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Crammed Classrooms and Teachers Using Tourniquets: Why L.A. Educators Say They're Really Striking

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As officials from the Los Angeles Unified school district and the United Teachers Los Angeles try to hammer out a deal at the bargaining table, thousands of teachers are staying on the picket lines.

They're striking for smaller class sizes, more school nurses, librarians, and counselors, and a pay raise. School district leaders have said they agree with these demands but cannot afford them. Still, teachers have said working and learning conditions at schools are untenable.

On the strike's fifth day, Education Week asked Los Angeles teachers to share stories from their classrooms that illustrate why they're striking. What really happens when there's no librarian or nurse? What does it mean for students when a charter school takes over part of the building? Here are some responses:

A School Shooting Without a School Nurse 

Last year, a 12-year-old girl fired a handgun at a Los Angeles middle school. The bullet struck two students, and a piece of shrapnel hit teacher Sherry Zelsdorf's forehead. No one died, but the incident was traumatizing for students and teachers involved.

There was no school nurse in the building that day, so teacher Joel Parkes had to stop a student's bleeding. In a video posted by UTLA, Parkes said it is "criminally negligent" for the district to not staff every campus with full-time nurses.

In an email to Education Week, Zelsdorf called the shooting and its aftermath a "nightmare."

"I can see Mr. Parkes holding a tourniquet in a blood-filled classroom. He took care of this student for 45 minutes without a nurse. Other teachers took care of a student with a gunshot wound to the head. A nurse on every campus in a reasonable request," she wrote. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that every school needs a full-time nurse, but that is not the reality in many school districts. 

Not Enough Resources for Students

More than 80 percent of students at the nation's second-largest school district live below the poverty line. Teachers said they need more support to address these students' needs.

"It's frustrating that I'm being asked to be a jack-of-all-trades, including being a nurse and crisis counselor on the days that I don't have the personnel at the school," said Michele Levin, a science and health teacher at Daniel Webster Middle School.

Menya Cole, a 5th grade teacher at Woodcrest Elementary, said in an email that many of her students struggle with hunger or have experienced violence and trauma: 

"I have students in my classroom who are homeless or in foster care. Some of our students don't have access to regular medical care, yet we only have a school nurse two days per week. If a student is sick, you have to pray it's the day the nurse is available. ...

Despite the outside traumas that our students face, much of the counseling and mental health services are left to teachers because of a lack of funding for trained professionals. Students can't learn if they are sitting in class frightened or angry because of something that happened outside of school. You can't concentrate on math or reading if you're worried about being moved into foster care or because you're hungry."

Massive Class Sizes

Several teachers spoke of having unwieldy class sizes. For example, several teachers from Lanai Road Elementary told Education Week that they had to replace classroom chairs with stools so children could manage getting up from their desks—too many chairs were banging into one another before. 

In her first year teaching, Angelina Murphy had 46 students in her 11th grade English classroom. (She has been teaching for three years.) It was almost impossible to give that many students individualized support and guidance, she said in an email: 

"It was difficult to physically accommodate that many bodies in one classroom. I did my best to make sure I emotionally checked in with my students because I always shake every student's hand when they walk in the room (many of which have custom individualized handshakes!), but academically, it's difficult to really support each student. After any direct instruction or group work, if students needed help, I would generally go to the students who had their hands up. Thus, students who are more shy or less likely to advocate for themselves may not get as much as attention as the more vocal students, which is devastating. In a smaller class-size setting, I am able to check-in with each student, regardless of whether or not they had their hand up, to hear their ideas about the text, preview their writing, and help them build upon their skills in a one-on-one setting.

Not only is it difficult in a 55-minute period classroom to teach in the most effective manner, it's all the grading that goes along with it that becomes challenging as a teacher. It takes me about 20 minutes to give truly helpful, detailed, and productive feedback on an essay. Twenty minutes with 46 students ends up taking 15 hours! Keep in mind that is only ONE class period—secondary teachers teach five or six classes a day! And I usually give feedback on essays multiple times throughout the writing and revision process. On top of that, there are smaller assignments that need grading, and constant lesson planning because I want everything my students learn to be engaging, exciting, and culturally relevant. There's simply not enough time.

What ends up happening is that I'm not able to be my best self or be my best teacher in one way or the other. I either don't give students as high of a quality of feedback that they deserve or my lessons become lackluster, and that's not fair to students either! Not only does it burn out teachers, but students aren't getting the attention that they deserve! It devastates me when I feel like I want to do more and be more for them, but I simply do not have the time to juggle all of this at once."

Not Enough Library Resources

Many teachers brought up the need for full-time school librarians. Cole, the teacher at Woodcrest Elementary, said students are only able to check out books from the library every other week. "Checking out new books is a real highlight for them because they don't have access to many books at home," she said. 

And Angela Knapp, an instructional coach at John Burroughs Middle School, said that in her 11 years at the school, they have only had a librarian from 2008-10. 

"Our students are not able to check out books or ask questions of a teacher-librarian," she said. "Our library is used as a meeting room and houses tutoring before and after school. Teacher-librarians can make books and research come to life, [which] is sadly a service that is sorely lacking in most LAUSD schools." 

A lack of school librarians is not a problem unique to Los Angeles—the nation's public school districts have lost 20 percent of their librarians and media specialists since 2000, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data. 

Concerns About Charter School Growth

Charter schools have been a major source of tension between the school district and the teachers' union. One of the sticking point in negotiations involves charter school co-location, in which a charter school is on the same grounds or in the same building as a traditional public school. The union has asked to be included in discussions involving co-location, while the district has countered with proposing a task force. 

Stacey Joy, a 5th grade teacher at Baldwin Hills Pilot and Gifted Magnet Center, teaches in a school that shares a space with a charter school. She said co-location has adversely affected her school:

"In the last two years, we have lost our computer lab, our art room, our after-school enrichment program, ... and one of our counseling rooms. Our occupational therapist is literally servicing special needs' students in a storage closet. At the end of a long school day, students who remain in the after-school program are forced to sit on the playground and have no place to do homework. 

Our art teacher no longer has a room for art instruction nor a place to store her supplies. She rotates from room to room. When our computer lab was taken away, my students lost access to laptops. Since our pilot curriculum includes [science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics], our students have less opportunities to utilize technology and the arts." 

Image: Elementary school students, Capri Mac, right, and her brother Sawyer, second from right, stand in support of teachers in front of Hamilton High School during the Los Angeles teacher strike on Jan. 16. —Richard Vogel/AP

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