Concepciona Manuel-Flores couldn't answer many of the questions on a standardized English test in December, even though she says she's a straight-A student. "I had six or seven substitute teachers," the Markham Middle School seventh-grader said. "All we did in English was silent reading or the same assignments, over and over."
Concepciona is one of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of students at three of the city's worst-performing middle schools. The suit claims those students were denied their legal rights to an education and aims to prevent the Los Angeles Unified School District from laying off more teachers there.
The last round of L.A. Unified teacher firings affected thousands of instructors and led to chaotic conditions on some campuses, especially at Samuel Gompers, Edwin Markham and John H. Liechty middle schools, according to a complaint against the school district and the state filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Counsel and Morrison & Foerster. Between half and three-quarters of the teachers at those campuses were laid off last year, according to the suit.
Citing state law, school districts typically dismiss teachers on the basis of seniority during budgetary shortfalls. Lawyers who filed the suit said California law allows districts to circumvent the seniority rule on the basis of need or if cuts disproportionately affect certain groups.
The suit would require the district to lay off teachers at those schools at the same or lower levels than at any other campus in the district. Even though low-performing schools often receive more funding than others, the suit also requested that district officials be barred from denying the schools financial resources to maintain a teaching staff.
The student body at the three schools is almost exclusively minority, and campuses in more affluent areas were not hit as hard by teacher layoffs.
L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines declined to comment on the suit but said he was opposed to teacher layoffs based solely on years of experience. The district is facing a $640-million shortfall, and Cortines warned that more dismissals could occur this year.
District officials have also proposed furlough days and shortening the school year to close the gap. District officials also recently said they plan to fire more than 110 non-tenured teachers who received poor evaluations, in the hopes that doing so may save better-performing instructors.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education also declined to comment on the lawsuit but said schools have been shortchanged by budget cuts.
Gompers and Markham are operated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which was not named in the suit. Marshall Tuck, the Partnership chief executive, said the group supported the lawsuit. The Partnership schools are still L.A. Unified campuses, and teachers are dismissed by seniority in times of budgetary trouble.
The cuts were especially devastating to the three schools because administrators had recruited younger instructors who wanted to be there. When they were dismissed, they were often replaced by instructors who did not want to work at tough, urban campuses.
Some replacement teachers "quit after only a few days," the suit alleges.
Many classes were then filled with instructors who did not have the proper credentials or by substitutes who rotated through.
Several substitutes allegedly gave all students a "C" because they didn't know the material well enough to grade the work, the suit claims.
Sharail Reed, a Markham eighth-grader, said she has had at least nine substitute history teachers this year. When her mother asks her what she's learning in that class, Sharail said: "I don't have anything to tell her."
Some students are reluctant to go to some of their classes, teachers say.
Nicholas Melvoin, an English as a second language teacher at Markham, said he lets some pupils read in the back of his room even when they're supposed to be in another class, where the instructor has lost control. The students say they learn more in Melvoin's room.
"I know we have rules, but how can I say no?" Melvoin asked.