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At Garfield High, students walk out in support of teachers

May 15, 2009 |  3:11 pm

Hundreds of students from Garfield High School in East L.A. stayed out of class today to protest the potential layoff of teachers and the larger class sizes that would result.

Officials put the maximum number of participants at 400, though some other estimates were higher. A core group of more than 100 students returned to class after being addressed by school board President Monica Garcia, who tried to explain her role in managing budget problems that could result in layoffs.

"I've said out loud I'll take a pay cut to save a job," Garcia told the students.

She was alluding to the district's call for employee unions to accept compensation reductions to prevent layoffs. Leaders of the teachers union have contended that givebacks are not necessary.

"Could we get kicked out of school for supporting our teachers?" asked Yazmin Meneses, a 15-year-old ninth grader.

"When I was at UC Berkeley, I participated in some sit-ins too," said Garcia, who added that she had been protesting lack of faculty diversity.

"They told us they could kick us out," Yazmin responded.

"We'll deal with that," Garcia said, adding, "If you have credit issues, there's a better place for you than on the field during math class."

Insisting on personal academic excellence is another form of protest against the system, she said.

During first period, student had gathered in the school's central mall area. They then moved to athletic field bleachers under a hot sun at the request of administrators, who provided a public-address system for them to air grievances.

They took a break during the morning nutrition period and then headed back to the shady mall in smaller numbers. It was lunchtime when they met with Garcia.

Principal Michael B. Summe offered no automatic amnesty from discipline.

"They were absent from class," he said, when Garcia looked in his direction.

Garcia happened to be scheduled for a campus visit today. She was escorting a production crew filming a documentary on Latinos in America.

The idea for the protest spread among students through fliers and text messages. A handful of students stepped forward as organizers of the demonstration. Students wore pink, red or black to mark their solidarity.

Rocio Ramos, a 16-year-old junior, had a pink ribbon around her wrist.

"Some of our best teachers are leaving or getting pink slips," she said.

"The reason we came out," said Juvenal Mendoza, a 17-year-old 11th grader, "is that we want teachers and the district to work together with elected officials to make sure education is prioritized."

Like some others, he was worried about getting into trouble.

The normal absentee rate is about 4%, said assistant principal Frank Rodriguez. Today more than 20% of students were not in morning classes, although administrators did not immediately know how many were absent and how many were taking part in the protest.

Garfield operates year-round because of overcrowding, with more than 3,000 students on campus on any given school day. As at other East Los Angeles public high schools, the dropout rate is high and test scores low, although Garfield's performance is average compared to schools with students from similar backgrounds.

The protest area was a stone's throw from the ruins of Garfield's famous auditorium, which was destroyed by fire and has yet to be rebuilt. As a student at nearby Wilson High, Rodriguez said, he  had marched in student protests of the 1960s.

"We were asking for more counselors then," he said. "And there are fewer counselors per student today. The kids know how they're being treated."

--Howard Blume