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Closed Book : Pupils Bid Emotional Farewell to Teacher Who Opted for District's Buyout Program

November 28, 1991|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tears streaming down her face, fourth-grader Danielle Ben-Cobo learned a difficult lesson in economics Wednesday at Wilbur Avenue Elementary School in Tarzana.

The 9-year-old said goodby to teacher Irma Brandon, one of 300 classroom instructors who abruptly ended their teaching careers in an early-retirement program implemented by the cash-strapped Los Angeles Unified School District.

"I don't want you to go," Danielle sobbed, hugging Brandon tightly.

Brandon, 61, didn't want to go, either. But to qualify for the school system's cash-bonus buyout, she had to clear out of her classroom by Wednesday--three weeks before the end of the current school term.

"It would have been so natural to say goodby on Dec. 20, when the kids are going to go on extended leave for seven weeks. But to do it now . . . the kids keep asking, 'How can you leave us?' They're too little to understand what's happened at the Board of Education."

School officials--who expect to recoup the $7-million cost of the buyout by mid-1992--said it would have cost an extra $650,000 to keep the teachers on for another three weeks.

The retirees, who earned an average of $53,000 a year, will be replaced by relative newcomers being paid about $30,000 a year.

Brandon, who has taught for 11 of her 23 years at Wilbur Avenue, was one of two teachers from the school's 20-member staff to retire. First-grade teacher Helen Steward, 63, also stepped down.

Steward informed her pupils shortly before noon on Wednesday, when she introduced replacement teacher Jonah Ellis. Many of her children, she said, didn't understand that she was saying farewell.

But Brandon told her 31 children last Friday--hours before she filed her retirement paperwork with school officials. Several youngsters burst into tears on hearing the news. They had to be comforted by Principal Richard Hickcox.

On Monday, Hickcox sent letters home to inform parents of the change and to introduce Ellis and Beverly Mednick, Brandon's replacement. "Some students may have a harder time than others making the adjustment," he wrote. "We know that we can count on your support during this crucial time."

Brandon sent a letter of her own to parents the same day. In hers, she voiced concerns about school funding, overcrowding and "district mismanagement" that she said prompted her to prematurely scrap her teaching career.

At lunchtime Wednesday, Brandon and Steward were honored by other Wilbur Avenue School staff members in a hastily organized luncheon in the school auditorium.

"If we'd had time, this would not have been a simple little lunch," kindergarten teacher Roberta Strem told the pair. "We want to send you off with our love. . . ."

Brandon's 9-year-old pupils, meanwhile, were feverishly at work in Room 26. They hung hand-printed banners on the walls, printed farewell messages on the blackboard and set out snacks of popcorn, cupcakes and fruit punch on their desks.

"Surprise!" they shouted when Brandon returned to her classroom for the last time.

"We organized this without parents!" Corey Toushin said proudly.

"A toast to Mrs. Brandon," said Zachary Mannon, raising a cup of red punch into the air.

"God bless you, Mrs. Brandon," said classmate Duilio Pacheco.

Across the room, pupils Lisa Aminnia and Natalie Benzaken were sitting quietly. They were remembering how Brandon used to make jokes to remind them to use proper grammar and proper classroom manners.

Classmate Haley Marcus whispered that boys in the class have conspired to get Brandon to return. "They'll make the new teacher sick so Mrs. Brandon can come back and substitute teach," Haley confided.

For once, the hands on the classroom clock moved with swiftness toward the 2:30 p.m. dismissal time. There was an exchange of gifts. Students handed personally selected farewell presents to her and she gave each of them a wrapped straight-edge ruler bearing the names and faces of the U.S. presidents.

Then it was time to go.

"Remember the words I said you should always keep in your mind: 'I am unique,' " Brandon said. "Please. I want you to remember that each of us is special and worthwhile."

One at a time, each child gave a goodby hug to their teacher and then shuffled reluctantly out the classroom door. Except for Danielle. She lingered behind, sobbing.

"Can I have a smile?" Brandon asked her. "Can I have a smile so I can remember your nice face?"

Danielle smiled.

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