An L.A. teacher went rogue during the strike and met students for class at a mall

Local high school students study AP biology with their teacher whom they "coincidentally" met inside the food court at the Northridge Fashion Center on the first day of the teachers' strike.
Local high school students study AP biology with their teacher whom they “coincidentally” met inside the food court at the Northridge Fashion Center on the first day of the teachers’ strike.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Who knows how many rules they were breaking, this rogue Advanced Placement biology class from a high school that shall remain nameless?

There they were, huddled under the bright lights of the Northridge Fashion Center food court Monday, the first day of the teachers’ strike. Four heads of dark shiny hair bent over rapidly filling notebook paper. Four pens scribbling fast.

As their teacher — yes, their striking teacher, fresh from the picket line, resplendent in #RedForEd — lectured about RNA and DNA and lactose and proteins, cytoplasm and ribosomes.

“I told you guys that we’re ‘randomly’ meeting here,” the teacher told the giggling scholars.


“It’s purely coincidence,” responded Alina, a 16-year-old junior from West Hills, breaking into a big smile.

Technically speaking, members of United Teachers Los Angeles who are striking for smaller classes and bigger paychecks should not be explicating the finer points of “central dogma and gene regulation” with their students.

Technically speaking, Los Angeles Unified School District students should be on campus on an official school day, strike or not. Otherwise, they are technically considered truant, and the financially strapped district loses money.

It is unclear how many students opted to play hooky as their teachers walked out. But they cropped up throughout the city Monday — on picket lines, in Starbucks branches, shopping malls and arcades —basically anywhere dry and, in most cases, without adult supervision.

“I randomly ended up here,” said the teacher, who declined to give her name. “I finished picketing. I’ll be finished hanging out at the food court at 2 p.m. so I can picket at 2:30 p.m.”

She shrugged. “I have to be somewhere.”

And the AP tests are just around the corner. Every day of instruction her students miss threatens their success on the difficult tests. A few tables over, students from her AP physics class waited for their shot at purloined instruction.

They all want to learn.

And she wants to teach.

Seniors at Chatsworth Charter High School hang out inside the Northridge Fashion Center instead of being in class as a result of the teachers' strike.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Alina called the strike “inconvenient, because APs, the exam is coming up.” But Priyanka, a 13-year-old sophomore from Chatsworth, disagreed. Her mother is a teacher.

This first UTLA strike in 30 years is “a way for the teachers to get what they need,” Priyanka said before turning her attention back to biology. “The class sizes are really too big, and not everybody can get the help they need.”

Maliha and her classmate Jessica sipped passion fruit tea and sea salt coffee as they waited for the start of their shopping center class. They were worried about missed lessons, sympathetic toward their teachers and enjoying a little stealth for scholarship’s sake. Like the other AP students, their last names are missing for a reason.

“We all just coincidentally brought our stuff, and we all just coincidentally saw [our teacher] here,” Maliha said with a smirk. “It’s a place we can all gather together. Coincidence.”

Seriously, though, “AP physics is a hard class to take,” she said. “If you fall behind, you’re not going to be able to catch up. ... A lot of people drop out or don’t take it.”

Not everyone at the mall was academically inclined. Fernando Zermeno, an 18-year-old senior from Chatsworth Charter High School, was simply “hanging out” with four of his friends.

Forget about English and physical education and math and graphic design. He skipped school because he “didn’t feel like it,” he said. “Nobody was going.”

What about the strike? “I really don’t know.”

Nicole Laus and Rea Angeli, both 15, do know why their teachers are AWOL. They came to the Northridge mall, they said, as a political act after a couple of hours on the picket line at Grover Cleveland Charter High School, where they are both sophomores.

“After the strike, it’s better not to go back to school,” Rea said. “You’re crossing the picket line. It’s not helping the teachers. If you can [avoid going to] to school, it’s a little action. It helps them a lot, so why not do it?

“My parents support me,” she said, and she plans to be out until Wednesday “or until it ends. ... Teachers do a lot for us.”

Politics of many kinds pulled Mia Medina, a 17-year-old senior from Northridge, onto the picket line in front of John F. Kennedy High School on Monday morning.

Mia Medina, center, 17, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills, joins teachers and other students on the picket line outside the school on the first day of the strike.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Mia has been broadcasting the morning announcements at Kennedy since she was in ninth grade. That’s when she heard other students do the job, “and I thought it was really cool. I want to go into the entertainment industry, and this is warming up for it.”

But she is no longer welcome on the air at Kennedy, she said, as rain poured down and picketers marched and chanted.

“On Friday morning, I went to do the announcements as usual,” Mia said. “I said, ‘Teachers, we support you.’ I concluded the announcements. My principal asked me who gave me permission to say that.

“I said, ‘Nobody. I stand with the teachers.’ He kicked me off the announcements because of it,” she said. “I thought it was unfair and didn’t feel right. He said he supports the teachers. But when I said I support the teachers, he fires me from my job.”

Kennedy Principal Richard Chavez did not return a call for comment.

Fourteen-year-old Hernan Valtierra took refuge from the rain at a Starbucks in Bell. His plan was to catch up on schoolwork. But he got distracted and watched the Netflix movie “Bird Box” on his laptop instead.

The Bell High School freshman wore red in solidarity. A week ago, his teachers announced that any assignments given during the strike would not be counted toward their grades. So he opted out of class to finish math, English and psychology assignments that would count.

With a nervous laugh, he admitted that his parents didn’t know he skipped school Monday. He figured as long as he stayed close to campus, he’d be safe.

“I might keep coming to Starbucks to try to do work,” he said about his plans for the week if the strike continues. “But I might go to school. I’ve never done this before, so I really don’t know.”

Times staff writer Dorany Pineda contributed to this report.

After being on the picket line early in the morning, Sean Branch, 7, a first-grade student at Beckford Avenue Elementary School in Northridge, enjoys the arcade game "SnoCross" at Dave & Buster's in Northridge.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)