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A Stranger’s Words Fueled My Fight During The LAUSD Teachers’ Strike

We were on strike for six days, but honestly it felt like a month. I have never been more emotionally and physically exhausted than during this historic teachers’ strike (the first in 30 years). You would think it would have been when my twins were born or even when we had our third little one, but no it was six days of being on strike.

From Monday, January 14 — the start of the strike, to Tuesday, January 22 when it came to a close, we had a packed schedule of events. Our union is organized. From the first day to the last day, they were prepared for this strike. We marched from City Hall to Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Headquarters, we rallied in front of Charter Schools Headquarters, and we held midday rallies at our local high schools — collectively we all followed a “strike daily schedule.” Picket lines started at 7am and our days ended with 2:30pm leafleting and talking with parents. We did this every day for six days, four of which it poured heavy rain. I secretly hoped that it would make people feel a little more empathetic to our cause. Who doesn’t feel bad for teachers on strike standing out in the rain picketing? One hundred percent of people we spoke to were in support of us, but so many of them didn’t really have an understanding of what we were fighting for.

On one of the days, I went into a Starbucks in my red poncho (#RedForEd = wearing red to support the public education movement) to get a little break from the rain and warm up. While there, someone approached me and asked “what are you striking for?” I really wanted to say “This is day three — do you not watch, listen or read anything happening in the news?!” But instead I said this…

“It is NOT just about teachers going on strike for increased wages, it IS about demanding that the school district use money that they do have to fund our schools. It’s about making the district accountable for decisions it makes. Why do we not have lower class sizes? Why should a class of 6-year-olds have a ratio of 1 teacher to 28 students? Why should a class of 12-year-olds have a ratio of 1 teacher to 37? Why do our schools lack basic resources (i.e. nurses, librarians, school psychologists, counselors, teaching assistants, etc.)? Why is the district allowed to fill a class beyond its capacity? Why is our district being run by a man who has absolutely no background in education? We are fighting for so much more than salary.”

She looked a little shell shocked when she left, but not before saying, “I didn’t realize, but I am definitely with you guys.” Those six words: “I am definitely with you guys” — they got me through the next hour of picketing in the rain. The support we have received from the community has been incredible and was what got me through each day. We all had to make some kind of sacrifice during this time. We all were inconvenienced in some way during this time. We all were frustrated and exhausted at some point during this time.

Teacher during LAUSD strike
Julia protesting with her son during the LAUSD strike.

Even with all of this, we did something incredible together, something I feel proud to have experienced and been a part of. There really is nothing like marching with tens of thousands of your fellow colleagues and supporters chanting for justice, for public education, and for the future of our students. At our celebration rally on Tuesday, the last day of our strike when they announced that United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and LAUSD had reached a tentative agreement, you could see the heart and soul of a collective group who knew they had just achieved something historic. Strangers embraced and cheers echoed throughout the Los Angeles civic center’s Grand Park.

We had made incredible progress, not just on a city level or a state level, but on a national level. All around the country we are raising awareness and helping to transform public education. Some are saying that more should have been achieved, that more could have been done, but I’m taking this as a win.

There is definitely more work to be done and more that can be achieved, but tonight I have 3-year-old twins waiting for me to read them a story, a baby that needs a lullaby, and a husband who wants to talk about something other than contracts, striking, and picketing.

Editor’s note: Here is a quick breakdown of the new deal:

  • Smaller class sizes. Class sizes in grades 4-12 will be reduced by 1 student in the 2019-20 school year; 1 in the 2020-21 school year; and 2 in the 2021-22 school year. Classes in grades 3 and lower will be capped at 24 to 27 students. English and math classes in middle and high schools will also be capped at 39 students each year. And Section 1.5, allowing the district to raise class sizes during what they deem as a financial crisis, has been eliminated.
  • More nurses, counselors, and librarians. LAUSD will add 300 school nurses over the next two years, which means that every LAUSD school will have a nurse. Over the next three years, 77 new counselors will be added, helping reduce the student-to-counselor ratio to about 500:1. LAUSD plans to add 82 librarians to all secondary schools, allowing all middle schools and high schools to have a teacher-librarian.
  • Teacher raises. LAUSD agreed to a combined 6% raise for teachers — 3% retroactively for the 2017-18 school year and 3% for the current school year. (The teachers’ union had asked for 6.5% raises.)
  • Charter schools. The district has agreed to a board vote on whether to ask the state to cap the number of charter schools (privately controlled and publicly funded institutions that often hire nonunion teachers), although it’s not guaranteed that the board will approve this. Also, moving forward, a UTLA “co-location representative” will be elected on campuses having to share space with a charter school and will help develop a shared-use agreement for the site. Also, the district will be notified of the potential co-location of a charter school.
  • Reduced testing. A joint union-district committee (a group of four L.A. Unified members, four UTLA members, and four parents) will review all current district tests and develop a plan to reduce the amount of assessments by half for each grade level.
  • Funding for community schools. Over the next two years, 30 schools will be converted into “community schools,” providing rich curriculum, parent engagement, and a range of health and other services for students and their families. These schools will have additional funds and several new staff who will be UTLA members.
  • Special education. Special education teachers will get two “release days” to conduct testing and other provisions to help ease the demands on special ed teachers.
  • Magnet schools. UTLA members will be allowed a vote when a school converts from a traditional program to a magnet program, however, this doesn’t grant a veto over those conversions.
  • Green space expansion. Plans to remove bungalows and asphalt and increase green space on campuses.
  • Immigrant defense support. Immigrant students and their families will have a dedicated attorney and hotline, which will be supported by charitable giving.
  • Stop of random student searches. There will be an expansion of the pilot program that ends random searches of students to 28 schools.

Julia Watanabe has worked with LA Unified for 17 years and has taught grades PreK through 5th grade as both a Special Education teacher and a General Education teacher. She is currently an Early Childhood Special Education Transition Service Facilitator working together with students, teachers, and families through the Special Education referral process and creating individualized educational programs. She is also a mama to three.

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*Story photo provided by the author. Cover photo by LaTerrian McIntosh via Unsplash.

By Mommy Brain, January 27, 2019
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