Walking and talking with L.A. teachers on strike
Teachers Patricia Andrade (left) and Ivonne Cachu | Eric A. Gordon/PW

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 22—As I was completing the final edit on my interviews with several striking teachers that I conducted on Fri., Jan. 18, I received from an LAUSD preschool teacher the following text message at 10:01 a.m. today: “We’ve reached a tentative agreement. Now it has to be ratified by ALL the members or the majority of us I should say. Everyone is already celebrating.” More on that as the story develops, but tentatively it seems as though the deal worked out through the offices of Mayor Eric Garcetti met most of the union’s demands. Teachers are back in their classrooms on Wed., Jan. 23, after six days out.

After the union’s downtown Grand Park rally on Friday, whose shouts and cheers could be heard by negotiators in the adjacent City Hall, the L.A. County Federation of Labor sponsored an informal “cookout” for the teachers. I thought that might be a good place to talk with some teachers, and also accompany many of them who would then proceed to the complex of schools at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools on South Catalina Street, about a mile away, for the daily closeout of school.

David Hadji Christodoulou is a special education teacher in his third year at the School for the Visual Arts and Humanities at the RFK campus. This is his seventh year of teaching. His class has kids with mild to moderate disabilities. “I teach a special day class, a smaller learning environment for students with special needs that require equal access and comprehension to the general education curriculum. Almost all our students are artistically inclined.”

Do you have enough supplies for your classroom? “Our campus is a little different because we’re a pilot school so we have more autonomy. I haven’t had to purchase as many supplies at this school as I have in the past. We have more control over our budget so our administrators make sure that we have the supplies we need.

“Actually, the salary offer agreement has already been reached, but more of this is about fixing the learning conditions in LAUSD so students can be more successful. Parents don’t want to send their kids to charter schools, but if you starve our schools and put 43 students in a classroom, that’s an untenable situation. Plus the lack of resources like nurses, counselors.

Tell me more about class size. “We have different caps on our classes. My cap is 12 to one, that’s 12 students with special needs to one teacher. But that’s never been the case for me. They have caps on general education classrooms in the district but there’s a section of the contract called 1.5, which allows the district every year to say we’re in a state of emergency, and it allows them to go around all those cap sizes. So even though I’m capped at 12, I’ve had classes as high as 21. It should be illegal because these are guidelines that are mandated by the federal government around special education, but because of 1.5 they’re able to go around it.”

How about resources if your cap is made higher? “We make it work. We’re teachers and we’re very crafty, so we’re used to living in an environment where we’ve already been so accustomed, so we just make do. And that’s what everybody’s sick of, just making do with what we have.

“Aside from any other argument, our government spends 57 percent of our GDP on the military industrial complex, so I don’t want to hear that there’s not money for education. We need to be investing in our country. How do you invest in your country and your infrastructure? You invest in your youth, and those are things our country needs to invest in.

“California is 46th in the country in our pupil spending. We get about $10,000 a student, not enough, so it’s a Sacramento issue as well. State legislators need to allocate money for schools. Lots of states are well over $20,000, and some states are as high as $30,000 per student. It’s super important that we feed our schools, just like we need to feed ourselves.”

And at that point we had arrived at the steam tables with unidentified aluminum foil-wrapped lunch items that turned out to be hot dogs.

You just learn to survive

I walked back to the JFK Schools with 4th grade teacher Patricia Andrade. She started off talking about how union membership has been holding up in the wake of the disastrous Janus case. “We anticipated this ahead of time before there was a ruling on the Janus case. The union drafted a new Janus-proof membership application, and we did a whole campaign trying to re-card every single member of the union with a recommitment card with language that was different. We began at the school sites, then we did phonebanking, and made an organized effort in advance of the strike. We were very successful. Most of us recommitted, and that itself was very powerful.”

I was still curious about the issue of school supplies, as so many other teachers had emphasized this point. “It’s been a problem for a few years. Things are necessary to teach: You need art supplies, pencils, paper, basic supplies. They have to be rationed. There has to be money for it. It’s difficult for schools to make that money last for a whole year. Paper gets used, crayons get used. When you have a truly funded school those things shouldn’t be an issue, those materials should be available. You should be able to go to the storeroom and grab what you need for your lesson for the day. But with budget constraints we always get the message there’s not enough money. You just learn to survive.

“A lot of us use Donors Choose, a nonprofit organization for Title 1 schools, where people can donate, and the money goes directly to the classroom. So that’s one way. But there’s grants, and we’re resourceful. If there’s not the money for it, we find it, or in the last case, which happens, we pay out of our own pocket. It’s been like that the last few years. The priority of public education has been not number one in this country for  a long time, and I don’t know if it ever was, but we were way better at one point.

“You have to be really knowledgeable about who are in positions of leadership and power. Beutner already had a history. He’s never been a teacher so are we placing someone in charge of a district who has no educational experience, has never been in a classroom? For most of us who have been experienced teachers, we can tell you it doesn’t take a year to tell how a classroom works, but the more experienced you are,  you’re learning with your students.”

The future of every child

Ivonne Cachu teaches the Spanish language part of the day in 1st and 2nd grades at Ambassador School of Global Leadership, one of the six pilot schools that comprise the RFK complex. I asked Ivonne for her take on school supplies. “You go into teaching knowing you won’t have enough supplies. So at the beginning of the school year, just as parents are out there shopping for supplies, we’re at all the sales.

“We were given a box of small boxes of twelve crayons, and that was it for the year. First graders go through crayons, copy paper, pencils, erasers. If you want to do some art and have nice white paper to draw on, good luck.

Lunch for striking teachers at L.A. County Federation of Labor / Eric Gordon/PW

“A lot of what we do comes out of our personal pocket and a lot of my colleagues’ pockets too. There are some donor organizations that you write small grants for and different people will fund your project. We do a lot from that. Also crowdsourcing, where you write up your project and they help you get it out to everyone. Family and friends will pitch in to help with your project, some of our bigger things, like PE equipment or special office supply equipment or yoga balls.”

Do parents kick in? “We are not allowed to ask for these things from the families, so we do kindly ask, if you can, you can donate these things. Most teachers put out a wish list, but we don’t want to tax the families, most of whom are hurting. Ziploc bags, wipies, cleaning supplies, we ask for wipes for the tables, Kleenex. It’s all for the students. The parents respond, they’re really happy to. They want the best for their children, just like any parent would. Some parents, instead of donating one box of markers, they donate two boxes.

“We pull our resources together, we share resources. As far the school district giving us the money for supplies, that’s a no. That’s a big issue in this strike. There’s a reserve of $1.9 billion sitting there that can be used better, not just for crayons, but nurses, psychologists, counselors, staffing, reducing class size, major things. I have 24 first and 24 second graders. That’s the biggest thing we’re aiming for: If you ask any teacher, it’s reducing class size. It’s creating violence, it’s a violent action against our children, against our future, where you cram too many in one sitting, where you’re undernourished. What do you expect to happen? Crayons definitely, but there are bigger things.

“I just hope the public realizes we all deserve a better raise. But it’s not about that; for me it’s about the future of my child and the future of every child in the district and having classes where they can actually function and be cared for and have the attention and have access to a proper education and a fair education across the board not based on the color of your skin or your economic background or your test scores.”

My friend the preschool teacher just sent me another text message: “It was a BIG waste of time for something that should have been resolved without a strike. Shame on the district!!”

But obviously, it did take a strike, and the mobilization of fervent citywide support for the teachers, just to get the contract they should have won in the first place. Angelenos are a lot wiser now as to what they’re up against—nothing less than the destruction and selloff of our public ownership of schools.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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