The Los Angeles area has been under drought conditions for what seems like forever, so, naturally, the first day of the United Teachers Los Angeles strike was pouring rain, with more forecast to come.
That didn’t stop the teachers from hitting the picket lines, though. At am on Monday, at Susan Miller Dorsey High School in South LA, some 40 teachers, parents, students, and supporters—from a local tenants’ union—huddled under umbrellas and tents, passing around donated red ponchos and drinking coffee. The crowd swelled as the morning wore on, though the weather didn’t improve.
Sharonne Huaparachy, the chapter leader for the union, began by announcing she was taking attendance, while another teacher called out, “Sharonne, the best chapter chair!” The numbers matter—the union, referred to by its acronym UTLA, will use them throughout the strike to determine their power—and Huaparachy seems pleased with the turnout, even though the weather was miserable and the sidewalk quickly become a mess of puddles as they marched in front of the school. One teacher had painted her black-and-white umbrella with strike slogans: “Today’s lesson: Stand up for what’s right,” “I’m doing this for my students,” and, of course, “#RedforEd,” the hashtag associated with last year’s strike wave of teachers in “red” states.
The Los Angeles teachers are on strike for the first time since 1989, demanding a change to conditions that have become intolerable. They’re demanding reduced class sizes; more counselors, nurses, and psychologists; less testing; a cap on charter schools; and an increase in statewide, per-student funding to raise California from its current, dismal rank of 43rd in the nation for such spending. Before voting to strike, they spent 20 months bargaining with the superintendent, Austin Beutner, who was chosen by LA’s elected school board, only to hit a stalemate on the major demands. A few months earlier, Beutner had accused the union of bargaining in bad faith, but to talk to the teachers—about the experience each day of teaching in LA’s schools, about their reasons for striking—was to understand that they had put their faith in a school system that continued to fail them.
I spoke to teachers who have classes with 49 students in them: “There were kids standing, there were kids sharing desks, totally unfair when kids in other parts of southern California have much smaller classes,” history teacher Noah Lippe-Klein told me as passing cars honked in support. “Last year we had a college counselor, and this year we don’t have a college counselor because we didn’t have the funds for it,” he said.
At a school like Dorsey, where the majority of the students are working-class black kids from South LA, the teachers are frustrated with the district’s proposal to create a two-tier system for their health insurance, but more so with the fact that their students aren’t given a fair shot.
One of those students, Marshe Doss, was there to support the teachers. She wore a red hoodie that said “Students Deserve.” This, she told me, is the name of a student-led organization that “fights to make black lives matter in schools” by, among other things, calling for funding and wraparound services at schools like hers. “We’re fighting to get the things that we deserve, and the teachers are helping our fight. But this is also a students’ fight.”
A few hours later, the teachers from Dorsey had joined what UTLA estimated was 60,000 umbrellaed and ponchoed marchers in Grand Park. The crowd seemed to go on forever, stretching in every direction through the maze of downtown LA streets. At one point, the march passed through a tunnel, and the echoing chants, drumbeats, and cheers built to a shattering racket. As they exited the tunnel, a group of teachers clustered behind a massive banner reading “We stand with LA teachers fighting for our students” chanted, simply, “Strike! Strike!” to the beats of a giant bass drum.
Their destination was the Los Angeles Unified School District office, where superintendent Beutner may or may not have been looking out on the many signs that bore his name. Outside the office, union leaders spoke to the gathered teachers from a flatbed truck. The mood remained jubilant, even as the wind turned umbrellas inside out and teachers broke off to begin the trek back to the picket lines outside their schools.
This trip across the district, which runs from Tujunga in the north to Long Beach on the ocean, could take as long as two hours in Los Angeles traffic. The district spans 960 square miles and serves some 700,000 students; only New York City’s district serves more, and in far less space. Some teachers spend hours each day sitting in a car; some students spend hours on a bus to get to school. Forging agreement among 30,000 educators across so much space required Herculean efforts, yet 98 percent of voting UTLA members agreed: it was time to strike.
Noriko Nakada was one of these teachers. She began teaching in 1996 and has been an English teacher at Emerson Middle School since 1999. She’s been the chapter chair for the union for several years and served on the union’s steering committee. Over that time, she said, “our staff and our school site have shrunk tremendously. Some of that is changing demographics in Los Angeles, but a lot of it is charter-school operators taking many of our students into their rolls.”
Despite the shrinking student body, she said, class sizes have continued to shoot up, often with 40 middle-schoolers in a classroom. Within those classrooms, LA’s diversity is on full display: “I have a pretty significant portion of students who speak Farsi,” Nakada says. “We have Korean speakers, Chinese speakers. Spanish is still probably primary. We always have a handful of Russian speakers.” These students can face a number of challenges, but, because of the way demographics are calculated, Nakada noted, many of them are not considered “targeted disadvantaged pupils,” which means that the state doesn’t provide the school with some of the additional resources it provides for underserved students.
So it felt like a particularly cruel slap in the face that the district’s final proposal to the union would have raised class sizes—to 39 students for elementary schools, and 46 for secondary. “It really does feel like the district wants us to strike.”
The teachers, though, are ready. “I have been wanting to shut it down for ten years,” Joseph Zeccola, who teaches at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, told me before I could even get my recorder turned on. “I am also terrified. I have never done this.” He added: “I just think until we do something like this, they are never going to respect our power and they are never going to say, ‘We have to take unions seriously.’”
Zeccola is a national board-certified teacher and a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year; he laughs off the idea that teachers’ unions only serve mediocre teachers. He moved to Los Angeles with dreams of being a screenwriter, but when a writing job fell through, he gave teaching a try. “The kids of South Central pulled me in,” he said. “I always tell people, I teach because I read Howard Zinn and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It immediately introduced me to my privilege and the idea that I could be part of something larger than myself.” He no longer teaches in South Central, but most of his students still come from working-class families, and he still watches kids raid the granola bars he buys because they came to school hungry.
Teaching, he said, “feeds my soul,” but it is also exhausting. “I have got an 11th grade class of 38. This model for education is not sustainable.” Just last week, during what was supposed to have been his vacation, he spent nine hours holding writers’ conferences with his students because, he said, “I can’t have a writers’ conference otherwise and have time to do everything else.” But Zeccola’s about become a father and he’s worried now about how the overtime he’s putting in at school is going to conflict with his family time. “What if I want to feed my soul with my own son? Then what do I do?”
The budget crunch at the schools hasn’t just created crowded classrooms, Zeccola noted. “We pay for our nurse two days a week out of our own budget.” He asked: “What do you not pay for to pay for this? The idea that a nurse isn’t full-time? It’s immoral.” The staff cutbacks even affect custodians. “You could eat off of the floors of the middle school that I taught at when I started,” he said. “Then, they started cutting custodial staff as the cut teachers, and the story of education is we keep doing more with less. My floors are getting mopped two times a week.” With more students in classrooms being cleaned less often, he wondered, how much more often are children—and teachers—catching colds?
Standardized testing is an issue for many of the teachers as well. Zeccola pointed out that he’s the same teacher in Sherman Oaks that he was in South Central, yet his current students’ test scores are higher “because we have more parents paying more attention. That is all.” In South Central, overworked poor parents have no time to put into preparing their children for tests. “They are overburdened because there is no wraparound, there is no community-school model,” he said. Yet the students spend over a month of their year taking tests—assessments that only, he said, show one particular type of smarts.
The union’s demands for arts and ethnic-studies teachers would give students other options for showing their abilities. “If you know kids in South Central, the amount of creativity and improvisation that it takes to make it through a day nurtures artists in ways that you can’t believe. How do we not harness that and launch these kids into a life of creative arts?”
Classroom teachers aren’t the only ones on the picket lines. Lisa Cheby is in her seventh year as teacher librarian at Verdugo High School in Tujunga, high up in the hills in the north of the school district; her library window looks out on a gorgeous mountain view and the other side of the building looks down on the sprawl of Los Angeles. Teacher librarians, she explains, are required to have two credentials, as a regular classroom teacher and then as a librarian. Cheby has taught secondary-school English and has a master’s in library science.
“The primary part of our job, of our duties, is to teach,” she explained. She may not have a roster of students, but in fact, she noted, “I teach everybody’s classes. Teachers bring their students in so I can teach them, whether it be just how to use the library catalogue or how to do college level research in databases.”
She opens the library for students half an hour before the school day begins, for students to come in, get books, print papers, and access computers, and she closes it half an hour after the day ends. During the day, she has different classes come through the room so she can teach them how to use the library, assist them in finding books, and teach them skills that they’ve never had a chance to learn. “Many students don’t know anything about call numbers and the Dewey Decimal System because they haven’t had librarians,” she explained. Students have even asked her how much it costs to check out books.
Teacher librarian positions have been slashed, she said, since before she began teaching. Not only were positions eliminated, but the librarians had to prove that they could still teach in a classroom. Many of them left, and others saw their jobs pared back. When Cheby began, she was itinerant—she’d spend two days a week at one school, three days at another. For a time, she was assigned one campus that had three small schools on it, each with its own tiny library, so she spent just one day a week in each.
Her job is funded five days a week now, but she still relies on the community surrounding her school to support the library, raising funds to bring in new computers and buy more books. The community, she said, really cares about the school, and that translates into strong support for the teachers in the lead-up to the strike. “I think they understand that we are here for the kids,” she said. “I feel like the school values me. There are many people here who would not want to see my position cut.”
Wil Page, who teaches in an environmental magnet program that adds arts to the typical science, technology, and math-focused curriculum, says, “In the six years that I have been here, I’ve had students whose parents have won Tony Awards and Academy Awards. I also have students whose parents are undocumented and their child as a sixth grader is more educated then they are. Those two kids will be sitting next to each other in the same classroom. Which, to me, offers a world of opportunity for both of those kids to see a perspective that they might not see otherwise.” Because his school, Thomas Starr King Middle, is a magnet school, its 2100 students come from all over the city; still, like almost every LAUSD school, the majority of his students are receiving free or reduced-price lunch.
To Page, who noted that living in Los Angeles has become increasingly unaffordable, the biggest issue in the strike isn’t a raise. “Ultimately, what we are looking for as educators in Los Angeles are greater supports for our students.” He wants to see the district crack into its $1.9 billion reserve fund; the district argues most of that money has already been earmarked. But Page sees it as the district is holding on to money while he and his colleagues struggle to do more with less.
Students are so crammed into rooms that were built as much as a century earlier to hold half as many kids, he said, that he can’t walk around, let alone give each student individual attention. “I am in what was supposed to be a temporary structure, and I have 32 seats in my classroom, a few tables. If I were to push that to 36, it would be a struggle to figure out how to arrange the classroom. If I were to have to be at 46, there is no way that it would work. I would have no bookcases in my classroom. But if I don’t have room in my classroom for my books, then that becomes a luxury as opposed to something that should be a given in my classroom.”
People who see education only through the lens of test scores, Page said, are making the mistake of assuming teaching can be standardized like production in a factory. “Our widget is a human who has trauma and who has been through things. I have a student in my classroom right now whose mother was incarcerated when she was 2. Her father was shot the next year. She is living with her great-grandparents.”
He continued, “That sixth-grader might be reading at a second-grade level, but two seats over he might have a student who can read at college level and do math at eighth-grade level. I have to teach both those learners in my class and try to get them both to progress. That is a battle. When you push it to where you are having 40 kids in a classroom, how do I make sure that I meet the needs of those outliers?”
The more kids in a classroom, the more those struggles slip through the cracks. “If I have a group of 40 in a 54-minute period, I have a little over a minute per kid. I have to find ways to be able to figure out who those kids are as quickly as possible. I have to be able to figure out how to reach those kids.”
And so, the teachers were at their schools by 7 on Monday morning, with handmade picket signs, wearing red and prepared for that rare thing, a Los Angeles rainstorm. They are on the lines for full funding of Title I and a cap on charters, for smaller class sizes and more teacher librarians and counselors, for art and ethnic studies.
They strike, Wil Page said, for their students to be seen as people, not as widgets to make profits on. They strike for their schools to feel less like an assembly line on constant speed-up, said Zeccola. They strike, Lisa Cheby said, for schools that can truly be the center of their communities.