Richard Rivera joined the Algebra Project at exactly the wrong time.
After three years at charter schools, Rivera returned to the Los Angeles Unified School District last year as a math coach -- a kind of roving instructor and supervisor -- at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park. He also agreed to work on the Algebra Project, a new program designed to keep low-achieving students involved in math.
But even though Rivera spent a decade teaching in the district, he lost his seniority with L.A. Unified because of his foray into the charter world. Because the district lays off teachers based on the amount of time they've worked for the school system, Rivera is now in danger of losing his job, and the Algebra Project might stall before it even begins.
If Rivera and other younger teachers involved in the program leave, the school goes "right back to square one," said John Samaniego, the principal at Burbank, where test scores have slowly been rising.
Samaniego's dilemma is common throughout the state as districts prepare to issue preliminary layoff notices to teachers by Friday and principals try to determine their plans for next year. The Los Angeles Board of Education is scheduled to vote today on whether to issue these notices to about 9,000 employees, including 5,500 teachers, because of an expected $700-million budget shortfall.
Outside of Los Angeles, more than 20,000 teachers statewide are expected to receive preliminary pink slips, according to teachers union officials. The California Teachers Assn. has planned protests this week against the widespread layoffs.
In L.A. Unified, instructors with less than two years of experience are expected to be given notice first. But some top L.A. Unified officials believe layoffs could rob the district of their most enthusiastic employees, and are trying to find ways to keep them.
"We have invested all this money in these new teachers . . . so we should have the ability to retain them," said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who represents Burbank Middle School.
Districts across the state, including L.A. Unified, are offering early retirement packages to employees, which would help retain younger teachers.
So far, nearly 2,000 L.A. Unified employees have agreed to retire early and the district plans to offer the program again.
Because less experienced teachers are cheaper, a district must lay off more of them to close a budget gap, leading to increased class sizes and the shuffling of classes and instructors.
Some board members have questioned whether the district can circumvent firing by seniority. Flores Aguilar said she would push the district to revise the law to allow districts to retain teachers based on merit.
In Washington, D.C., the superintendent is battling the teachers' union to create a system that allows teachers to decide whether they want to retain seniority or pursue a higher-paying performance-based track. And Rhode Island's Commissioner of Education ordered Providence schools to stop seniority-based bumping in February.
L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines also said he's in favor of changing the system: "People need security and protection but we've got to move into the 21st century as well."
Layoffs by seniority -- last hired, first fired -- have been part of the California Education Code for at least three decades, and A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said it was unlikely the union would support doing away with it.
"Until somebody can show me a fair or equitable way besides tenure, I don't see it happening," he said.
Researchers say districts can use a combination of student-assessment data and principal evaluations to lay off teachers based on effectiveness in the classroom.
This seniority "policy isn't about kids," said Marguerite Roza, an assistant professor at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. "It's about awarding job security to more senior members."
Meanwhile, a recent eighth-grade math class at Burbank was chaotic. Students' voices rose and fell depending on how far away the teacher was. A girl used the overhead projector as a finger-puppet stage and a boy asked if he could smash a photographer's camera.
Students doing their work often had to consult a hanging multiplication table. "They should know that by now," said teacher David Simms. "A lot of what we do is just catch-up."
But there was an island of calm around Rivera, who was huddled in the back with two students, peppering them with questions and challenging their responses.
Rivera, 44, started working for the district in 1993 after receiving a master's degree in education. He left 11 years later to work for two charters -- public campuses that are independently run.
Because he did not teach at an L.A. Unified campus for more than 39 months, Rivera lost his seniority status. He doesn't regret his decision.
As he made his way around the room, Rivera also tried to sign up students for the Algebra Project, a joint program between Burbank Middle School and nearby Franklin High School that is being funded by a five-year National Science Foundation grant.
Rivera and a group of volunteers, including two Franklin teachers, have spearheaded the effort and spent a recent Saturday visiting students at home to persuade them to sign up for the four-year program.
The program is aimed at low-achieving students who show promise and is being touted as a way to keep children involved in school and out of the numerous gangs in the area. Cortines said he hoped to find a way to keep enthusiastic instructors, including all of the teachers involved in the Algebra Project.
"I just think we're going to have to find some creative, out-of-the-box ways to save teachers," he said.