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Speaking Volumes : Education: Rowland teachers make a protest statement about class sizes by keeping quiet for a day.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

That unusual silence around schools in Rowland Heights on Thursday wasn’t a lack of classroom activity, just an extraordinary absence of teachers’ voices.

The 630-member teachers union in the San Gabriel Valley city staged a one-day job action to protest a plan by the fund-strapped Rowland Unified School District to increase class sizes.

The teachers called it a “Day of Silence.” They were supposed to conduct their regular classes, but without uttering a sound, which was frustrating, they said. “We’re such verbal people by nature,” said union president Bill Whinnery, a history teacher at Rowland High School.

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Teachers used strenuous sign language, pounded desks for emphasis, blew whistles and, to the vast amusement of their students, occasionally burst out with words.

“Someone came up to me and asked where he should put something, and I started saying, ‘On my desk,’ ” said Mary Whitson, a teacher at Shelyn Elementary School. “The students all laughed and thought it was wonderful.”

After an incipient student walk-out at Rowland High School was suppressed in the morning, it was pretty much “business as usual,” many students said.

“The only time some of the teachers spoke was when some students wanted to walk out,” said Kendra Turk, a Rowland High School sophomore.

The union, which represents about 75% of the district’s 850 staff members, contends that the district is run by fiscal conservatives who keep large amounts of money in reserve rather than use extra funds for education. The district’s projected reserve in the 1991-92 budget is $3.5 million out of a $90-million budget.

With an expected budget gap this year of $3 million to $5 million, district administrators want to add a student to each class, bringing average class size to 30.5 for elementary schools, 28 for junior high schools and 29 for high schools. The measure, introduced recently into 9-month-old contract negotiations with the teachers union, would represent a savings of $1 million for the district, which has 22 schools.

Mediation on that and other issues failed Wednesday. If further bargaining fails to achieve an agreement, the district ultimately has the right to adopt its final offer for a year, under Public Employee Relations Board rules.

The day of silence, similar to an action by the Hacienda La Puente Teachers Assn. four years ago, did not play well with some parents. “How dare you use my child for political purposes,” said Katherine Cole, who had just dropped her 7-year-old daughter off at the Shelyn school. “I am livid.”

But some teachers said the day worked as an educational tool.

“My students used a lot of skills that they’ve learned all year,” said Betty James, a kindergarten teacher at Leseda Elementary School.

“We did a lot of praising, with high fives and thumbs up and smiling,” she said. “My cheeks are kind of tired now, but I had a wonderful day.”


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