Cecily Myart-Cruz may lead one of the nation’s most powerful teachers unions, but she does not only advocate for the interests of the educators. The struggles of families who enroll their children in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) also concern her.
“I was at a school site, and a single father came up to me,” said Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). “He said he has a couple of master’s degrees. His take-home pay for the month is $3,900. But his rent is $2,900, so he and his two kids are left to make ends meet with $1,000. That includes WiFi, cell phone, gas. How does he and his two children survive on $1,000 a month?”
Children from families in precarious financial situations can be found across LAUSD, and a new UTLA study recommends that the district take action to meet the needs of vulnerable students, particularly those who lack stable housing or care for siblings as their parents work multiple jobs to afford living in Los Angeles.
UTLA released the study “Burned Out, Priced Out: Solutions to the Teacher Shortage” last month, drawing on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the California Commission on Teacher Certification and a survey of more than 13,000 educators. The report calls on LAUSD to use its resources to improve quality of life for educators and for students in crisis.
Before the pandemic, LAUSD had more than 17,000 unhoused students enrolled, and the UTLA study recommends a number of interventions to help vulnerable youth succeed. All students, the report states, should have access to nurses, libraries and counselors. Schools should have manageable class sizes, psychiatric social workers and psychologists, and the district should have resources in place to support the housing, immigration and COVID-19 recovery needs for school families.
The union is also pushing for LAUSD to fund the opening of 136 community schools. The district currently has 34 of these schools, which provide a broadened curriculum and more resources for families and community members to meet the needs of outside the classroom, be it access to food, health care, clean clothing or even legal help. This year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to invest $4.1 billion in community schools over a seven-year period.
“They go beyond wraparound services,” Myart-Cruz said of community schools. “The students, the educators, the classified staff, the community, come together to do an actual needs assessment. When we say community schools, it’s not a cookie cutter model because every school community is different. Every stakeholder comes together and says, ‘What is it that our school actually needs?’”
Community schools with high numbers of foster and homeless youth have washers, dryers, detergent and irons on campus to help these students keep their clothes clean and pressed, she said. Other schools have pantries stocked with food community members can take home with them on weekends. At the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood, students and their families can receive immigration and other legal help, said Anthony Colla, a language and literature teacher at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High in Northeast Los Angeles, who used to teach there.
To better meet the needs of students, the UTLA study also recommends smaller class sizes. When the union went on strike in 2019, they negotiated successfully to cap class sizes at 36 in elementary and middle schools and 39 students in high schools.
Reducing class sizes requires more teachers, more space and more money. “How do you sustain that?” asked Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. “So it’s a fine balance here that has to be worked, but for the longest time, the issue was that schools were crowded because we had too many kids. That’s not the issue now; the issue is financial.”
Before class size caps were reduced to below 40, Colla says he has taught English classes with nearly 50 students. Now, his classes have about 30 students, but he would prefer even fewer.
“If you look at schools nationwide, one of the biggest factors in a student’s success at the school site is student-to-teacher ratio,” he said. “While we have made inroads, while we have made progress, it’s not enough.”
Myart-Cruz said that even in a teacher shortage, policymakers have the power to reduce class sizes. But she also acknowledged that teachers in the district are working nonstop due to the shortage, pushing some of them to their breaking points.
She wants teachers to be able to thrive and function, she said, so they don’t leave the district for jobs with less stress and higher pay.
“It’s not far-off thinking to say educators deserve more money,” she said. “It is not pie-in-the-sky to say we want smaller class sizes. We want less test prep and over testing. We want green spaces on our campuses. We need community schools … so that we can actually fulfill the promise for our kids.”