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The Fourth Pink Slip

Edendale Middle School teacher Rosemarie Ochoa talks about Program Improvement, state budget cuts, and surviving four pink slips in five years.

Rosemarie Ochoa knew it was coming. 

Still, when the substitute came to pull her out of her 6th grade science class, then in the middle of a "super-cool" science experiment, to receive her official notice of termination, she took it hard.

"I know it's coming," Ochoa said. "I know where I stand on the senority list, I know that I'm going to get it, but it's still a huge disappointment. This year was the slap in the face."

That's because this year was the fourth year in a row. 

For the next few weeks, Ochoa will be a teacher at Edendale Middle School, one of seven San Lorenzo Unified schools in Program Improvement, and one of three now in Alternative Governance. In her five years at the district, she's shuttled from kindergarten to fifth grade to sixth, exclusively between these three schools.

Her story underscores one of the difficulties faced by hundreds of districts and legions of young teachers around the state: new teachers often fill the most difficult schools, ensuring those schools will be hit hardest by the constant reshuffling of staff.

Hillside Elementary School and Edendale Middle School, the two lowest-performing schools in the San Lorenzo Unified School District, each lost 50 percent of their staff last year.

"It's a new generation of teachers coming in that just keeps getting pink-slipped," Ochoa said."With the students, it's just one more teacher out the door. Especially in Program Improvement schools, in a Program Improvement district, (students) need consistency."

Yet, little is said or written about the phenomenon, partially because, like Ochoa, many lose their senority on the first layoff and must accept positions as "temporary" teachers in order to return. Even at school board meetings, where the fate of permanent teachers is hotly debated, the far-more-numerous temporaries barely warrant a mention. 

Still, layoffs impact schools in a variety of hidden ways.

Unsure whether she would have a job in the fall, Ochoa worked through her entire summer, again putting off plans for a vacation, as well as planning for the future with her boyfriend. 

She was rehired the day before the first day of school, giving her just hours to adjust to middle school math and science from elementary school's single-room instruction. 

"I had to learn how we do fire drills, what are the procedures for a morning, how does the scheduling work in middle school," Ochoa said. "When I'm going from school to school and grade to grade, I have to learn all over again what's expected of that student at that level."

While Ochoa was still teaching in elementary school, specialized training she received at one school was at least partially trasnferable to the next. Now, most of it was useless, a problem that's equally frustrating to administrators. 

"Part of it is retaining the people that you train," said Melanie Spears, the district's director of secondary instruction . "At Edendale, the first year I came to this district, they were doing a lot of great things. I went and did some tweaks, and they jumped 20 points—but the staff is constantly different."

And then, there's the tests themselves. Ochoa said she was so nervous on the first day of the California Standardized Tests, she came to school with her shirt on inside out and backward. 

"She’s actually a fantastic teacher, and it’s amazing how she’s so resilient through all of these changes," Barbara DeBarger, the district's head of Elementary Instruction, said of Ochoa. 

Peers and administrators agree.  Yet her seniority—decimated in part by repeated RIFs (the term means 'reduction in force', though teachers use it interchangeably with laid-off or pink-slipped)—virtually guarantees that, should she land another temporary assignment in the district in the fall, she'll lose it again by the spring. 

But even that is far from certain. When she was RIFed the first time, Ochoa had 24 months of rehire rights. Those rights expire this summer. 

Still, she said she's hopeful.

"Last year, they called me the day before school started," she said. "School starts at 8:25, and (this year) they'll call me at 7 a.m. and tell me to come."

Rebecca Olivera May 17, 2011 at 04:56 AM
I must say, Ms. Ochoa is an AMAZING teacher. My son had the privilege of having her as a 5th grade teacher at Colonial Acres two years ago. It's such a shame that wonderful, motivated young teachers such as Ms. Ochoa are tossed back and forth each year and their lives left hanging in the balance every summer.
Douglas Spalding June 24, 2011 at 07:16 AM
While Superintendent Byas announced relatively good news today (K-3 class size will not increase to 30:1, and at least 21 teachers will be spared lay-offs), the community needs to examine the extremely conservative approach the SLZUSD Board has taken during this economic recession. Each spring, the Board issues way more pink slips than necessary, then finds itself needing to "hire back" most of these positions. Trouble is that several of these teachers -- certainly many of the most talented/best potential -- find jobs in other districts. Hence, SLZUSD has experienced a significant brain drain over the past five years plus. Some schools have lost the majority of faculty members in each of the past five years, typically replacing them with well-meaning, but inexperienced teachers. They spend a year or two training these beginning teachers, who subsequently find more attractive jobs farther out in the suburbs, over the hill in the Tri-Valley (for example). It's a cycle that's difficult to break out of. Moses Wicks
Douglas Spalding June 24, 2011 at 07:17 AM
Thank goodness, Dr. Shira does an admirable job of managing the purse strings. I know Ms. Lampel is cognizant of this issue of teacher retention, and is working hard to call back teachers ASAP. But until the Board accepts the premise -- "we have so many students, thus we need so many teachers, based on contractual class size" -- and takes seriously their fiduciary responsibility to find the money somehow to retain the existing faculty -- the district will remain in this rut. The so-called "March 15" deadline has little meaning or import. Teachers have been unceremoniously laid-off in later months as well. Given the legal basis of these later deadlines, there is no need to layoff so many teachers in the spring.
Douglas Spalding June 24, 2011 at 07:18 AM
Instead, the Board operates from a low-ball estimate of money budgeted in the spring (before Sacto budget is ever set), calculates a smaller number of teachers this low-ball budget will support, and coldly performs a subtraction. It would take enormous courage on the part of the Board to re-prioritize, and to take a different approach. Unfortunately, they seem mainly worried about their personal liability, and the unlikely prospect of being sued or arrested.
A.Liness June 24, 2011 at 05:45 PM
I know that not everyone can be a teacher. Teaching children is one of the most difficult jobs to have. A lot of the time it’s a -figuratively- back breaking and thankless job. As a parent of children in the SLZU, it’s disheartening to see this flip flop game played every single year. I agree with Mr. Spalding in that typically the best teachers find more stable jobs elsewhere and we are left with either inexperienced and/or burnt out teachers who simply just aren’t able to offer their classrooms what they need. Luckily, we do retain some phenomenal teachers like Mr. Spalding. Having a high schooler and a middle schooler my personal choice has been to leave my high schooler where he’s at because (thank heavens) in my opinion my child is receiving the education he deserves at the best public high school SLZU has to offer. My younger child though, sadly had repeatedly not been given the education she deserved. The final straw was when in September of 4th grade the teacher told me my child will be held back. The teacher would not offer any suggestions on how I could help my child. The teacher told me it was not worth hers or my time and money to even try bringing my child up to grade level. What has our public education come to when a teacher just gives up because they don’t have the time or funds to teach?
A.Liness June 24, 2011 at 05:45 PM
Btw, I hired a tutor, I worked with my child every morning and weekend the entire school year and by June of 4th grade my child was performing at grade level. I have since removed that child from SLZU and is now happier, healthier and learning without any struggles and without a tutor. What about the parents who don’t have the means to hire a private tutor nor have the time to spend in the morning and nights because they are working 2 jobs and their only choice is to rely on the public school system that gives up on them? I realize responsibility goes beyond our school district and it’s a no win situation for all involved. Just sharing a parents experience in regards to this unfortunate situation that our teachers are subjected to.

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