David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Classroom Had Rats
by David Bacon

WILMINGTON, CA (12/20/00) -

Thomas Ibarra's classroom had rats.

"I would come in in the morning, and the desks would be wet. At first I thought it was water, but then I realized that the rats were leaving urine and droppings everywhere. The kids began to complain."

For days, he tried to get someone to come and take care of the problem. Finally they did, but the solution was even worse. They set traps around the room, and sometimes they were sprung while the children were in class. Then they'd hear the animals squirming in the traps, and see the blood spread.

Ibarra knew he had to do something to help the kids deal with the experience. So he asked them to use their newly-acquired computer skills to let their feelings out. Each student wrote a short account of what they felt. They put them in the different typefaces they'd learned to use, and they drew pictures of the rats with the computer's drawing program.

Their contributions had the typical directness of fourth graders everywhere. "I saw a rat in room 28," one said. "The room smelled very bad and it made me sick to my stomach. There was blood all over the place." Another student remembered their death. "I saw a rat alive on a trap with his stomach cut open and I can see blood coming out. THE JANITOR HAD TO TAKE THE RATS OUT."

The experience of Ibarra and his students may be horrifying, but it's not unique. Schools all over California today are facing a crisis of age and disrepair. The problem goes beyond buildings and facilities. Although a few years ago the state government began requiring classes of no more than 20 students in kindergarten through third grade, in the upper grades classes are more crowded than ever.

Students don't have books. Teachers like Ibarra routinely make copies of workbooks, and even textbooks, and pass them out to students instead. It's common to hear teachers explain that their quota on the school xerox machine gets used up long before the semester ends, leaving them to pay the costs of continued copying out of their own pockets.

While the state has recently put enormous emphasis on reading programs for students, it still can't ensure that the classrooms have the books it says are necessary. In the LA Unified School District, the Collections for Young Scholars Materials Checklist requires that each of Ibarra's students have Book 1, Vol. 5 of the CYS Anthology, and the fifth grade Explorer's Notebook. The classroom is supposed to be equipped with a student toolbox containing activity cards and a teacher's toolbox with instructional material. But Ibarra's room lacks all of these things.

And California isn't the only state with these problems. Although its per-pupil spending still ranks towards the bottom, students and teachers in every state tell similar stories.

Today Thomas Ibarra's experience has become part of a larger effort to get the problems fixed. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Governor Grey Davis, charging that conditions had deteriorated to the point where students were being denied their basic right to learn, and that his administration wasn't requiring districts to take steps to guarantee that right. The suit names 28 individual schools, including Gulf Avenue Elementary School in Wilmington, where Ibarra teaches.

At Balboa High School in San Francisco, it charges that "students stand in classes because there are not enough seats; some classes have as many as 53 students, without enough seats to accommodate all the students." At Redwood High School in Visalia, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley where summer temperatures often pass 100 degrees, there's no air conditioning in many rooms.

At McClymonds High School in Oakland (which is not one of those named in the suit), student Mark Manalastas says the bathrooms are routinely locked so that students can't get in (a common complaint.) In the school's beautiful old auditorium, what were once comfortable cushioned seats with wooden backs have succumbed to overuse, with no money forthcoming for repairs.

Recognizing that money is, in fact, at the root of many problems, California voters not only defeated a school voucher plan in the November election, which would have drained even more money from the public schools. They also passed another initiative, to begin financing and requiring repairs to school infrastructure.

California's education governor, in the meantime, instead of settling the ACLU suit and coming up with a plan for improvement, turned around and sued the districts himself. He claimed he lacked the legal authority to force them to fix deteriorating conditions.

While they jockey, the Los Angeles teachers union has come up with a unique proposal for putting pressure on for improvements. In current negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District, United Teachers Los Angeles has proposed that teachers be given the right under the contract to file grievances over bad school cconditions. The union would like parents given the same right, so that teachers and parents could work together to pressure district administrators.

That's a big step for a teachers' union. In the past, teachers have feared that speaking out forcefully against deteriorating conditions would provide fuel to those who say public education isn't working. Especially in the wake of the defeat of vouchers, that fear seems to be receding. Instead, UTLA sees that close cooperation between teachers, parents and the community can provide the basic grassroots political power to fix the schools and guarantee the learning conditions of students, which are the working conditions of teachers.

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