When I started teaching in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), I was teaching at Harrison Elementary/Middle School in East Los Angeles. I started my career teaching 8th graders. It was a year-round school, and my classroom was in the bungalows overlooking the asphalt playground and Interstate 10 freeway. It was my first year teaching and everything was new to me. I learned that the bungalows had been condemned and reopened five times. When I was teaching there, I would break out into rashes. I didn’t know what was normal, and being a new teacher, I was trying to survive. There was a sink and a drinking fountain in my classroom. When I turned on the water of the drinking fountain, the water was brownish-yellow and there was debris coming out of the water. Since we were out in the bungalows and away from the main building, there was no other access to drinking water, and especially through the hot summer, students would drink from the fountain. So, I brought a Brita filter to help clean the water. I told the administrators and did what I could at the time to address the situation, but the fountain was never fixed.
Our classroom would shake each time a big truck passed by and we heard the noise of the freeway throughout the day. These are the conditions at some of our public schools. My first two-and-a-half years of teaching was my introduction to injustice in the city; I could not understand how a building that had been condemned five times could be operating classrooms. I could not understand how drinking water could be so dirty and unhealthy, yet still in a classroom. I could not understand how elementary school kids only had asphalt to play on alongside a noisy freeway with polluted air. All 640,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District deserve clean water and air, and to be treated like they matter.
Students deserve fully funded schools. This is why I will go on strike on January 10 if the LAUSD does not meet the demands of my union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles. One thing we are asking the district for is parent and teacher input on the budget. This is how we create community schools: by centering power not just among the few and rich, but rather parents and teachers.
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When I was at Harrison Elementary/Middle School, there were budget cuts; they cut art, they cut music and the only elective kids had left was a computer class on the verge of being cut as well. The students I taught came from difficult childhoods, and many were in the foster care system and had parents in prison. They didn’t have people to advocate for them. We educators need to advocate for them.
When the district has over $1.7 billion in reserve, that money should be spent in the classroom on the kids for field trips, supplies, furniture that doesn’t fall apart, books, librarians, nurses and other things the children need. Even with a student-to-nurse ratio of 1,224:1, and a student-to-counselor ratio of 945:1, LAUSD refuses to add more school nurses, counselors and other staff.
My current high school students have desks from around the 1980s, and sometimes a student will sit at their desk and the whole desk will fall apart. LAUSD spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a day on breakfast in the classroom, which is free breakfast for the kids. While this is a good step toward caring for students, most of the food comes from corporate sources like Walmart when the money could (and should) go to supporting local farmers and providing fresher options. We, as a community, need to have a say in how our taxpayer money is spent.
We are fighting against the privatization of education and selling off of education to corporations and billionaires who have investments in charter schools. A charter school could be owned by a bank but use taxpayer money. The original intent of charter schools was to supplement and help kids that the public school system did not have the capacity to help, not to take over the public school system. There are major cities in the US that have very few public schools left because their districts have been taken over by privatized charter schools. The LAUSD refuses to address the $590 million lost each year to the unchecked expansion of charter schools.
Our public schools have been set up to fail so that they can be privatized. When test scores don’t increase by a certain percentage every year, when enrollment drops due to charter schools, public schools are up for charter takeover. We are fighting to decrease standardized testing because it is hurting our students’ learning. As the United Teachers of Los Angeles point out, LAUSD students took more than 100 standardized tests in the last school year.
The LAUSD already has some of the highest class sizes in the nation, and the district wants to increase class size when many teachers are already teaching in classrooms with more than 45 kids. These are nearly impossible, unhealthy and unsafe conditions for our kids.
We need to invest both time and money in the public school system so that we can create the learning experience our children deserve. Our children and our taxpayer money aren’t for investment bankers and billionaires to exploit. We have power and we have control. We have a voice.
Recently, more than 50,000 teachers, parents, students and supporters marched in downtown Los Angeles. Meanwhile, mainstream media continue to frame our actions as simply a fight for increased wages for teachers.
When I am sad about the situation and trying to stay strong during our fight against the district, I think about my students in that first classroom in the bungalows in East Los Angeles, the dirty water coming from their drinking fountain, the asphalt playground for the elementary school kids, the condemned building where my classroom was located, how art and music were cut from the curriculum. I am fighting for these students, I am standing for them and will keep standing strong until the kids in all of our neighborhoods — and especially the most disadvantaged neighborhoods — are treated with the care that every child deserves.