It’s not uncommon for teachers to be shuffled around to various campuses during the first week or two of school. But such shifts more than a month into this school year have triggered controversy at West Contra Costa Unified and Los Angeles Unified.
At least a half-dozen West Contra Costa Unified teachers were reassigned to different schools or classes this fall semester, some to different schools and others to combined classes in order to fill gaps caused by the ongoing teacher shortage. Some say the disruption will have lasting negative impacts on students.
Reassigned teachers say they had spent weeks building trust with their students and teaching them social and emotional skills, only to have to start from scratch with a new set of students when they should now be focusing on curriculum. District officials said a total of six teachers have been reassigned since the start of the year.
Los Angeles Unified, which is the largest district in the state and enrolls 422,276 students, often shuffles teachers around during the fifth and sixth weeks of the school year after “norm day” — the day on which actively-enrolled students are counted. The district’s new Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wants to put an end to that practice, however.
“This understandably results in the upheaval for schools whose teachers are moved elsewhere,” Carvalho said in a statement Tuesday. “The process is not community centric, student centric, or teacher centric. There is a better way to conduct a student count and implement its results in a way that adjusts for the movement of teachers, reflects the ongoing trends of schools and better allocates resources to address community needs prior to the start of the school year.”
He said he will work on a plan to do the bulk of the shuffling earlier in future years but did not offer any details on how that might work or how many teachers would be affected.
Cathy Baker, who is in her tenth year of teaching at West Contra Costa Unified, said having to leave her fourth grade class at Ellerhorst Elementary School in Pinole for a second grade class at Peres Elementary in Richmond was “one of the most heart-wrenching experiences” of her teaching career.
“We just came out of a global pandemic, and we as teachers know that we have students that have lost family members or had family members ill,” Baker said. “They’ve been in this position of flux and insecurity for the last few years, and then to have someone that they are beginning to trust and love and care for taken out of the room is really destabilizing.”
West Contra Costa Unified serves about 30,000 students in the East Bay cities of Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo, Pinole, Hercules and El Sobrante.
Baker said for the first two to three weeks of school, she typically focuses on social-emotional learning — the term used for education based on helping students develop emotional skills like self-awareness and navigating healthy relationships vital to success in school and life. Now she must build trust with a new group of students, and her old students will have to learn to trust their new teacher, she said, setting both groups of students back.
“They have to get used to this adult that is in front of them, trust them enough to feel comfortable to learn, and I need the time to get to know my students and bond with them,” Baker said. “I’m a better teacher when I know who my students are and what their needs are.”
West Contra Costa officials recognize the “significant negative impact” the reassignments have had, district spokeswoman Raechelle Forrest said. Superintendent Chris Hurst apologized for the late reassignments at a Sept. 21 school board meeting after dozens of teachers and parents denounced the district’s decision, and reassured them that there would be no more reassignments this year.
“We take ownership in the inconvenience, disruption and social-emotional turmoil of our students and our adults,” Hurst said. “…We are committed to addressing this so that if there are moves that need to be made next year they will be done in the summer or early at the beginning of the year.”
At least some of the West Contra Costa teachers who were reassigned plan to file labor grievances with the district, believing that the reshuffling violated their contract. The district’s current contract with the United Teachers of Richmond calls for teacher staffing changes to occur before the 15th day of school for elementary teachers and the 23rd day for middle and high school teachers.
Jeffrey Bean, who has taught at Shannon Elementary School in Pinole for eight years, started the year with a fifth grade class of 24 students. But on week six of school, the school shuffled teachers so that he would teach a combination of fourth and fifth grade. He lost five fifth graders and gained 11 fourth graders.
Bean said he’s not the biggest fan of combo classes but would have been understanding, given the teacher shortage, if the decision was made before the school year. Since West Contra Costa Unified has had a teacher shortage for years, this situation should not have come as a surprise to administrators, he said.
His biggest concern about shuffling classes late in the year is that current and former students already struggling to keep up may fall further behind academically, socially and emotionally, he said.
“There are some kids who rely on school very much for their sense of belonging, and their sense of having another adult who cares about them,” Bean said. “Having that torn apart suddenly with little warning could hurt some students. Most students will be OK, and most will recover, but I worry about the ones already in precarious situations.”
District officials said the decisions about the staffing process for this school year started last fall and kept going until schools were able to confirm actual enrollment. The district is still down dozens of teachers, and long-term substitutes, administrators and other teachers are sacrificing preparation periods to fill in for the vacancies.
Forrest, a spokeswoman for West Contra Costa Unified, said via email that the district has “made procedural changes” to ensure that staffing changes will occur before the contractual deadlines in the future. The district is also actively recruiting teachers and partnering with local colleges’ teacher residency programs.
“School districts, especially large districts such as ours, are working as best as we can to serve all students with a small pool of clear-credentialed teachers statewide,” Forrest said. “We remain committed to offering students high-quality learning experiences in each classroom throughout our district.”
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