At a Watts school, layoffs take a heavy toll

When the Los Angeles Unified School District laid off thousands of teachers last spring, the school where I teach, Markham Middle School in Watts, was decimated. Already one of the lowest performing in the state, Markham lost more than half its teachers. The number was so high because inner-city schools like ours tend to have a disproportionate share of teachers just starting their careers, and in last year's layoffs, the most recently hired were the first to receive pink slips. But at Markham, many of those teachers were extremely dedicated and hoped to build a career at the school.

Because experienced teachers from throughout the district weren't lining up to transfer here, the school was left scrambling to staff classes. Today, months into the school year, many students are still without permanent teachers. Some teachers who received layoff notices agreed to stay on as long-term substitutes, working without the benefits we'd received the previous year.

I was one of them until January, when I was rehired by the district as a full-time teacher.

Currently, more than 20% of Markham's teaching staff consists of long-term substitutes, and as late as December, we still had six vacant classrooms where students were taught by a constantly rotating parade of substitutes. This kind of instability would be difficult at any school. But at a school like ours, where many students are desperately poor and often have language difficulties as well, it has been catastrophic.

In general, I think that decisions about a child's education should be made in the classroom, not the courtroom. But like a lot of other Markham teachers, I applaud the lawsuit filed last week by a coalition of civil rights attorneys to defend California's most neglected children by seeking to stop the layoffs at three inner-city middle schools.

The lawsuit argues that students at schools like Markham have been denied their constitutional right to equal educational opportunities as a result of the layoffs. Because of the numerous teacher vacancies, the lawsuit notes, many of these students will not be able to cover all the material required by California standards by the time of state exams in May.

From what I have seen at Markham, the lawsuit's allegations are accurate.

Opportunities for instruction have been wasted in classrooms where struggling substitutes cope by handing out crossword puzzles or by having students copy pages out of a textbook.

It can be tough to establish discipline in middle school classrooms in the best of circumstances, and with so many different substitutes, many classrooms were too chaotic for learning to occur.

Some of the school's best students were given Cs by teachers at a loss for how to grade students who haven't been assigned reading or papers or tests. The lawsuit cites the story of one student who lost her 4.0 GPA because a teacher simply didn't have enough information to evaluate her, and so assigned an arbitrary grade.

Even in classrooms where teachers have now been hired permanently, students are desperately far behind. While eighth-grade history students throughout the city and state were studying the Civil War, students in some classes at Markham had barely gotten to the Articles of Confederation. Some newly hired teachers have been instructed to catch up by simply skipping important eras of U.S. history, which makes it likely that their students will perform poorly on state tests.

Many of the new teachers trying to fill the gaps are very good. But they face daunting challenges in classrooms where children have gone months without stable, qualified instructors. The system has failed both the students in the classroom and the teachers who are trying to educate them.

If anyone doubts the benefit of permanent teachers in classrooms, consider this: Since Markham has filled the open positions in its history department, our students' test scores on district periodic exams have jumped an average of 21.4%.

Half a century after Brown vs. Board of Education, and years after we committed ourselves to leaving no child behind, we still have a long way to go. The reasons for educational disparities like this may be less deliberate than in the era of forced segregation, but the effects are no less insidious. I strongly doubt that what happened at Markham this year would have been tolerated at an affluent school in a better part of town.

In my experience at Markham, behind every "far below basic" state test score is a child who would like to excel. Without good teachers, however, students will fall too far behind to ever catch up. As one study cited in the lawsuit found, a student without a consistent classroom teacher for two years is more likely than not to fall irreparably behind peers who have had classes with consistent teaching.

The city and its schools need to come to grips with this situation. If there is another round of layoffs, many of our children will lose more than their teachers. They will lose their futures.

Nicholas Melvoin teaches English as a second language at Markham Middle School.

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