Dave Clark left a sign-up sheet in the teachers’ lounge at Jaime Escalante Elementary School, in a spot typically reserved for mundane announcements or the holiday potluck list.
It was a quiet plea on behalf of his wife, a fellow sixth-grade teacher, who faced months of chemotherapy, surgeries and overwhelming exhaustion after a breast cancer diagnosis last year.
The sign-up sheet was intended for teachers and other staff to pledge up to 20 of their own sick days to Carol Clark, who could use them as she recovered.
She had exhausted all her accumulated sick leave and vacation and she was close to losing all pay in her recovery. The Clarks turned to a little-known program called the Catastrophic Illness Donation program, which allows teachers to receive donations of sick leave from other district employees. Teachers may use it once in their careers and only after taking all other paid leave. They also must show proof that a severe illness keeps them from the classroom.
Teachers receive 10 sick days a year; unused time rolls over every year.
The donation program is not unique to Los Angeles Unified. About half the state’s 1,000 districts have some form of it, which is often a point of negotiation between teachers unions and school districts, according to the California Teachers Assn.
Last year, 23 of L.A. Unified’s 30,000 teachers used donated sick days.
Carol Clark tried to return to the Cudahy school while undergoing chemotherapy last year, but after a bad reaction to the treatment she took time off. She returned months later, only to be sidelined again by complications. She quickly burned through the remainder of about 15 years’ worth of sick time.
Her husband researched the donation program, hoping his wife wouldn’t need to use it. Eventually though, it became necessary, and with the help of district officials and a colleague at work, they navigated the paperwork.
He was reluctant to ask his co-workers to donate their time. The request, however, spread far more quickly and much more widely than the couple had anticipated.
Over a few weeks, teachers and others across the Los Angeles Unified School District gave 154 days.
“When I got the pledge forms back, it’s people I’ve never seen giving us five days, 10 days,” he said. “We don’t even know these people.”
“I was pretty blown away,” Carol Clark said. “It’s an indescribable feeling. It increases your faith in humanity.”
Raquel Prado, an instructor at the school and friend of the couple, assisted them with the required forms. When she later went to each teacher to fill out the final, binding paperwork for the donations, she found that some had given even more than they had pledged.
Colleagues describe Carol Clark as a standout instructor, especially in English, who has a flair for teaching and a distinct nurturing way of bringing out the most from her students. The outpouring of support was no surprise, they say.
“Everybody stepped up. Everybody rallied for her,” said Stefanie Barbee, another sixth-grade teacher.
One teacher’s donation especially took Carol Clark by surprise. The two never seemed to hit it off over the years and rarely even spoke.
“She gave 10 days,” she said.
She returned to the school this month, her classroom just down the hall from her husband’s, though she still has some donated time off to use if she needs it. Exhaustion hits her at the end of the day, and she’s had a bit more trouble remembering the names of her students.
“It’s hard to get back in the swing of things, but I do enjoy being back and interacting with the students,” she said. “That’s been good for me.”
A few days after she had briefly explained her health issues to her students, one girl walked to the front of class after school and handed her a get-well card.
“Thank you for teaching me today,” the girl told her.