L.A. Unified teachers hold ‘wake’ for downtown school

I was invited to a “wake” at Evans Community Adult School earlier this month.

It was a memorial service -- to the school itself.

“We are being systematically eliminated,” said Planaria Price, the teacher who invited me to the June 16 event. She said she was being forced to retire after 40 “glorious” years at the school.

At that moment, Evans was sort of half-dead. The school is part of the cash-strapped Los Angeles Unified School District. So many teachers were retiring, or facing layoffs, Price said, that the staff had decided to turn their annual year-end party into a wake “for Evans as we know it.”


The big white box of the Evans campus on North Figueroa Street downtown is a city unto itself. Some 20,000 people take classes there every year. Teaching at Evans is an especially fulfilling job, because nearly all the students there are desperately hungry to be educated.

Evans students go to class after long hours at low-paying jobs. They make huge personal sacrifices to learn English or get high school diplomas or both. Over the years, many have gone on to get college degrees and become Evans teachers themselves.

“I’d come here and take classes, and survive all day on French fries for a dollar,” said one of those former students, Faranza Cassim, a Burmese immigrant who became a technology teacher at Evans. “But I was really happy because I was learning so much.”

Teaching students like Cassim is the kind of job that brings you joy even when you have to leave it.

“I would say this is more like an Irish wake,” said one of the teachers. In other words, a celebration as much as a goodbye.

And there was also the small matter of who was really “dead,” and who wasn’t.

As the farewell party unfolded that Saturday, June 16, severe cuts were planned for Evans, as they were for all the other campuses in the LAUSD adult-ed system. A few thousand layoff notices had been sent out. So many, one union official told me, that the district’s entire adult-education system would practically cease to exist if they were implemented.

But on the same day the teachers’ union was also voting on a series of contract concessions. If they approved those concessions, there would still be layoffs at Evans and the other campuses, but they wouldn’t be quite as severe.

As teacher after teacher took to the podium to sing the praises of their school, the staff was in a kind of limbo. Half-dead, half-alive. For many teachers and other staffers -- and not just at Evans -- that’s what it’s like to work for the Los Angeles Unified School District these days.

“There are so many uncertainties for the future,” Marc Yablonka told me. “It’s been a stressful year psychologically for a lot of us.”

After years of threatened cuts, of layoff notices sent out, rescinded and then sent out again, Yablonka had had enough. A 36-year veteran of the district, he had decided that this year’s layoff notice would be the last one he’d ever get from the LAUSD. Without waiting to see the result of the union vote, he had decided to retire.

“I didn’t know if I could do this again,” Yablonka told me.

At the LAUSD, years of austerity and budget brinkmanship have taken a human toll that can’t be quantified. The tension of the yearly poker game of cuts and layoff notices and concessions is simply wearing people out.

“They are hurting so much, but you won’t see the stress in the classrooms where they teach,” Cassim said of her fellow teachers, tears welling in her eyes. “To their students, they are always hopeful.”

Cassim, now 36, also got a layoff notice. It was an especially hard blow, because she’s thought of Evans as a second home since first arriving there as a student in 1994.

“I know more about this school, and where things are, than I know about my own house,” she told me.

She started at Evans in English 1B, in Room 218, and eventually took five classes a day. Later, she took high school classes there, and got her diploma in 1999. She went to college, got a degree at Cal State L.A., and came back to Evans as a teacher’s assistant.

In 2009, she got a full-fledged teaching job at Evans. And this year, she also taught workshops on classroom technology to other teachers. Very often, her students were the men and women who once taught her.

“They kept showing up for my presentations, even knowing they were going to be laid off,” Cassim told me.

Cassim hoped to keep her own job but was not hopeful about the prospects. She’s a “newbie” teacher, she told me, without tenure.

I called Cassim a week after the farewell party. Union members had approved the concessions. But Cassim’s name wasn’t on the list of rescinded layoffs. She was still hopeful that Evans might find a way to keep her, though she was also entertaining an offer in faraway Rowland Heights.

“In my family, we say we have teaching in the blood,” she told me. Her aunts and uncles were teachers in Burma -- like many natives of that country, she prefers not to use its newer name, Myanmar.

“When I was a little girl I was always tutoring other children,” she told me.

Somewhere, in the near future, you’ll find Faranza Cassim sharing with students the passion for learning she cultivated for 17 years at Evans Community Adult School. She might still be working as an LAUSD employee. Or she may not be.

But teaching is in her blood. And no layoff notice or budget cut can take that away from her.