Come Monday, more than 70,000 youngsters will troop up well-worn stairs throughout the Westside in the annual rite of "Back to School"--that heady mix of anticipation, regret that summer's over, fresh haircuts, new shoes and pristine binders that marks the first day.
Shelley Rose will not be waiting for them this year.
The 41-year-old Hamilton High Music Academy social studies teacher had been notified months ago by the Los Angeles Unified School District that she was likely to lose her job "because of program reductions . . . due to budget constraints and reallocation of funds."
But Rose said she had been hanging on until late last week, when she finally had to empty Room 303.
"I'm really going to miss those kids," she said as the reality of her situation sank in and her name was deleted from the school computer. "They're really special."
"She is a very strong teacher who came to our West Los Angeles music magnet last year (with teaching experience in Simi Valley) and plunged into every aspect of the school, from career days to assisting with musical events to taking kids through the advanced placement American history curriculum," Principal Jim Berk said. "Now she's 98th away from being rehired."
Berk's lament at the loss of energy, enthusiasm and new ideas such teachers bring to a troubled school system is being echoed throughout Los Angeles. This could be a watershed year for the city's public schools as they attempt, with an array of innovative programs, to cope with and defy drastic budget cuts and an influx of 15,000 new students.
The first sign of the changes ahead comes as students return to school almost a month before the traditional post-Labor Day start, as part of a year-round school calendar that relieves crowding by staggering vacation breaks.
The school board, faced with an unexpected $33-million shortfall, voted last week to cinch its belt, slashing more than 800 teaching jobs. The latest cuts, which come on top of the elimination of 1,000 positions over the past few months, mean that as many as 39 students will be crammed into some classrooms.
"It's one of the most painful decisions we've been forced to make in years," said board member Mark Slavkin, who represents most of the Westside. "It's a very devastating thing, coming this soon before school starts." He said schools will lose about 10% of their teachers.
"This means shifting thousands of kids around, but no one really knows who will be let go or when changes will be made," said Slavkin's deputy, Jefferson Crain. "Coming at this late date, it's going to throw many of our schools into a chaotic, unexpected reorganization."
Teachers reported to their old schools Friday and students will arrive Monday, but it will be weeks before the dust settles. It is unclear, for example, how many teachers will be reassigned and whether the percentage of students who are bused in--70% in some Westside schools--will change.
Along with personnel, programs are also on the chopping block. School nurses and librarians are unaffected so far, but some administrators, counselors and maintenance workers have already been terminated and more are likely to be laid off. Programs for the gifted and the learning disabled are protected.
Among teachers, the first to go are recent hires such as Rose. But even those with decades of experience are affected: They may hang on to their jobs but they are still subject to unwanted transfers as pupils are regrouped into fewer but larger classes. Certain inner-city schools with a high percentage of minority students, as well as schools with specialized programs, will continue to have smaller classes than regular schools.
At Walgrove Avenue Elementary in Mar Vista, for example, Myrna Adler, 51, came in more than a week before opening day to prepare her third-grade classroom and review new materials--just as she has done for the past 29 years. She was also preparing a computer course for teachers, since the school lost its resident expert.
Now Adler is slated for possible transfer, depending on how many children enroll at Walgrove next week.
"She is an outstanding teacher who takes on extra responsibilities," said her distraught principal, Rosialeigh Wilson, noting that Adler had developed an extensive knowledge of the community in nearly three decades at Walgrove.
Because most bilingual, special ed or minority teachers cannot be transferred even if they have less experience, Wilson said, Adler will be the first to go from Walgrove.
Concerned parents are circulating a petition to keep Adler. They have complained to district officials and say that if she is transferred they will pull their children out of school in protest.
At week's end, Wilson said projections of an increase in neighborhood children enrolling suggested that Adler may be spared.
Schools in Santa Monica, Malibu and Beverly Hills are more fortunate than their Los Angeles neighbors. They had braced for the worst by cutting programs, teachers and student services, much of which they were able to restore when they received a bit more state money than they had expected. The Culver City school system fell $2 million short, however, and has been forced to eliminate 20 teachers, counselors, nurses and assistant principals.
In Los Angeles, however, swollen classes and shrunken staffs are not the only changes in store for district students on the Westside this week:
* Because of the shift to a year-round school calendar, most Westside children will begin school nearly a month earlier than usual, their summer vacation abruptly halted during the heat of August. (Few classrooms are air conditioned.) In exchange, they will get an eight-week winter vacation, unless their parents opt for special $300-a-month academic programs scheduled for the break.
Most Westside schools are single-track, operating on the same calendar. However, at 17 multitrack elementary and junior high schools--where classes have been in session all summer--one-fourth of the students will go on vacation this week, with another fourth returning for the start of the fall term.
* A group of schools in Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Topanga has been reconfigured. Ninth-graders in that area will attend Palisades High School. Paul Revere Junior High is turning into a middle school, losing its ninth grade and adding sixth-graders from half a dozen area elementary schools. Other Westside schools are expected to follow, as studies suggest that the shift creates natural age groupings that parallel stages of child development.
* School-based management, a concept that has become the educational buzzword of the '90s, is already operating at six Westside schools and is expected to be implemented at five more this year.
Under the plan, control of the the budget, personnel and curriculum of the school is gradually transferred from the central administration to the teachers, parents and administrators of each school. Among the programs proposed by several schools expected to receive board approval Monday are ninth-grade biology and high school electives such as astronomy, marine biology and elementary laboratory techniques; special efforts to spur students working below potential to higher performance; conversational Spanish in the primary grades; teacher brainstorming sessions; an interdisciplinary humanities program, and a volunteer "advocacy program" to stem dropouts.
* A new aerospace magnet program will open at Westchester High School.
"The flip side of the budget crisis," said school board member Slavkin, "is that it will be an exciting time for the kids. A 6-year-old doesn't know about the cuts and, fortunately, the gloom adults feel doesn't always translate.
"In spite of our severe problems, we have an enormous amount of exciting new things going on."
Slavkin said he hopes the budget crisis will trigger political action by otherwise passive parents and members of the community, not a further exodus from the public school system by those who can afford private education.