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Laura Barragan has known her son Nathan’s preschool teacher, Athena Gonzalez, for six years. That’s because Gonzalez also taught Barragan’s 5-year old daughter, Joanna, and her 9-year-old son, Angel.

Barragan has a lot of uncertainty in her life. She doesn’t know whether her husband will keep his job as the recession continues to roll on. Life keeps getting more expensive, and ends get harder and harder to meet. But the teachers at Fay Elementary School in City Heights have been one constant.

“My son has been here since pre-K,” Barragan said. “His teacher, we see her every day, we say hello. I don’t know what we’re going to do next year.”

This might be the last year Barragan gets to chat with Gonzalez every morning. And it might be the last year her son, who is due to spend another year of preschool in Gonzalez’s class, gets to benefit from her teaching.

Gonzalez, like 26 other teachers at Fay, is currently laid off. Of the 29 classroom teachers at the school, only two will certainly keep their jobs next year.

There are plenty of broad verbs and adjectives to describe what will happen at Fay if those layoffs go ahead. The school will be decimated, gutted, blown up. But look closely in the corners of the big picture and there’s a different narrative: The school will also be affected in countless smaller ways that are less easy to quantify.

Training programs, personal relationships and teacher camaraderie will all be disrupted by layoffs.

To understand those impacts, I spent a couple of hours at Fay on Wednesday, talking to the principal, teachers, a parent and students. The visit was part of a three-day exercise to observe the impact of the district’s layoff crisis at the grassroots level.

This much was clear from my interviews: The threads that form the fabric of a school can be torn apart when teachers are laid off and replaced with educators from elsewhere in the district.

‘We Built This School’

Like her colleagues, third-grade teacher Rebecca McRae is hanging in there.

Rather than applying to charter or private schools, or other local school districts, she’s sticking with Fay, hoping that a deal will be made to save her job.

McRae, like many of the laid-off teachers at Fay, has eight years of experience. She would likely land on her feet somewhere else without too much trouble.

But McRae doesn’t want to leave. She has invested almost a decade in this school. She’s helped weave an atmosphere of collaboration that prevails against the pressures placed upon the school.

“We built this school, and I take pride in that,” McRae said. “I want to do a good job and be a good role-model and be excited about my job because I have that buy-in. This is my school. I don’t just work here.”

If the layoffs happen, McRae’s teaching spot, like most of the jobs at Fay, will be replaced. Other teachers will fill the gaps left behind. On paper, the school will still have teachers.

But what will be lost is something less tangible: The teachers at Fay have forged close friendships with each other, McRae and her colleagues said. They have each other’s backs. That extends from providing moral support to sharing teaching techniques and lesson plans.

If one teacher calls in sick, the other teachers pull together, ensuring the students are covered and getting the best day’s education, the teachers said. If another teacher is struggling with a particular lesson or subject, the faculty will find someone to strengthen that teacher’s knowledge or teach a class for them to learn from.

With new faces, that collectivism might slowly re-form.

But the teachers here worry that they’ve created something special that will disappear if most of them are laid off.

A Wasted Investment

For two years, Fay Elementary’s principal, Eileen Moreno, has been preparing her school for a national program called the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The program is an attempt to standardize achievement goals across the country, ensuring kindergarteners in San Diego enter first grade as well-prepared as their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

“We’re ahead of the game,” Moreno says. “I’m ready to go on that, next year.”

New tests that will measure whether students meet the national standards don’t come into effect until the 2014-15 school year. But Fay Elementary is ready to implement the program next year, a year early.

Teachers at the school have been undergoing professional development the last two years on how to meet the common core standards. But the school’s planning will go to waste if most of the teachers leave next year.

Moreno said the teachers she hires next year to replace her team may well not be as well-versed in those standards. Different schools may be well behind on training for that program, she said.

“I just don’t know where they will be on that,” she said.

This situation isn’t unique to Fay or to the common core program. Across the district, schools have set up training regimes that run at a clip unique to that campus. Teachers learn how to implement new programs like the common core standards according to each school’s speed.

By removing teachers from those training schedules, and placing them at new schools, one effect of the layoffs is to interrupt dozens of preconceived professional development plans.

Choosing a Challenge

The district’s last-in-first-out policy on layoffs means schools in San Diego’s poorer neighborhoods are typically hit hardest when pink slips are issued, because those schools tend to have higher proportions of young, less-experienced teachers in their ranks. Those teachers are the first to get laid off.

The anomaly at Fay is that, because the layoffs are so extensive this year, many of the teachers losing their jobs are nine-year veterans.

“They’re really not that young anymore!” Moreno said.

At Fay, many of the teachers being laid off have committed almost a decade of service to a school with all the challenges of a tough, urban campus. They’re teachers who want to face that teaching environment every day.

“In communities such as City Heights, the kids have so many challenges,” Moreno said. “But these teachers don’t want to go anywhere else. They’ve fallen in love with these kids.”

Wipe away those individuals, and their positions will have to be replaced by teachers from elsewhere in the district.

She’ll be losing teachers who have gotten to know the school and its community, and have decided City Heights is a place where they’re going to thrive as a teacher, Moreno said.

“It does take a certain mentality to want to make that commitment to work here,” she said.

‘It Would Feel Strange’

For Laura Barragan, Fay Elementary isn’t just a school, where she drops off and picks up her three kids. It’s a thriving, core part of her community.

“It’s really important,” she said. “Many of the parents here are Latinos. Many of the teachers do their best to get to know the children more, because, as Latinos, many of us work two jobs, so the teachers do a lot to help the children.”

In a community filled with newcomers, some from war-torn countries and many them families who face near-constant flux, the continuity of a school’s staff can be as important as the mere fact that classrooms are open and running, Moreno said.

Schools like Fay serve as oases of order in chaotic young lives, she said.

Just ask Angel Barragan.

The 9-year-old struggles for the words to describe why he wants his teacher to stay on at the school next year. She has helped him learn, pushed him and supported him, he says.

But more cogent that the 9-year-old’s urge to protect his teacher is his answer to what the school would be like if she and her colleagues are not there next year.

“It would be strange,” he says. “Really strange.”

What constitutes strange to a 9-year-old is not something that gets taken into account when staffing decisions are made in the headquarters of a school district, or when legislation is drafted to control the allocation of tax resources.

But at this school, and at dozens like it, that feeling of strangeness is opening up in thousands of local children. And it’s just one of the otherwise barely perceptible ways San Diego’s schools might be impacted by the laying off of a fifth of the district’s teachers.

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

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

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