Los Angeles teachers' strike: How one middle school is being creative to cope
Look inside a Los Angeles middle school to see how it is coping with the teachers strike. USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES – It was far from a normal school day at Vista Middle School, but at least the students weren't watching movies.
On Day 2 of the teachers' strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District that has complicated life for the families of nearly 500,000 children, the nation's second-largest district showed off progress being made at one school in the city's sprawling San Fernando Valley.
Using substitute teachers, staff and a smattering of parent volunteers, administrators had divided up the Vista campus into three areas – two for learning and one for physical activity – to try to keep kids engaged. Unlike at other schools, reporters were allowed to roam the campus.
The first day had been "chaotic" as the school opened without the usual teaching staff, said Angelina Papazian, 11, a sixth grader. "Today is much better. They are more organized."
It helped that more students had returned to campus – 42 percent of the school's 1,174 enrollees, up from 30 percent on the first day, said Principal Joe Nardulli. "We're doing the best we can to provide instruction," he added. The increase was in keeping with a rise in attendance across the district, up at least 15,000 from the previous day.
Instructors, aided by screen displays, appeared to be tackling the task of generalized teaching without knowing where the regular teachers had left off. In a large room, about 150 laptop-armed youngsters gathered at tables were led through an exercise centered around civics and aimed at stimulating their thinking.
Akua Willis, a substitute teacher wearing a Spelman College sweatshirt, posed a series of questions for students to ponder either individually or as a group. One, for instance, challenged the group to name public figures making a difference in the world. Another asked them how they will keep alive the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.
In the gym, teams of kids rotated onto the floor to play a lively game of indoor soccer. On Monday, it was dodgeball.
Normal? Not quite.
"We still learn. We get our breaks. We talk to our friends," Papazian said. But she was quick to add, "I miss our teachers."
Emerson Ortiz, 13, an eighth-grader, was blunter. "It's really hard," he said.
Though the kids haven't watched movies like at other schools, he said the school work being given to him is below his learning level. He said his group was being drilled on fractions when he has been studying algebra.
Nardulli said students are expected to come to school despite the strike. They are being marked absent if they don't come, but it won't be held against them when it comes to eligibility for extra-curricular activities.
"It's important students maintain the structure" of coming to school. And "they are safest when they are school," Nardulli said.