Education

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. In Los Angeles, public schools are about to start their summer break, and thousands of teachers will spend that time looking for new jobs. They're getting laid off as California grapples with its worst budget crisis since the Depression. Hardest hit are urban schools with a lot of young teachers. This morning, NPR's Carrie Kahn takes us to one school that could lose half its faculty.

CARRIE KAHN: John Liechty Middle School, located in the heart of downtown L.A.'s rough Pico-Union neighborhood, is brand new. It opened its doors just two years ago and is heavily staffed with young, nontenured teachers.

Ms. JEANETTE STEVENS (Principal): Originally when we hired, new teachers were the ones that opted for our program.

KAHN: It's a program aimed at reinventing the traditional L.A. school, says Principal Jeanette Stevens. Classes start later, there are two lunch breaks and two snack breaks, and teachers plan curriculum 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.

Ms. STEVENS: I'm having to go out and pick up teachers at this point who may not be 100 percent vested in the program that we have here. However, they're displaced and within the system, they have a right to a position.

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

Ms. STEVENS: I don't know that I'll ever see another group of educators that are so passionate and committed to the work that they're doing.

KAHN: She says she'll really miss the young teachers' innovation.

(Soundbite of music)

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

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: 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's 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.

Unidentified Woman: Find all the squares but don't be late. I'll give you a hint, you need to find eight. Pythagoras.

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

Ms. JULIE VAN WINKLE (Teacher): Even the kids that really struggle with math, like they know the Pythagorean Theorem.

Mr. DAVID NOVA (Student): A squared plus B squared equals C squared.

KAHN: Seventh grader David Nova has been with Ms. 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.

Mr. NOVA: They're nice and they really focus on the students. They try to help you if you're bad. They don't just give up on you. And they do their job.

KAHN: Van Winkle has gotten a pink slip. So have 42 other teachers. Van Winkle, who is also the union rep, says the district should have cut bureaucrats instead of firing teachers and increasing class sizes.

Ms. VAN WINKLE: I mean, it's ultimately the kids who are paying the highest price.

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

Mr. ROY MCCLANE (Teacher): I would give anything to save these teachers' jobs. I think, you know, the whole country is a mess. So why should we be spared?

KAHN: He says he's willing to accept a pay cut or a furlough, but McClane says 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.

Professor JOHN ROGERS (UCLA): We may be losing this generation of new, highly trained, committed educators who are not just there right now for this year, but who want to make a difference for years to come.

KAHN: UCLA's graduate program usually places 150 new teachers into LAUSD's urban schools every year. Rogers says this year, not one graduate has been hired.

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

Ms. STEVENS: Honestly, I have to be hopeful because I can't imagine the situation for September 9th. It's beyond my capacity to think about it.

KAHN: And by the way, if you were wondering who played Pythagoras in the teachers' video, it was the librarian - who will be returning in the fall.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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