School is back in session, and for this new man on campus, there hasn't been a dull moment yet.
I started my residency in August at Verdugo Hills High School, located in Tujunga, a small community at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. In other words, I am stationed in the northeast quadrant of the sprawling educational empire that is the Los Angeles Unified School District.
By day, I am a teacher-in-training for English language arts students who have mild to moderate learning disabilities. By night, my role reverses. I am the student, bravely enduring a 22-unit college course load this semester at California State University Northridge. All of it is related to my new area of study, special education.
Sometime in between, I sleep and eat in my Hollywood Hills bungalow. This 100-mile daily commute, however, doesn't come without some context. I am a 35-year-old ex-reporter and laid-off general education teacher who has had to reinvent himself in the wake of the economic downturn.
I lost my job shortly after my daughter, Sage, was born. Sage, now 3, has autism. It has been extremely difficult to manage her and come to terms with it. Luckily, now she has a full therapeutic schedule supported through the state, miraculously transforming her from a head-banging wild child into a darling, happy little girl learning to communicate with words and not crazy tantrums.
Sage's mother and I are separated, so my daughter stays with me on the weekends. She is the force that keeps me moving, an inspiration of growth. Her struggles, and those of others with special needs, has become a subject dear to me.
If all goes according to plan, one year from now I will be gainfully employed once again, this time as a special education instructor. A year and a half after that, I will have a professional clear credential, the highest K-12 teaching certification in the land -- or at least within the vast Los Angeles school district -- and a master's degree to boot.
I am glad to be on the road to providing for myself and my daughter once again, a little progress after a few hard years of bull****.
My change of fortune is due to a federal stimulus program to groom and place highly-qualified teachers for the high-demand subject areas that still exist in high-need schools. While layoffs have been plentiful in this recession, as I can attest, there remain occasional teaching openings in select areas like math, science and special education.
My mentor teacher is a 60-year-old whirlwind of charisma and energy. Her students love her, as do I.
Our 9th through 12th graders mostly have difficulty reading and writing, but not without a sense of humor. In that regard, they're champs.
They are teaching me to be a better person and have a positive attitude about the challenges all of us face, to one extent or another, in this life.
These lessons, however, are not always easily understood.
Last week I led a small group exercise in the back of the class related to 'character traits.' During the exercise, I asked a student to name two positive character traits of a student sitting across from him.
He couldn't. All he could do was call him an asshole. Apparently the student had a bad rap, and as if to confirm it, he took money from another student minutes later.
I thought I straightened out the mess by the time the bell rang, but after class a fight broke out, and as a result, the student with the bad rap was moved to a smaller, more restrictive class for those with emotional problems. Apparently he didn't have a bad rap without reason. He had a long history of disruptive, and in many cases disturbing, behavior.
In the past, there was resistance by the powers-that-be to move this troubled student into a more restrictive environment, and risk ascribing to him the possibly damaging label of emotional disturbance.
After the fight, however, a new support team on site at the school this year decided he should be moved, for his safety and others students'.
Why it took so long for this decision to be made has been an education for me.
Following a lawsuit, the Los Angeles Unified School District was forced by the Civil Rights Office about ten years ago to re-examine the process by which it offered educational services. This included how those with special needs were labeled. Labels are integral to class placements and the kinds of services students receive, so much is potentially at stake for them and their families.
The Civil Rights Office concluded there were abuses taking place in the school system that violated federal law and failed to serve the needs of students. It was determined, for example, that a disproportionate number of African Americans were being labeled as emotionally disturbed. There were allegations of institutional racism. This assessment led to a federal directive, called the modified consent decree, which has many components to which the district must adhere.
As a result of this directive, support teams seeking an emotional disturbance label for a student must be reviewed by a committee of peers. As a result, such attempts at justice may not always serve the immediate interests of education. At least in the case of the troubled student mentioned above, there was a need for pressing action by the school to diffuse a tense classroom situation and make the learning environment better and safer for all.
Thankfully, the rigors of the system did not become an impediment to learning. The student with the bad rap has been placed in a smaller, more restrictive class on a trial basis -- without incurring another label. More importantly, he has the chance to prove through his own positive behavior that he can be re-integrated into a larger classroom in the future. And, perhaps most importantly, he has agreed to and is now receiving counseling.
Meanwhile, the students he left behind in my English language arts class seem to be managing fine without him.
I am grateful that within the jurisdictional juggernaut that is the LAUSD, there remains the possibility of local leaders managing their own affairs flexibly, with an eye on what's best for those around them.
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