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Vergara sisters recall teachers who inspired them to join lawsuit

Mark Harris | February 11, 2014

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Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, student-plantiffs in Vergara vs. California

Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, student-plantiffs in Vergara vs. California

Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, sisters at the center of a state lawsuit in their name, Vergara vs. California, took the witness stand today, describing chaotic classrooms with inattentive and hurtful teachers in their middle school.

The sisters, who now attend high school at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies, an LA Unified school in San Fernando, are two of nine student-plaintiffs challenging state laws on teacher seniority, tenure and dismissal that they say violate their constitutional right to a quality education. Beatriz, the lead plaintiff, is 15; Elizabeth, 16.

The defendants in the case, California Teachers Association (CTA), the California Federation of Teachers (CFA) and the state, claim the statutes don’t infringe on students’ rights and that well managed school districts can work within challenged rules.

Ted Boutrous, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, handled the examination of the sisters, and began with Beatriz, for whom the case is known informally, asking if she ever had bad teachers. Three, she told him, at Maclay Middle School in Pacoima — for sixth grade math, for seventh grade history and for eighth grade science. Boutrous asked for her memories of each class.

Of the first, she said: “It was always loud in there. He couldn’t control the class. I couldn’t hear anything because of how loud it was.”

She went onto tell the court how her seventh grade history class was a free-for-all with a teacher who didn’t care. “ He didn’t teach well and let students do what they want, kids smoking marijuana and he didn’t mind. He didn’t care what we did.”

He also berated his students, she said: “He made rude comments. He would call us stupid and told us we would clean houses for a living and called us cholos.”

“That made me feel bad about myself because I am a Latina,” she added. “I had to work harder, show him I’m not a cholo.”

Cholo is a derogatory term often used to describe Latinos as low-class and inferior.

According to Beatriz, her eighth grade science teacher wasn’t much better. She testified: “I was scared to ask her questions because she would insult me. She always made fun of students, calling one girl a stick figure and whore.”

Beatriz told the court that she would like to go to college and become a nurse, and said, “Teachers are supposed to motivate you, encourage you and not put you down.”

Elizabeth also painted a bleak picture at Maclay, telling the court that her that time spent in a number of classes was a missed opportunity for learning.

Once an avid reader, she recalled how she stopped reading and attributed her lack of motivation to her eighth grade English teacher. She testified she only read one chapter of one book all year long. She further testified that her seventh grade history teacher, the same one Beatriz had, often left the class in disarray, with students reading magazines, talking on their phones “and throwing food.”

When asked why good teachers are important, Elizabeth said “If you have a good teacher, you can have a good education. You can go to college and have a good life.”

Representing the teachers’ unions, Eileen Goldsmith attempted to undercut the sisters’ testimony to show their dislike of certain teachers was more about style than substance. She also elicited testimony from Beatriz that showed it had not been hard to switch programs at her current school to find better teachers.

Goldsmith asked Elizabeth if her dislike of her eighth grade English teacher was more about his approach to teaching. She said, “He cared too much. He was a very caring person, but his focus should have been more on learning the subject and not our feelings.”

Goldsmith also pointed out that Elizabeth received an “A” from her seventh grade history teacher, whom she described as bad, and a “B” from another teacher the following year.

She explained that sometimes it’s easier to get a good grade from a teacher who doesn’t care, saying, “He just wants to get you out of his class.”

Glenn Rothner, a lawyer for the unions, seemed to make inroads in his cross examination of another plaintiff in the case, Raylene Monterroza,16, who testified about difficulties she had with an eighth grade English teacher at Blair Middle School in Pasadena.

While she claimed to have learned very little in class, Rothner mentioned a series of books and projects that purported to be part of the class syllabus, and she recalled none of it.

“Did you attend class every day?” he asked at one point. “Yes,” she said.

But when he asked about her seventh grade English teacher, whom Raylene described as her favorite, she held her ground by saying she was not disappointed with her grade, a B-minus. “He helped me achieve better so I wasn’t disappointed,” she said.

Nicholas Melvoin, a 2008 Harvard graduate and a former Teach for America teacher at Markham Middle School in Watts, followed the students to the stand. He testified that teacher layoffs in 2009 resulted in effective teachers being dismissed and destroyed school morale. “It was a toxic environment,” he said.

He further explained that teachers had become more concerned with job security than student achievement. Melvoin also described the impact of seniority-based layoffs on minority students, recalling that after one layoff period, students didn’t have a history teacher for seven weeks.

The final witness of the day was Dan Goldhaber, a labor-economist and professor at the University of Washington, who offered more testimony on the effects of seniority based layoffs on student achievement. He said such policies have harmful effects, and even more so on minority and low income students.

Goldhaber returns to the stand on Thursday, when the trial resumes.

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