minds.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Because folks had gone home, looked up Markham on the Internet, did their research, they chose to send in letters of resignation, never even arriving on my campus.

JAFFE: It was almost Christmas before all the positions at Markham were filled with either full-time teachers or long-term subs.

Mr. MELVOIN: Who can raise their hand and remind me what genre means. What is genre?

JAFFE: Nichole Melvoin now counts as one of the full-time teachers. He was reinstated in January, but expects to be laid off again in June.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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