ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Los Angeles public schools opened today without their teachers. Instead, classrooms were staffed by administrators, volunteers and newly hired substitutes. For the first time in nearly 30 years, teachers in the nation's second-largest school district were on strike. NPR's Elissa Nadworny went to the picket lines when the school day began and filed this report.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: So it's 8:05. I'm outside Kingsley Elementary School in East Hollywood. Teachers are out front with red umbrellas and picket signs, and they're greeting parents and students as they're arriving for school Monday morning. And they're letting them know they're not going to be inside.
SONIA SALGADO: Hi. We just want to let you know that teachers are on strike today. Habla Espanol?
NADWORNY: That's kindergarten teacher Sonia Salgado greeting parents and students as they arrive. She and other teachers are outside braving the heavy rain because of failed negotiations between their union, United Teachers Los Angeles and the city's public school district, which enrolls about half a million students.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
NADWORNY: As the school day starts, just a handful of students head inside. The school building is staffed by administrators, volunteers and newly hired substitutes. Outside, some of the union's more than 30,000 members are chanting and singing.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHERS: (Chanting in Spanish).
NADWORNY: On salary, the district and the union are actually pretty close. The main reason teachers are striking today - they want smaller classes and nurses in schools five days a week, among other things. The district says it just doesn't have the money to pay for all that. The last offer from the district, which upped its spending by about $25 million, didn't satisfy the union. LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner called parents on Sunday night with this message.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AUSTIN BEUTNER: We did not want a strike. We tried our best to avoid it, and we will continue to work around the clock to find a solution to end the strike.
NADWORNY: But there aren't any negotiations scheduled for today. The union says it's focused on the strike. Parents we've spoken to over the last few days have mixed reactions. Some parents are opting to keep their kids home. For other parents, bringing their kids to school is the better option. And for working families, it may be the only option. Some teachers say they understand.
MARIA GONZALES: My name is Maria Gonzales. I teach kindergarten. It's my 21st year teaching in LAUSD.
NADWORNY: Gonzales grew up in LA and went to public schools here.
GONZALES: My grandfather came to this country from Mexico at the age of 9, and he stopped going to school at 9 to pick lemons and avocados. He never let us forget that education was his dream.
NADWORNY: Her parents both taught in the district. Her father texted her last night, be strong. We're with you.
GONZALES: We have to care. We have to acknowledge that these are children of color. These are children that - they receive free, reduced lunch. The nurse and the psychologist are oftentimes the only health care professionals they're in contact with.
NADWORNY: As she looks back at where her classroom is, she feels torn. She'd much rather be inside, teaching her kindergartners.
GONZALES: I hope they really relate this the strike to the fact that this city cares about them.
NADWORNY: After drop-off ended, teachers carpooled, took buses and trains and made their way downtown to meet up en masse with other teachers and supporters.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Mighty, mighty teachers...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Mighty, mighty teachers...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) ...Fighting for justice.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Fighting for justice.
NADWORNY: So we're here in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles right in front of city hall, and it is just a sea of umbrellas and ponchos and signs as far as the eye can see. Teachers and parents and students are out here supporting the strike. It's hard to know how long this strike will last. The last LA teachers strike in 1989 lasted nine days. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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