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LA Teachers Poised To Strike For Higher Pay, Smaller Class Sizes




And that is the sound there of thousands of public school teachers in Los Angeles protesting last month. They were calling for smaller class sizes, additional school funding to hire more nurses and counselors, a cap on charter schools and also a 6.5 percent pay raise. Well, those demands have not yet been met. After months of negotiations between the teachers union and the school district, a breakthrough never came. And this morning, a strike has begun, with thousands expected to skip work today.

Joseph Zeccola is among them. In 2018, he was named as one of the school district's teachers of the year. And he told me that one thing that has led him to the picket line is his past experience teaching in South Los Angeles. I asked him to take me into the life of a student there.

JOSEPH ZECCOLA: What you're dealing with are average kids in the United States except, you know, a gigantic percentage of them are dealing with some type of trauma in their lives. In the average classroom, half of the kids know someone who's been shot. You know, half of the kids have one level of someone connected to their family who is either in jail or has had a very difficult confrontation with a police officer, often for things that are nonsense-based.

So what you have are kids who are in a lot more need of attention and support. And they don't get it. So what happens is you've got kids in the classroom. And all of a sudden, you can't figure out why this - these kids are breaking down crying. This kid is completely silent and frozen. So you're trying to, while teaching a class, assess what's going on with that kid and figure out where to put that kid. Can you get that kid in touch with a therapist?

So, for example, I had a couple kids who were failing really miserably who didn't before. When I pulled them aside, these are two girls who were related. I had them in different classes. It turned out that one was a cousin of the other. They were living together. The mother and the father were on the outs. Father got arrested. They lost their home. They're living with the relatives. The relatives hate them. They always want them out. And I've got two girls crying at my desk, saying, I just want to go home, and I don't have a home to go to.

We don't have the psychiatric social working support for - when a school committee of 2,000 kids has hundreds who are like this, we don't have the support. And what we did at the school I was at is we fought tooth and nail to get an extra psychiatric social worker. It took us three years of pushing for it to get it. And again, when you're doing that that means, what are you not spending money on to get that? But we got it. And the minute we got it, you saw two psychiatric social workers who are trained professionals in social work with a team of interns whose schedules were 100 percent booked, which tells you they probably need three or four. And, again, this is every day you see this.

GREENE: As difficult a challenge as the one you're describing, is this not the kind of thing that public school districts and school systems around the country deal with every day? Are you making a reasonable demand that the school district could actually respond to?

ZECCOLA: Oh, absolutely. I think - I'm really glad you asked me that question. So I think you're right that what we deal with is very standard for urban school districts across the country. Where we're different is the Los Angeles Unified School District, while being part of the richest state in the union and the fifth-largest economy in the world is ranked 43rd in per-pupil funding. So you have a situation where we could do so much better. So the picketing is around trying to get our school board to make the right decisions.

GREENE: We looked up some numbers from the California Department of Education. I mean, the LA school district graduation rates have actually really been soaring over the last decade or so - I mean, from 62 percent in 2009, 2010 to 80 percent in 2016, 2017. You know, you've made the argument that this is not about teachers, per se. It's not about just getting you more money. It's about students. But do numbers like that make you vulnerable in terms of someone saying, look - the schools are actually doing well by its students - this strike may be just about getting more money for teachers?

ZECCOLA: It's a silly way to look at it because I have 38 students in an 11th grade English class. There is no way I can give them the time they deserve. And I'm one of these teachers who - I spend my vacation time meeting with students to give them writers' conferences. So what you're talking about is all of us have traditionally - and teachers across the country will tell you this - we do more with less. When they make cuts, we adjust because you don't get into this profession to get rich. You get into it because you care desperately about the kids that you're in the room with.

So we keep adjusting when those situations happen. And we have risen the graduation rate. I'm very proud of that. But the idea that their conditions are close to optimal, again, I would say is preposterous. The class size - if I have a class of 36 - just to give you an idea, David - and I want to read my students' papers - and I want to read all of them, and you can't - class size of 36 - to give every student a 15-minute read, that's nine hours, not counting going to the bathroom. And that's outside of school. And that's one class, one set of papers. And as an English teacher, I want my kids to write constantly.

So it's just - it's not sustainable under the current levels when you have class size like that. And just as a as a way to look at the difference, you know, the most prestigious private school in our city, Harvard-Westlake, has class sizes of 15. What does that tell you? I mean, there's a reason those class sizes are there. So, no, we're not going to get rich. Do we deserve a raise? Sure we do. But I'm one of the teachers - and there are countless like us who would give up the raise for the class size in a heartbeat. You know, we'd like both, but the class size is a thing that we'd fight to the death over.

GREENE: Let me just give you a chance to speak directly to parents of students in this district who, you know, could obviously be worried about what this all means for their students - and they're going to be seeing a lot of disruption - to tell them why it's worth it.

ZECCOLA: It's worth it because if you look nationwide, you see a trend of public education being defunded, being devalued. Last year, you saw some teacher strikes in some of the worst-funded states. What we're trying to do for every kid in this country but most specifically for every kid in Los Angeles is push that ball back in the other direction and to say that public education is a vital necessity. Our kids deserve the best we can give them. We want them to have the skills to negotiate the best possible lives for themselves. And the way to do that is to give them the resources and to create a teaching profession that attracts the best and brightest to come into it - not to get rich but to know that it won't be such a burden, they'll quit.

GREENE: Well, thanks so much for talking to us. And congrats on the teaching award. That's great stuff.

ZECCOLA: Thank you very much, David.

GREENE: Joseph Zeccola was named one of the Los Angeles Unified School District's teachers of the year in 2018. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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