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Vergara trial: Tears fall over challenges of minority students

Vanessa Romo | February 7, 2014

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Kareem Weaver

Kareem Weaver

In an abbreviated day of testimony in the trial Vergara v. CA, a suit that is challenging teacher dismissal laws in California, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu heard from two witnesses who described their personal disappointments with California’s public education system and the laws regulating teacher employment.

Testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs, Kareem Weaver, an award winning teacher and principal from the Oakland Unified School District, talked about his belief that minority students can ill afford exposure to grossly ineffective teachers.

An African-American who grew up in the Bay Area and was raised by a drug addicted father, Weaver broke down in tears, recounting the challenges he sees minority students facing.

“Low-income students of color are the most vulnerable population,” he said, before putting his face in his hands.

He told the court how many minority students grow up on a “razor-thin margin of error,” where educational experience can make a huge difference.

“It either props them up or blows them down,” he said, adding that the slightest external factor can “determine how you will engage with learning for the rest of your life.” And having a high quality teacher, he said, can be pivotal.

Weaver’s testimony was so impassioned, plaintiffs’ attorney Marcellus McRae, who was questioning him, also became emotional. At one point, McRae stepped into an alcove just off the court room to regain his composure.

Another part of Weaver’s testimony focused on two years as principal of Lazear Elementary School in Oakland, where he successfully raised the low-performing school’s Academic Performance Index score by 74 points over two years.

Defense lawyers seized the achievement as an opportunity to argue that current laws granting teacher tenure and dismissal protections do not prohibit academic improvement or learning. In fact, the year after Weaver left, Lazear became a charter school and its API score dropped.

First, Jonathan Weissglass, representing the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, established no changes had been made to the state law when Weaver was at the helm of the school. Then he asked Weaver how he had accomplished the score improvement.

Weaver said he provided extra support to teachers and spent nearly two hours a day conducting classroom evaluations. He now works in the Bay Area for New Leaders, a national nonprofit that develops school leaders and leadership policies for school systems across the country.

Following Weaver to the stand was Jonathan Moss, who identified himself as “a very privileged white male.”

A Teach for America alumnus and a member of Students First, Moss taught at Compton Unified School District between 2008 to 2012.

He said he wanted to become a teacher after learning about the achievement gap between poor, minority students and their white counterparts. He said he chose Compton over LA Unified because he thought the need was greater.

He ended his teaching career in 2012, in search of “more job security” and now works for the Los Angeles Urban League.

Moss said he received four lay-off notices in four years in Compton schools while teachers with more seniority stayed on, which is consistent with the state’s “last hired, first-fired” policies, one of the state laws under challenge in the lawsuit.

“I know it had nothing to do with my performance,” he said. “I know that I was an effective teacher and my colleagues were not.” He described “a sense of mediocrity” among tenured teachers and linked it to the fact they “knew their jobs were protected and they all had job security.”

He said that working among those teachers created a “demoralizing environment.”

The cross examination was brief. Charles Antonen, representing the state, asked if it is up to a principal to set the culture of a school.

Moss responded that it was not. “It’s up teachers to set their own standards,” he said.

McRae told Judge Treu that the plaintiffs need another week and a half or so to conclude their case before the defense takes over. Testimony resumes on Monday.


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