December 23, 2004
To Live and Teach in L.A.: A Difficult Job
Eight-year-old Danielle dashes to the front of her third-grade classroom and shows off her drawing of an equilateral triangle.
"That's fah-bulous, dah-ling," the teacher says.
Danielle flashes a satisfied smile and prances back to her seat. The other students look admiringly at her.
Then, one asks, "What's fabulous mean?"
Danielle's (all the children's names have been changed in this story) classroom is one of about 25 bungalows -- detached, concrete rooms -- that constitute Wilshire Crest Elementary School on West Olympic Boulevard near South La Brea Avenue.
Like many classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 75 percent of the nearly 1 million students failed to meet state performance standards in 2003, this class has it challenges.
At least half of the students live in a single-parent household. Most of the parents work two or three jobs and do not speak English.
"They're just trying to survive," says teacher Cindy Berger.
In a district that is 90 percent minority and whose per-child spending ranks among the lowest in the nation, Berger has her work cut out for her.
Colorful decorations cover the walls. "We love to learn about everything!" shouts a blue sign. "Read!" says a poster of a furry animal holding a book. One wall displays pictures of "star students" above essays stating their goals for the year. An American Flag graces the back of the room.
Nineteen children sit at desks that form a horseshoe opening to Berger, 44, who stays warm in the chilly room by wearing a long, gray skirt, black boots and a white scarf.
Through her black-rimmed glasses, she surveys her students, black and brown, none white.
"Bubbelas," Berger says, "listen up. Tell me the shapes on your desk that are quadrilaterals."
Hands shoot into the air, waving for attention.
"This is the best class I've had in 21 years of teaching," Berger boasts.
But her enthusiasm gives way to a desperate, worried look.
"They wonder why test scores are low. It's not because teachers aren't teaching. These kids have so many obstacles," she says.
Berger points to Laticia, a girl who moves slowly, dragging her body as if it were made of stone. Laticia's father was murdered about a year ago, Berger says. The child cries every day.
Berger says she sent Laticia home with the paperwork needed to get school counseling, but the student's mother did not return the papers.
"A week ago, Laticia came up to me and said, 'I don't want anyone ever talking to me. I want to be left alone,'" Berger says. "A few days later, she came back to me and said, 'It's just not working out. People are still talking to me.'"
Then, there is Victor, who got in trouble during recess for teasing another child. Last week, when he was asked to describe himself, Victor said he was bad, mean and ugly, according to Berger.
"There's no one who's said he can be more," the teacher says. "He's not getting the nourishment he needs."
Berger says police came to the school a few weeks ago after one of her students blurted out, "My dad was beating up my mom. I tried to help my mom, but then I got hurt."
The teacher keeps a book labeled, "Guess What?" where the children can write to her anything they wish. When students start to reveal something personal in the middle of class, she reminds them about the book.
Berger says Jewish values influence her teaching.
"There's an emphasis in Judaism on education and advancement" and on performing mitzvot, she says.
The teacher spends up to $5,000 of her own money on supplies for the class, on "all this -- their treats, art projects and things to organize the room."
"But the issue is not materials," Berger says. "It's the extracurricular."
Berger wishes someone would volunteer to tutor or mentor a student or to take a kid on a field trip.
"I hope someone will say, 'I have tickets to a basketball game.' These kids need experiences."
"OK, bubbelas," the teacher says, turning to her students. After winter vacation, she explains, the class will watch a movie about Helen Keller, who learned to write despite being unable to see or hear.
"There are no excuses in learning," Berger says.
The 8-year-olds sit on this thought for a moment. One student raises his hand high into the air.
"Mrs. Berger," he says, "is it time for recess?"
Anyone wishing to volunteer as a mentor or tutor should contact the school at (323) 938-5291 and ask for Cindy Berger.