Our daughter, Andie, is starting Kindergarten in the fall, at Wonderland Elementary -- one of the best public schools in the city, the state, and if you ask the parents, many would say the world. My wife and I are the envy of many of our soon-to-be cash-strapped friends who are shelling out upwards of $20K a year for private schools, miles from their homes. Wonderland is the equivalent of having a private school education in the comfort of your own neighborhood, paid for by taxpayers and the state of California. As a way to prep Andie for the big transition she has to make, we took her to the Wonderland Renaissance Festival, where we saw kids smiling in costumes, reciting poetry, crafting jewelry; many of them were even fencing. (That's right, fencing.) Friendly moms and dads manned the buffet line and a jovial principal shook hands and engaged parents. A community was coming together right here in LA -- it was like a beautiful moment from Thornton Wilder's Our Town, if everyone dressed in biker jeans and Ed Hardy T-shirts.
The kicker was meeting Ms. Brier, a kindergarten teacher right out of central casting. She's exactly what you'd imagine an ideal kindergarten teacher would look like: bright smile, soft features, warm, nurturing, armed with that perfectly comforting lilt in her voice -- the one that let's you know everything is going to be OK. If a bird chirped on her shoulder, you would have thought she was a Disney character. We watched Ms. Brier work the beaded jewelry table and patiently guide our daughter through the steps necessary to craft a necklace. Andie's connection with Ms. Brier deepened over each multi-colored bead she placed on a string -- her confidence grew as Ms. Brier complimented every step of her work. We interviewed the parents of Ms. Brier's students and found out not only did she look the part -- Ms. Brier is at the cutting-edge of K-6 education, with a Masters Degree from Pepperdine in Education. She worked with the United Way and IBM and was instrumental in getting computers to Early Childhood Centers. She crafted an innovative technology curriculum and helped non-profit agencies write technology grants. Parents whose children have had Ms. Brier as a teacher describe her as "exceptional," "bright," "innovative," and "smart" with "high-performing students." There was just one problem. She had just received her pink slip by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
How could that be? We were told at an orientation weeks earlier than Ms. Brier was one of three teachers Andie may have in her first year, now she was being laid off? What did she do wrong? "Absolutely nothing," says Wonderland Principal Donald Wilson. "She is one of the best teachers I have. It's part of the restructuring due to the budget cutbacks. "
"Are you cutting her class?"
"Well, who is going to teach the class?"
"Another teacher with more seniority will fill the position," the principal continues.
"So let me get this straight: you already have a highly-qualified teacher that every parent loves, whose students are thriving, who is very passionate about teaching, but she's being fired because of an issue with seniority?"
"That's correct," says Principal Wilson.
"Well, how many days is Ms. Brier shy of being of tenured?"
"About three," he says gently, sensing that I am about to grab one of the fencers' swords and challenge him to a duel.
It turns out Ms. Brier's story gets even worse, LAUSD's decision grows more insane, and our schools, even the model ones like Wonderland, are in real jeopardy of failing forever.
Here's LAUSD's logic as to why Ms. Brier was given a "Reduction in Force" pink slip in March of this year: You need two years of teaching to be tenured, and therefore, spared from the layoffs. Ms. Brier has been teaching in the LAUSD since March 22, 2006. By my math, that means she's been a teacher almost 3 ½ years. By LAUSD's math, she is still shy of tenure and considered a "Probationary 2" teacher. The biggest frustration in this is that LAUSD seems to be unable to give a straight answer as to why Ms. Brier was given the boot. The rules are not easy to find, and even more difficult to comprehend.
Clearly LAUSD doesn't have a great track record for accurate record keeping, here is what Superintendent Ramon Cortines told the LA Daily News shortly after he took the position: "I'm dealing with situations that, on the face of it, I can't believe that person is on the job. But there is no data or information at all that says the person is outstanding, or mediocre or whatever."
Ms. Brier believes her Probation 2 status is due to the fact she was initially hired as a long-term sub for a teacher who went on an extended maternity leave and eventually decided not to return to work. On November 2, 2006, she was officially hired full-time in the same classroom she opened as a long-term sub. The good news for Ms. Brier is that you only need to teach 75% of the school year for a year to count towards tenure. 75% of 180 days is 135. In 2006-2007, Ms. Brier worked 139 days out of 180 days from Sept. '06-June '07 as a permanent teacher. However, the LAUSD is quick to cite State Education Code Law which states that you have to be physically present in front of children for 135 out of 180 days. Being present as a long-term sub doesn't count. They also deduct sick days. During her first official teaching year, Ms. Brier was involved in a near drowning accident, hospitalized and traumatized. She also came down with a case of first-time teacher strep throat. She recalls missing about 7 days in total that year. Her kindergarten students would be able to tell you 139 -7 =132, which makes her three days short of having that whole year count.
Three days means a great teacher with a Master's Degree from Pepperdine with a passion to make a difference (not to mention $100,000+ in students' loans) is booted out of the system. Ms. Brier makes less than $50,000 a year. She works a second job waitressing, and tutors kids during weekends and summers just to make ends meet. How long can she go without a job? Her hardship pales in comparison to the hundreds of children who will not have the opportunity to have her as a mentor, as a friend, as an advocate and as a conduit to better understanding the world.
When he was running for office, President Obama said, "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children's teachers and to the schools where they teach." He was talking about Ms. Brier.
The problems facing the LAUSD are too complicated and complex to be resolved by June 30th, which is Ms. Brier's last scheduled day of work. Some people blame the union contract, some the LAUSD, others the state government, and just about everyone blames Schwarzenegger. No one is leading. No one has solutions.
Ms. Brier's fate lies solely in the hands of Superintendent Cortines. On the LAUSD website, Cortines wrote: "This District is about our children and I never want anyone to forget that. Budget crises come and go but the education of our students is our legacy. We will work to honor the commitment we have made to our students and their families every single day."
This is his chance to shine and deliver on that noble promise. He may not be able to save every teacher. I am asking him to save one, one teacher who deserves the chance to stay in the LAUSD system. If she doesn't, we may lose her forever. And that is the tragedy.
Maybe she'll try something easier and potentially more lucrative -- apply those technology skills to some industry that will reward her financially for her skills/knowledge/performance. Years from now, she'll be sitting on panel somewhere paraphrasing David Mamet, "Yeah, I used to be a teacher. It's a tough racket." And who could blame her?
If you have any doubts Ms. Brier needs to stay at Wonderland and continue the remarkable influence she has in the lives of children, read a note from one of the dozens of parents that have contacted me. This is from Barbara Somlo, Ph.D whose son, George, is in currently in Ms. Brier's class:
"Ms. Brier works extremely hard with our kids making it a fun and safe learning environment with great results. George started the year being very shy and since then he became more confident and definitely interested in learning. I had several meetings with her to teach me the methods she uses in class -- she's always been available and very helpful. Beyond the day-to-day duty of a Kindergarten teacher, she went the extra mile. Ms Brier put together a Poem Reading event for the parents to hear their kids reading their own poems; arranged a theater play, developed a web site and created a class-book available on Shutterfly, just to mention a few."
Last week Ms. Brier voluntarily met with a placement officer who pointed to (gasp!) the Education Code as to why she is in this predicament. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) is filing a class Action suit against LAUSD and is calling Ms. Brier as a witness claiming her days in the classroom as a long-term sub should count towards tenure, especially given the fact she opened the year as the primary classroom teacher. But by the time this is resolved, my daughter and the dozens of students who could have been positively shaped by her tutelage, will be graduating college.
To get involved to help Ms. Brier, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and agree to add your name to a petition. You can also contact Ramon Cortines directly at (213) 241-7000. His email is email@example.com.
Follow John Koch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Koch