Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students are fighting to save their teachers from layoffs, saying they're putting classroom lessons to a real-life test.
“We all know that we have about a .001% chance of winning the fight, but these teachers taught us to take a stand in the face of difficulty, so writing letters is the least we can do,” e-mailed Myers Park High senior Bethany Pico.
Current and former students of history teacher David Layton exchanged outraged comments and strategies for saving his job on a Facebook page titled “History Is My Life! A Tribute to Dave Layton,” which has 573 members.
At Mallard Creek High, dozens of students met Friday to talk about saving the job of theater teacher Aimee Jordan. And at Ardrey Kell High, junior Ali Suhren collected 230 student signatures on a petition to keep English teacher Maggie Koller.
“Even if it doesn't change anything, at least it lets her know that someone cares,” Ali said.
The students appear to be right – about the remote chance of changing the district's decision and about the effect on the teachers they're fighting for.
“To see my students do that for me, I'm humbled,” said Koller, sounding more like she'd won a prize than gotten a pink slip. Finishing her first year with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she got a layoff notice Wednesday and learned about the student petition drive Friday.
“In my English class we talked about taking a stand,” she said. “I didn't think I'd be the one they're taking a stand for, but I'm proud.”
On May 22, 304 teachers received layoff notices as part of a budget plan that calls for eliminating 1,300 of the district's 19,000-plus jobs. The move comes in anticipation of cuts in county funding.
District officials are following a 10-page layoff policy approved by the school board, spelling out who will be let go in what order and who has a chance of being rehired.
School board chair Molly Griffin, a former Myers Park High parent, said she's getting a lot of e-mails about laid-off teachers and personally knows some great ones who have been cut. She said she hopes there's money to rehire some of them, but she doesn't think it's appropriate for board members to interfere with individual cases.
By the book
When asked if public opinion could reverse a layoff, Superintendent Peter Gorman replied with an uncharacteristically stilted e-mail: “We are following the criteria. Where stipulated, staff have appeal protections. We intend to be fair, legal and consistent and to follow the criteria.”
Anar Parikh, a 2008 Myers Park graduate who e-mailed Gorman about Layton and another laid-off teacher, says she got “a generic reply thanking me for my passion and opinion.”
As a CMS student in 2006, Parikh helped create Mecklenburg Youth Voice, a student group that has met regularly with Gorman since he arrived in Charlotte that year. On Friday, she said she was frustrated trying to figure out who could respond to pleas for great teachers.
“From meetings with Dr. Gorman and other CMS officials, it is my understanding that CMS must increase efficiency, to ensure that students pass standardized tests and are prepared for life outside of CMS. Increased efficiency requires efficient and successful teachers,” she wrote.
While many teachers lost their jobs because they had gotten below-standard job evaluations or lacked a license, Gorman acknowledges that others are “stars” who were laid off for other reasons.
For instance, Layton retired and was later rehired by CMS. Gorman says he cut those jobs knowing retirees will still have a pension to live on. They are not eligible to be called back this year, although Gorman did not rule out that possibility once the economy improves. In a few years, he said, “we could be knocking on the door saying, ‘Come back!'”
Koller said she was laid off because she lacks career status, known as tenure to most noneducators. She spent her first four years out of college as an information-technology buyer, a job that left her feeling empty. She went back to college to study education and started teaching in Michigan.
The recession hit that state faster and harder than North Carolina, and last year her job was eliminated. Her brother had already come to CMS and said there were plenty of opportunities.
Koller says she was thrilled to get hired at Ardrey Kell this school year. In addition to English, she taught journalism and debate. She says she always got good evaluations.
Ali, her student, raves about her. “Her classroom has become a home for us,” she said, her voice cracking.
Laid-off teachers who don't have low performance reviews are eligible for new jobs if other teachers leave or the budget turns out better than projected. Koller says she hopes that happens, but she's going to start job-hunting right away. As a single person, she can't afford to go long without a paycheck.
For some of her students, she says, this is “a lesson in real life … that moment when you realize bad things happen to good people.”
She said there's something else they'll learn: “You get through it.”