Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, "L.A. Unified board picks Richard Vladovic as new president. By replacing Monica Garcia with Vladovic, the LAUSD board signals the waning influence of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This begs the question: Are days numbered for embattled Superintendent John Deasy?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Harry Gets a Job Offer But 3 Weeks Later it's Yanked Away--Wasting Precious Time to Find a New School

The following is Part 4 of a series of stories recounting the saga of 9-year veteran public school teacher Harry Mills after he was kicked out--along with colleagues, administrators and support staff--from an urban school serving a poor, crime-infested neighborhood. Everyone was thrown out on their asses after the Big City School District board of education last March declared the place hopelessly mired in low scores on state tests, then gave it to a private charter operator which could run the place without accountability to the public for how they spend tax money, nor restrictions mandated by laws protecting civil rights of students and parents.
It's written as fiction so the author is reasonably protected from retaliation by people with such a bad self-image that they see themselves in these characters. The story is written more to amuse the reader than to inform. If you want non-fiction about the current self-destruction of the Los Angeles Unified School District, click "Fremont Watch," in the box on the right featuring our friendly sponsors. Enjoy!

By Mark J. Blocker

Harry Mills spent the past 9 years teaching at a public middle school where he was slugged, shoved, spit upon, cursed at, had his car keyed, and gravely insulted too many times to count. But the number of students with whom he enjoyed a mutually respectful and sometimes adoring relationship outnumbered these petty indignities, so year after year he kept returning to work at Missouri Compromise Middle School. It was now June turning into July, and he would have been preparing for his September return had not the Big City School District closed the school before immediately re-opening and handing it off to a charter school company so it could skirt around the State law that requires a school district to collect a predetermined amount of signatures from parents and staff before condemning a school and offering it up to bids from outside operators.
The move was illegal as a riot, but since the local media had been whipping the public into a lather about "expensive, poorly performing" schools in the Big City School District, the switch was executed before an opposition could be organized. The impotent teachers' union had long ago bumbled its way to the sidelines, and the community's elderly congresswoman shuffled into the issue too late. It was now a fait accompli.
It's not like Harry was out on the street shoving a shopping cart, though. He was still employed by the Big City School District, he just had to find another BCSD school in which to teach. If he couldn't secure a position on his own, the BCSD would send him where there was an opening for an English teacher with his credential. If he wasn't proactive, this fall Harry could be inching along a two-hour commute.
So far, the search wasn't going too well. He first interview was for Nickerson Gardens High School in Volts--an area even worse than that served by his former school. Nickerson High is a charter, but it's run by the mayor's Premiere Schools for Tomorrow which allows teachers to keep their BCSD seniority, pay and benefits. The same could not be said for the charter operator Bright Spot which grabbed the keys to Missouri Compromise MS. A month had passed since that first job interview, so Harry figured Nickerson HS had passed on him. He wondered whether it was because of all the disparaging posts he wrote about the mayor on the Big City Times newspaper web site after it reported that his campaign was financed by billionaires eager to turn local public schools into cash cows for themselves and cronies. The Times articles didn't describe the situation so succinctly, however.
Now was the last week of June, and school was over. But this was no time for reflection about professional lessons learned during the past academic year. Harry was having a bad time hustling a new gig, suffering through a pair of hostile interviews that left him feeling like an incompetent moron. Mills was starting to worry that this job search was going to become a degrading snipe hunt. (See Part 3)

Ring! Ring! Harry gets a bite in the same dirty lake
The phone rang again. It was a Mr. Humberto "Bert"  Suarez, principal at Blockburn Middle School in Volts. Volts again. Well, Harry didn't get into this business to teach in Sugarland, so he gladly accepted the invitation and looked forward to the interview. Like Nickerson HS, Blockburn MS was also operating under the mayor's Premiere Schools for Tomorrow. Harry shrugged, nobody reads the Times or its web site anymore. Good.
On the Friday before 4th of July weekend, Harry left his suit inside the closet and put on one of his loud Hawaiian shirts, a pair of black jeans, and drove once again deep into LA's festering pustule of Volts. It wasn't like the suit did him any good. Besides, it was summer, and it was hot. Only a moron wears a wool suit this time of year.
This section of Volts was nicer than where they held the previous interview. On three sides Blockburn was fronted by large, barren asphalt parking lots buffering humungous, nameless concrete shells Harry surmised were vacant warehouses. There were no ominous housing projects and boarded up store fronts once painted garishly but now faded with poorly rendered hand-painted signs offering in misspelled English various sundries to Hispanic pedestrians. Harry even spied in the distance a chain supermarket gracing the former premises of a burned down Korean liquor store and its unfortunate neighboring businesses.

Campus an oasis for students
Blockburn's inner campus was an oasis. Walking through an open gate of a heavily fortified fence, Harry stepped into a lush quad area. Immaculate green lawn and an array of California trees, running the gamut of oaks, palms and redwoods, made Blackburn's campus a wonderful place to spend the day for Volts's 12 and 13 year olds.
Harry knocked on the locked door of the main office. No answer. Then he went looking for the library figuring everybody must be over there at some meeting. The door was locked. He went back to the front to count cars in the parking lot, but was greeted by a man who reminded him of actor Eric Estrada in his "CHPs" TV show days, but with about 30 more pounds.
"Hi, I'm Harry Mills. Do you know where I can find Mr. Suarez the principal?"
"You're looking at him!"
After a firm handshake and a few pleasantries, Suarez turned around, unlocked the closest door, and led Mills into a storage room. Boxes were stacked everywhere, but a large table and two chairs offered a place to conduct the Q&A.
"Sit down, Mills. I'll be right back."
Harry sat. Before leaving the room, Suarez hurriedly set a pair of old sneakers on the table within whiffing distance of Harry, who tentatively resumed breathing very shallowly, after scooting further down the table while Suarez was in the next room busy gathering papers.
"So," Saurez called from the other room, "Missouri Compromise, huh? We just hired another English teacher from there. . . uh, Estrada? Ospina?"
"None of those names ring a bell."
Harry heard a paper ruffle. "No, no! Here is is, Elita Bermudez!"
"Ah, yes, Ms. Bermudez! She was two doors down. Great teacher." Harry then added, "Say, she's a lot prettier than I am, though."
Suarez guffawed. "Well, we try to balance things out around here."

Harry and Suarez hit it off
We're getting along, thought Harry. This guy's a principal who doesn't treat his teachers like shit. Suarez returned to the room, grinning. He tossed a folder holding resumes on the table, sat down, then leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head sticking his elbows out to the sides. Harry assumed the same relaxed body language. Then Suarez did all the talking. Once in a while Harry nodded to show understanding and agreement. Suarez didn't seem to notice. He just continued his monologue.
Blockburn, Suarez confirmed, was under the umbrella of Premiere. He himself was so sold on the organization's vision that he left the Compton district to take this job. The school day would be divided into 7 periods, with struggling students required to use the 7th to complete assignments and homework; others could take an elective. He had found a reading intervention program worth tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into a storage room. The program proved itself effective at other schools, so he was going to implement it. As part of Premiere, the faculty is required to participate in 100 extra hours of paid training and professional development during the year. Would that be a problem?
"Hell, no," Harry replied. "I'm always looking for ways to become a better. . ."
Suarez started in again. Most students, he noted, were what you call, ELLs, or English Language Learners. Spanish is their first language, but most can't read nor write it. So they speak street versions of two languages and are essentially illiterate in both. Meanwhile, the brand of English spoken by nearby African-Americans is also non-standard. That makes them ELLs too, though they're not permitted in English Language Development classes.
"Look, Mills, I can see by your resume you already know this stuff. You've been teaching ELLs for years. You have a Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development specialist certificate. These letters show your principal and former lit coach both recommend you.
"I have one more guy to interview, but it looks like you're my man. I'll call and let you know one way or the other by the end of today."
They shook on it and Harry practically danced back to his car. Later that afternoon, Suarez called back and told him he did indeed have the job. All of the sudden intrusive charter schools, more frequent observations and endless training didn't seem so bad. Whatever it takes to get these kids proficient, Harry told himself.
But it all came crashing down like a propped up tree house three weeks later when Suarez called back and said BCSD was negating the previous teacher's transfer and sending her back.
"Maybe you can ask if they'll let you be in our pool of subs," Suarez half-heartedly suggested.
Harry said he would but didn't. He didn't want to substitute; he wanted to improve as an English teacher, and the only way to do that is to teach English everyday. Suddenly, Harry realized what went wrong. Thanks, Suarez, for sitting on the God damned intent-to-hire paperwork! Now I've gotta make up for lost time!
Harry could've bitched, but it wasn't his style. Instead, he sent resumes out to a wider circle of schools. He still had August to find a place willing to take him.

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