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Student knows cost of cuts

David Vera, 18, has his young heart set on becoming a film editor or an actor. So the challenge posted on the door of his film arts class at Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley held obvious appeal.

Student VIDEO Contest Capture the Impact of Budget Cuts in Your School & You Could Win Big

The challenge had come from Los Angeles Unified School Board member Tamar Galatzan.

“We hear from all of the adults about budget cuts,” Galatzan told me. That would be the teachers, administrators, parents, union bosses, legislators.

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“But we don’t hear from the students.”

Good point. And it’s not as if the wisdom of the adults has gotten us anywhere.

So Galatzan put out the word in her district, asking students in high school, middle school and elementary school to see what they could accomplish in one short reel, and she wasn’t kidding about “short.” The videos had to be one minute or less.

Vera’s first attempt was no Oscar contender, although it wasn’t bad. He took his camcorder and shot classroom scenes that showed a teacher disappearing and the number of students jammed into classrooms multiplying.

“Budget cuts cost teachers jobs,” said a voice from on high, “but cost students opportunities.”

Vera turned it in to teacher Vince Toto but insisted on taking another try.

That’s when the music came to him.

“Tell me what’s wrong with society,” begins the song called “Crazy,” by Simple Plan.

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The lyrics were perfect.

Is everybody going crazy?

Is anybody going to save me?

Tell me what’s going on . . .

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If you open your eyes

You’ll see that something is wrong

Next, the soundtrack needed some drama. That’s where L.A. Unified gave the aspiring filmmaker a gift:

His favorite teacher got a pink slip.

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That would be Travis Aranaga, an ambitious young teacher in his third year and loving every minute of his job. Aranaga’s parents were both teachers, and he always knew he wanted to follow them into the profession. He went and got two masters degrees and threw himself into the job at Monroe.

But none of that mattered. The school district based its job cuts on seniority alone, and Aranaga’s neck was under the budget ax.

Is everybody going crazy?

“David came to me one day and said he’d like me to do this video with him,” said Aranaga.

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The teacher was game, not just because he wanted to help Vera but also because he was livid about the prospect of losing a job he’d worked so hard to be good at.

Vera recruited a friend to serve as cinematographer, and the friend shot footage of Vera strolling through campus on his way to class. Using a split-screen technique and constant wardrobe changes, the one-minute video covers a two-week span in which Vera is seen struggling with algebra but getting one-on-one help in after-school sessions with Aranaga. Then one day, he finds Aranaga cleaning out his desk after getting canned.

The video ends with this graphic:

“Maybe that one teacher was inspiration and motivation to a desperate student.”

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“I knew it was a winner when I saw it,” said Toto.

“I got goose bumps,” said Aranaga. “I’m not kidding.”

Aranaga, Toto, Vera and I were talking about the video last Friday, just a few hours before Vera was to graduate. As we chatted, Vera’s French teacher appeared in the doorway.

“That’s a special student,” said Barbara Avery, telling me Vera was a delight to have in class, and his French wasn’t bad, either. “Every once in a while, you get a kid like that.”

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And as a student, Vera said, every once in a while you get a teacher you really connect with. For him, it was Aranaga, who had a knack for getting the best out of him. After school, they frequently played chess or just talked.

Talked about what? I asked.

“About everything,” said Vera, who was upset that his little brother, two years behind him, might not have had a chance to take history or social studies with Aranaga.

As it turned out, Aranaga refused to go quietly. He fought his dismissal, arguing that if he were given credit for all the overtime he had worked, he’d have enough seniority to avoid a layoff.

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In the end, he won the fight. But he’s still seething about the experience and about all the others at Monroe and elsewhere who will lose their jobs for no reason other than lack of seniority.

Avery agreed. “It’s just horrible,” she said. “Absolutely horrible.”

There has to be a way for teachers, administrators, parents and students to fairly evaluate teachers, Avery said, so that when layoffs are necessary, experience is not the only consideration.

She expects to get some heat for advocating that sort of reform. She’s Monroe’s co-chapter chair of United Teachers Los Angeles, and the union has staunchly defended basing layoffs on seniority, not evaluations.

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I should note that Avery and Aranaga hesitated before speaking their minds, something few of their colleagues are willing to do publicly. But they felt it was important to do so, and Aranaga added that he felt “hung out to dry” by union leadership.

“I’m not saying old teachers are bad,” said Aranaga, “but for every five good ones there’s a bad one, and there’s no way to get rid of those guys.”

Avery said more than 20 Monroe teachers got layoff notices, and it appeared that roughly a third of them would actually lose their jobs.

“And some of those teachers are better than I could ever hope to be,” said Aranaga. “In their first year, they’re better than I can be.”

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This discussion was of course inspired by a moving mini-documentary by a student, and that was precisely Galatzan’s point. She said she cried when she saw Vera’s video, and her hope is that state legislators will see all the student videos before swinging their budget ax again. She also said the tenure-only system of teacher layoffs is not in the best interest of students, and it’s time to find a better way.

Vera, by the way, won the high school division of Galatzan’s contest, which means he’ll take home $500 and have a nice entry on his application to film school. All the winning videos will be screened next Tuesday night at Valley College, but you can get an early screening by going to www.galatzan.laschoolboard..

And be sure to turn up the volume on the song “Crazy.”

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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