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Editorial

Markham Middle School isn't working

The problem-plagued Watts school needs teachers, but state regulations and contract rules are preventing officials from hiring educators who want the jobs.

November 25, 2009

Even in these difficult times, many teachers would rather remain jobless than work at Markham Middle School. The school is located in a crime-plagued Watts neighborhood that encompasses the Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens housing projects and their rival gangs. Its test scores are among the lowest in Los Angeles, and during the 2006-07 academic year, more than 500 students were suspended, at least half of those for "attempted physical harm," including 19 assaults on staff members. Its reputation was further tarnished after an assistant principal, Steve Thomas Rooney, was arrested on charges of molesting students. He was sentenced in September to eight years in prison.

As a result of its unpopularity, Markham has six teacher openings in a year when hundreds of L.A. Unified School District teachers have lost their jobs. The school's leaders know of qualified teachers outside the district who would love to work there, but cannot hire them because of state regulations and contract rules that govern layoffs and rehirings according to seniority.

Instead, while Markham goes through the byzantine hiring process laid out in the L.A. Unified teachers contract, those classes are being taught by substitutes who rotate every month. That means students not only have under-qualified teachers, but enjoy no continuity of instruction. They're already on their fourth teacher of the year in those classes.

Taken over last year by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Markham hired mostly new, idealistic teachers. But when California's budget crisis forced mass layoffs at L.A. Unified, the school, with one of the lowest-seniority faculties, lost close to half of its teachers. Under contract rules, Markham had to rehire for its vacant spots from pools of laid-off district teachers who had the most seniority. But after all the openings were filled last summer, several teachers changed their minds.

The school then had to go through the process all over again, hiring from new pools of teachers with successively less seniority. It made its latest round of offers two weeks ago -- and again, teachers who had accepted changed their minds. The school could hire long-term substitutes regardless of seniority, but of the relative few with the credentials Markham needs, none have accepted its offers.

Though various improvements have been made at Markham under the mayor's partnership, its already miserable score on the state's Academic Performance Index slipped another 10 points last year. But all efforts to turn around Markham or any other low-performing school are doomed if the state, the district and we as a society accept the idea of denying students qualified, coherent instruction even when teachers who want to help them are close at hand.

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