Walking in the Rain

On a drizzly day in March I am precinct walking in Echo Park for a special school board election. This funky historic LA neighborhood, with its painted lady victorian houses and aging apartment blocks, is an old stomping ground of mine. It also happens to be part of a highly contested and oddly gerrymandered section of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). A good turnout in this neighborhood can potentially swing the school board out from under the sway of big money interests. The board seat is vacant because the prior occupant was ousted due to charter school related campaign finance crimes. Megadonors have been trying to drink the public school milkshake for years in LA by packing the school board. Teachers can’t outspend the opposition, but hundreds of us are sloshing about the streets today to fend off the privatization interests that are poised to break up LAUSD like a … well, like a billionaire hedge fund manager, such as our district superintendent. If the school district is liquidated, it would open the district up to a feeding frenzy of private interests. Given full control, I believe the privatizers would staff classrooms the way they staff Uber, and we’d probably have to hire Temple Grandin to advise on how to herd the kids around from one stifling overcrowded room to the next. So in addition to my regular work week of running the library in a large urban public high school, I’m spending a large chunk of my weekend knocking on doors.

During the 2019 LA Teachers Strike, a few weeks ago, I picketed and rallied for a week in the rain (Yes, it rained for a week in LA.) with a hopeful sign that read: “UTLA SUPPORTS SCHOOL LIBRARIES AND TEACHER LIBRARIANS!” The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), my union, had included teacher librarians on its list of demands, and I was thankful to be part of the vision of “Community Based Schools,” and “Schools our Students Deserve:” such were our slogans. UTLA has been smart enough to link the interests of LA teachers with those of the broader community, making the case for investing in the overall efficacy and sustainability of our public schools. The UTLA agenda is more for our students and communities than it is for ourselves, or else we would have accepted the 6% up front and avoided any job action. The strike was about working conditions - for both teachers and students. Polls show that 80% of LA supported the strike. (LMU Newsroom, 2019) On day four, outside my school, a group of mostly parents made a human chain at least a mile long between schools along Colfax Ave. You can’t buy that kind of support.

In counterpoint to the spare exclusivity of the Charter model, which most often does not include a school library, UTLA imagines schools with nurturing wrap-around supports, schools that welcome and nurture all students, with reasonable and humane class sizes. This vision of community based schools naturally includes a professionally staffed school library. So that’s how it happened that our teachers’ union demanded restoration of secondary school teacher librarians, and stuck with that demand through some tense negotiations. Teacher librarians and school libraries are an integral part of the vision. The new contract which ended the strike calls for a certificated teacher librarian in every secondary school. Plans are in place to hire eighty-two additional positions within two years. This is an unprecedented gain after years of school library cutbacks and closures.

We became part of the vision, I think, by maintaining a constant needling presence at union special committee meetings, for years. How many years? A hundred. No, kidding. The Library Professionals Committee (LPC) is a standing committee of UTLA that was started about 15 years ago by intrepid TLs to give us a seat at the UTLA table. These are the same folks that make up the Los Angeles School Library Association (LASLA) which pioneered school libraries in Los Angeles in 1915, and of which I am the current president. Meetings of the two, LPC and LASLA, are held jointly at UTLA headquarters. For several years, we have had UTLA officers in most of our meetings, discussing a range of issues: recency, supplanting, textbook duties, contract language, RIFs. It sounds like inside baseball, I know; but for us it’s survival.

The worst and most recent threat to school libraries and teacher librarians has been “repurposing” or “fungibility,” whereby the site administration could redirect the funding centrally-allocated for a teacher librarian position to something else, like an additional administrator. This provided an incentive for admin at sites to kill the library programs. It was also a conflict of interest, since they could repurpose the funding to their own positions. “Repurposing” caused the recent spate of closures, mostly at the middle school level, and reversed the small gains achieved since the recession. Even surviving library programs were undermined by an aura of impermanence. By the time we went out on strike, teacher librarians were basically at-will employees. We were betting high stakes on UTLA standing firm.

Although our recent success has been through the union, our advocacy has often been focused directly at district management, with limited success. Here’s one case. In 2012, the district re-opened the library at Markham Middle School in South Central Los Angeles to comply with an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Agreement. The ‘OCR Resolution Agreement’ of 2010 was seen at the time as a legally binding response to federal government oversight. It came out of a study that showed disparities of several kinds, including libraries, in predominantly African American neighborhoods. A few years later, the district used “repurposing” to close Markham’s and other libraries, basically reinstating the disparities, closing libraries that they had just spent a fortune restoring. They broke the ‘Agreement.’ I wrote and spoke to the board and to the superintendent’s office directly, and the school board decided to do another “task force” to study the situation. The school board has done the “task force” thing twice in recent years, and we have become wary of getting our hopes up. The prevailing question addressed by the last taskforce was: “How much will it cost to bring all of the school libraries up to California Model School Library Standards?” The focus was on counting books. Updating the book collections to these standards, a moot point without staffing, would cost tens of millions of dollars which they felt they could not afford. Therefore, our request to secure existing TL positions, and honor the OCR Agreement, was obliviated. The erosion of the school libraries would follow the usual predictable and regressive patterns. Parts of LA would become, once again, absolute literacy deserts.

Currently, in the Spring of 2019, it’s raining in the desert. We are in the refreshingly cool position of placing newly hired teacher librarians in some schools that have for years shut their libraries. Right now, localized advocacy within school sites and communities should be our primary focus. This is the kind of advocacy that is a natural and enjoyable part of the job of teacher librarian. My own experience in these neighborhoods makes me optimistic that such grand re-openings can be successful. In 2000, my first job as a TL placed me in a middle school library in a low income neighborhood. It was a beautiful space, but it had been closed for two years, and neglected for much longer. The book collection was small and out of date. There were no computers, no automation, and the facility was run down with peeling paint and loose asbestos tiles. The school had stopped referring to it as a library, and were calling it a “multi-purpose room.” Nevertheless, with me a nerdy cheerleader sasquatch at the helm, the school community exuberantly took back the space, and it was filled every day with children, teachers, and parents.

Eventually, the books and computers came in, but the teaching and high levels of engagement were always there, growing from relationships within the community and its confluence of interests around literacy. To be honest, starting as I was from scratch, operating without a template, it helped that I had little in place to start with. When building bond money was allocated to the site, the community asked for upgrades to the library. In a few years, it became one of the most well resourced library facilities in the district. This can be done.

Optimism, after all, is what we’re selling as advocates. We are always up against the cynical notion that such resources and experiences as we provide will be wasted on “those kids.” Everyone has had discouraging moments, but so many have let the cynicism creep into their core beliefs. Once as I was persuading an English teacher to bring her students to the library to get some books, etc., she balked, saying “90% of these kids will never read a book.” Why are you even here, then? From a middle school administrator: “We had to repurpose the funding from the teacher librarian to hiring an additional assistant principal to help with discipline.” What happened to quality first teaching? The time a parent at a school meeting told me that children’s books are not part of her “culture.” Illiteracy is not a cultural trait. And I work every day to uplift the self image of children who don’t think they are the “type” of kid that goes to the library. If you track kids persistently, they actually do start to profile themselves. Except in my library, which is full to the brim every day with “those kids.”

Still canvassing, I just had a long talk with a retired teamster and Vietnam veteran about his glory days driving trucks for Ralphs Supermarket. That job empowered him to buy his Echo Park bungalow where he raised four children, two of whom are now teachers. His daughters, the teachers, can’t afford in 2019 to buy a house in Echo Park. The UFCW 770 is not what it used to be, and a Ralphs employee these days starts at just above minimum wage and probably doesn’t make a career there. The veterano and I have found common cause, and he tells me he’ll spread the word about my candidate for school board.

On this hilltop in Echo Park, the rains have freshened the LA air. Afternoon sun glimmers cleanly off of the downtown skyscrapers. The glimmer and the smell takes me back to a drizzly day 28 years ago when I was a young teacher living in Echo Park, pushing a baby carriage down this same street. Teaching high school English in East LA was a struggle, growing pains, but I loved it. That year, my students and I read together the play, "The Miracle Worker," from our textbook, and in that was an allusion to the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling all night with an Angel, getting his hip out of joint, and ultimately recognizing his assailant and asking for a blessing. I remember that the kids and I talked for a good while about Jacob and his Angel. That’s the battle I signed up for as a teacher, not to lobby, to bargain, to confront management, speak in public - or to the press, or trudge around knocking on doors. But these days teachers, and especially teacher librarians, have to be advocates. The stakes are much beyond our own.

John Hamrick


“Strong Majority of Los Angeles County Residents Supports Teachers' Strike, LMU Survey Finds.” LMU Newsroom, 15 Jan. 2019.

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