During the L.A. teachers’ strike, a child went to a museum. Here’s what she missed at school

Sofia Barajas, 6, visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County during the UTLA teachers strike.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Sofia Barajas ran to the microscope and started toggling levers back and forth. Nothing happened. Eventually she figured out that the small, clear block encasing a dragonfly was meant to go under the lens. Then the insect would appear, enlarged, on the screen in front of her.

It was the 6-year-old’s first time using a microscope. She found it in the Nature Lab at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, after visiting her favorite friends at the museum: the dinosaurs, because “I like seeing the bones.” Fair enough.

Sofia, like the majority of students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District, was not in school last week. Instead, on Wednesday afternoon, the Natural History Museum became her classroom.

The museum in Exposition Park offered free admission to LAUSD students for the duration of a teachers’ strike. Sofia was one of nearly 6,000 children and chaperones who took advantage of the offer last week, a museum spokeswoman said.

Sofia Barajas and her mom, Erica Barajas, visit the National History Museum during the L.A. Unified teachers' strike.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Sofia’s mom, Erica Barajas, decided to keep her kindergartner out of Buchanan Street Elementary School for a number of reasons. First, she supports the teachers and their demands, and the teachers union encouraged families that could to keep their children away.

She also was not sure what kind of supervision the kids would have, she said.

A visit to Sofia’s school on Thursday offered a picture of what Sofia was missing.

By late morning, 31 students had reported to her school that day — including four of her fellow kindergartners. Enrollment had continued to fall at the Highland Park school over the course of the week, as it did across the district.

On Monday, about 30% of the 350 students enrolled had shown up and it was downhill from there, Nancy San Jose, the school’s principal, said Thursday.

On Thursday, the 31 present, spanning kindergarten through fifth grade, were in all in a single classroom, sitting in clusters of desks grouped by teacher.

They were actually doing Sofia’s favorite activity: what she calls “counting collections” but her teachers know as “cognitively guided instruction.”

Teacher assistant Amanda Perez works with kindergarten students at Buchanan Street Elementary School.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Each student had a worksheet and objects piled on the table in front of them. One group had beaded necklaces, another square plastic blocks. Older students had more things to count than younger ones — but the goal of the exercise was to see how they conceptualized math by watching how they did their grouping and counting. The idea in general is to help educators tailor instruction to the way their students think.

On this day though, San Jose was the only one in the room with a teaching credential; a handful of classified employees — teaching assistants for both general and special education students — walked among the groups to help. While the kids were learning, San Jose said, it wasn’t the same as having their teachers there.

The school system depends on children showing up. State funding is tied to attendance. But providing instruction without teachers was easier when fewer students showed up.

The youngest in the room, two kindergarten girls, were counting popcorn kernels, sorting them into plastic cups, 10 at a time.

After counting, the whole group moved one room over to play board games and transition into lunch.

On Monday, when more than 100 students attended, they watched “Charlotte’s Web” toward the end of the day.

Even though San Jose said she would have liked to see all her students at school, she didn’t quibble when she heard about what Sofia had been up to lately.

“Field trips are also good learning opportunities,” the principal said.

Sofia Barajas, 6, checks out a coyote at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County during the teachers' strike.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Reach Sonali Kohli at or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.