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Miramonte Elementary reopens with hopes of redemption

After checking classroom lists attached to orange poster boards outside Miramonte Elementary School on Tuesday, about 900 children passed through an entry gate and headed for the blacktop. A dozen students played kickball for as long as they could get away with it. One boy fist-bumped a teacher he recognized.

Just the normal bustle and excitement of the first day of school. But to Miramonte’s teachers, it was redemption.

After the January arrest of former colleague Mark Berndt for alleged lewd conduct, followed by the arrest of a second teacher for unrelated alleged lewd conduct, the entire staff had been ordered off the campus. It was the only way, Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy said at the time, to assure parents that their children’s safety was primary.

PHOTOS: Sex abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary

But nothing untoward emerged about the other teachers, who were forced to wait out the rest of the school year at a nearby unopened high school.

A couple of them since have retired. Some accepted jobs at a new elementary school down the street. A handful are working as substitutes elsewhere — at full salary — while they seek permanent positions.

But most are back at Miramonte.

“We were here one day and the next day we were gone,” teacher Robyn Bancroft, 39, said. “We want to restore our reputations and let the kids know that this was not a choice that we made.”

This year, Bancroft chose to teach sixth grade so that she could be reunited with the fifth-graders she had to leave last spring.

Emmanuel Reyes, 29, had just started teaching at Miramonte and was on vacation when the scandal broke.

“I did not get to meet with my replacement,” Reyes said. “I came back on a Saturday and cleaned out my classroom. I left my phone number and email and wrote my last lessons on the white board. Hopefully, she continued from where I left off.”

The son of Central Valley farmworkers, Reyes said he had known he wanted to be a teacher since the day in third grade when his instructor praised his ability to help other students.

Maria Miranda, 35, who is known by colleagues as a tough, pro-union activist, eventually went public with the outrage and despair felt by Miramonte teachers. But she had difficulty relating her experiences without breaking down.

She talked about a letter she received from a first-grader whose parents were separated. He included a picture of himself holding onto his mother, who was carrying a baby. The boy wrote: “I miss you. Will I lose my mother next?”

Staff meetings at the school where the teachers spent their spring without students sometimes resembled group therapy sessions, teachers and other district staff said. But the teachers did use the time to get technology and curriculum training, design model lessons, learn CPR and take part in a disaster-preparedness program.

For several months, many parents and children rallied to the defense of the removed teachers; other parents accused adults in the system of failing to look out for their children.

Some parents seemed hesitant about having their children at Miramonte this year.

“I’m kind of iffy, I have to admit,” Wendy Soto said. Soto has fond memories of attending Miramonte, but said she only enrolled her daughter there after financial difficulties made it hard to pay for Catholic school.

Parent Nery Garcia said she would have preferred for the replacement teachers to remain, just to “start over again and fresh.”

Principal Marta Contreras, 43, arrived at Miramonte last year as an assistant principal, part of the replacement staff.

“There’s a lot of healing to be done,” Contreras said in an interview. “A lot of trust restoration still lies ahead for us.”

After the class bell rang, Contreras shepherded kindergartners and their parents to the auditorium — and began a talk that probably mirrored orientations across Southern California.

Staff members at Miramonte would be sticklers for rules, she told them. No adult, for example, would be allowed to pick up a child unless he or she was listed on the child’s paperwork.

Contreras also emphasized that parents were invited to visit their children’s classrooms throughout the year.

When she signaled for the kindergarten teachers to enter, the parents applauded.

Parent Linda Barrera said she was ready to move forward.

“Most of the teachers are really good people, and they were just as angry as the parents about what happened,” Barrera said. “They also wanted to get the bad guys.”

Fifth-grader April Gonzalez had nothing against the replacement teachers, but was thrilled about the return of familiar faces.

“My teacher,” April said, “she was like a second mother to me.”

howard.blume@latimes.com


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