I visited Central Elementary School in City Heights on Tuesday morning as part of a three-day reporting project to see the impact of San Diego Unified’s layoff crisis at the school level.

With one in five teachers at city schools currently being laid off, I wanted to see how the financial mess is affecting teachers, children and parents right now.

I found three stories. Here they are:

‘Yay! Math Time!’

The wonderfully named Sarah Mathy has just walked into Christine Medina’s kindergarten classroom.

Twenty little faces look up expectantly. Glowing cheeks. Eyes sparkling with the opportunity to suck up knowledge.

“Yay! Math time!” cries kindergartner Jacinda Nakhonethap. The group is humming expectantly.

The program Mathy is part of is an innovative mixture of math and language. Expert math resource teachers like her traverse from one class to the next, implementing a routine that’s all about getting second-language learners to think mathematically, while also developing the language to express those thoughts to each other and their teacher.

Thus, when Mathy asks how many shapes are needed to add to a picture made of multicolored tiles, the answer isn’t “10.” It’s “I need 10 yellow hexagons.”

Cindy Marten, principal of Central, has watched this program grow, nourish and flourish. Now, she’s facing cuts that would slice into this and numerous other successful initiatives at her thriving inner-city school.

Four of Marten’s eight kindergarten teachers received layoff notices this year. If those layoffs happen, the group of earnest kids clamoring to answer the question of how many yellow hexagons Mathy needs will swell, from 20 to 30.

“This is what I wish people could see, because then it wouldn’t be about whether teachers are paid too much, or whether schools are failing. People would just see that there are programs like this that are working,” Marten says.

Photo by Will Carless
Cindy Marten

Marten’s confidence is almost unerring. I joust with her, prodding her with questions and assertions: Won’t programs be decimated by cuts? Won’t teachers have to reinvent the wheel? Who’s to blame?

Marten’s response: A stoic stare.

She says her programs will continue to thrive. If she has to do more with less, she’ll do just that. If the district takes away teachers, she’ll fill the gap with creativity and innovation. Her students won’t suffer. Her students can’t suffer.

But as I push her further, Marten admits it’s getting harder to come up with those innovations and solutions. A few years ago, there was some money. Now, there’s less and less.

“We will always be working in a system of complexity,” Marten said. “Our job is to figure out how to build on the shifting sands.”

Her message is simple: San Diego Unified’s layoff crisis is a problem to overcome, not to agonize over. She can sit around worrying about what to do, Marten says, or she could get active, fighting to convince others of her opinions.

Or she can just keep doing what she’s done for the last few years of cuts: Lead a great school through whatever challenges are thrown at her.

As we walked from one classroom to the next, part of a couple of hours of observation of kindergarten classes, Marten introduced me to Cindy Robinson.

‘Oh, Sure, Be a Teacher’

Photo by Will Carless
Cindy Robinson

Robinson’s a 15-year veteran of the district. She’s not going to be laid off. Not this year, not likely any other year.

She’s also one of two reps from the San Diego Education Association — the teachers union — at Central Elementary.

As Robinson and I talk in her kindergarten classroom, elsewhere, somewhere in San Diego, representatives from the union are meeting with officials from the school district.

They’re trying to come up with a deal to save hundreds of teachers from being laid off. That deal will likely involve teachers like Robinson putting off pay raises they were promised by the district two years ago. Is that fair? I ask her. Why should she give up a promised salary raise?

Robinson shrugs.

“I don’t care. My dad was a teacher, I know what making little as a teacher means,” she says. “I’m willing to sacrifice for the kids.”

Robinson doesn’t want to see her friends and colleagues laid off. But she also doesn’t want 30 or 35 kids in her class.

Not for selfish reasons. She wants her kids to learn, to get the most from the few hours of stability and knowledge she provides them with each day.

“I could teach them, but would they learn like they would with 20 kids in the class? No,” Robinson says. “I can’t give each child, every day, that one-on-one time. With 35 in here, I’m going to be saying ‘Don’t go out of the classroom! Get back in here.’”

While she’s hopeful that the crisis can be solved this year, Robinson laments the sad state of affairs in California’s education system. She remembers a time when the state led the nation in the quality of the education it provides, she says.

Now, she doesn’t know how she could ever recommend a student teacher pursue their dreams.

“Oh, sure, be a teacher! You might get laid off five years in a row, and I wouldn’t advise you buying a car, and you might want to live at home while you do it,” she says, barely hiding her disgust.

Many of San Diego Unified’s elementary school students have grown up in a period of seemingly unending economic uncertainty.

That’s manifested itself at their schools as a series of ever-increasing waves of forced austerity.

One of those students is fourth-grader Leilani Orduno.


Orduno has watched for the last two years as her teachers have been laid off, then recalled, then laid off again.

Last year, she made a speech to the San Diego Unified School Board, urging it to roll back layoffs. The speech obviously made an impression on the tiny Orduno. She still remembers it, word for word, and repeats it for me in Marten’s office.

For Orduno, the layoffs are a vague notion, an annually returning beast that comes to feast on her favorite teachers. She knows her current teacher got laid off, but she doesn’t know why. They don’t talk about the layoff crisis in Central’s classrooms; that would interfere with the learning going on.

But Orduno knows something’s wrong. The grown-ups aren’t doing their jobs and that’s why teachers sometimes get sad and why they hug you that little bit longer at the end of the school year.

This is, of course, a crisis too nebulous for a fourth-grader to conceptualize. Even for the children at Central, many of whom come from troubled households and troubled countries, the strife engulfing their little classrooms is just another vague, adult-driven impact.

Orduno has her own way of fighting against that pressure. Asked what might be done to make sure she can keep her teachers, without having to say goodbye every year or so, she had a simple response:

“Maybe we could bake some cookies?”

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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