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L.A. students fight for quality education as their teachers get layoff notices

At Hamilton High School, layoff notices go to 'amazing' teachers and threaten popular magnets. Students are rallying to save the programs.

March 16, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Teacher Jim Foschia fronts his jazz ensemble at Hamilton's music academy magnet. "This is my heart and soul. I get more joy out of watching kids accomplish things than I do out of my own music," he said.
Teacher Jim Foschia fronts his jazz ensemble at Hamilton's music… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The news rippled across the campus Friday morning, and students were falling apart. They texted their parents and sought out one another to see if it could all be true.

"I saw kids crying in the quad," said Portia Amofa, student body president at Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles.

The students were finding out that some of their favorite teachers were among roughly 7,000 in L.A. Unified who had gotten layoff notices. In addition, the directors of two enormously popular and successful Hamilton programs, the humanities magnet and the music magnet, had been told by L.A. Unified that their positions were being eliminated.

It's still early in the game, and some teachers who got layoff notices may keep their jobs in the end. But things don't look good, given anticipated funding cuts from Sacramento. Like school districts across the state, L.A. Unified has had to prepare for the worst and send out "potential" notices.

Students at Hamilton aren't waiting around for the adults to mess things up any more than they already have in a state that ranks near the bottom in national spending per pupil. They're on the warpath, trying to save something they believe in.

They've been e-mailing me since Friday and have also written to board members and other public officials, telling them what great teachers will be lost and asking why this has to happen. I've heard from students, parents and faculty at several schools reeling from layoff notices, but I was so impressed by the Hamilton blitz, I visited campus Monday.

"Teachers here are amazing," said senior Naomi Hecht, who transferred from a highfalutin private school and thinks Hamilton's faculty is more attuned to student needs. She and Amofa were scrambling to educate classmates on the potential cuts, and they organized a Monday rally attended by several hundred students.

"People don't understand that it's bigger than our school and it's bigger than our district," Amofa told me. "This is a state issue."

Sara-Jean Lipmen, who teaches ancient civilization in the humanities magnet and got a layoff notice, said she doesn't know what to tell the student intern she's training. If Lipmen could get axed after five years on the job, what hope is there for an aspiring teacher? And as for those teachers who remain, will their class sizes shoot past the 40s and into the 50s?

We were kicking it all around in the office of Marlene Zuccaro, the music magnet director who was "defunded," as she called it. Also in the room were the chopped head of the humanities magnet, Francis Rose, and several parents. It's not clear whether the magnets would cease to exist or be run in some scaled-back form by the already-overwhelmed principal, Gary Garcia, and his diminished staff.

Garcia told me he has no idea how he's going to continue offering music, or athletics, if the cuts are severe. Zuccaro and Rose perform dozens of functions, each of them running a nonprofit to raise money that supports the many programs they offer, including student travel to concert competitions and seminars on critical thinking.

The music magnet stages several theatrical and concert events each year, not just for the school but for the community. Dozens of trophies and plaques won by the bands and choral groups taught by world-class musicians Jim Foschia and John Hamilton adorn the school, and the two of them have helped make Hamilton a treasure.

But both teachers, beloved by students, got layoff notices.

The hardest part though, Hamilton told his men's choral class Monday, was not losing his job. It was the possible dismantling of a magnet that draws students of all colors and income levels from across Los Angeles.

"I feel this at the deepest personal level," he told his long-faced students.

Foschia, who's been at Hamilton for five years after nine years teaching in Pasadena, also said his first concern is the kids.

"This is my heart and soul. I get more joy out of watching kids accomplish things than I do out of my own music," said Foschia.

While I watched, he ran his top jazz group through a rip-roaring number, drawing out full-throttle performances from 20 smiling, inspired students. The piano player was jumping off his stool with joy. The horn section took turns blowing solos. They killed.

"It's a real shame," said senior sax player Rama Neil, "that this isn't going to be available to the students who come after us."

There are no easy answers or pretty outcomes. As we all know, students included, everyone has to make sacrifices.

But during tough times, even GOP hero Ronald Reagan and rock-solid conservative Gov. Pete Wilson temporarily raised taxes along with making tough cuts. Today, California's Republican legislators have so far refused to support Gov. Brown's plan to let voters decide whether they want to go that same route: to balance the budget half with cuts and half by temporarily extending tax increases.

Nor have the Republicans explained how they'd whack $26 billion without putting more teachers out of work and destroying schools in their own districts. And where, by the way, are the parents in those districts? Are they going to watch in silence as their kids get hammered?

At Hamilton, booster club president Chris Kenemuth told me she's a Republican who doesn't mind paying taxes to save great programs. She's been trying to contact Republican legislators to let them know how she feels, but they're not responding.

Of course not. What can they say that doesn't shame them further? And how would they explain who wins when you fire teachers and demoralize students; when you take something that works and destroy it?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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