“Most summers, I don’t have a paycheck,” says L.A. schools special education assistant.
Gloria Leonardo grew up in a family of teachers. Her aunts and uncles inspired her to become a teacher. She taught high school Physics in the Philippines for eight years.
When Gloria came to the U.S., she learned that she needed to take two more years of classes full-time if she wanted her teaching credential here in California. She couldn’t afford it. She needed a job.
And because her passion is teaching, she looked to see what was available at the Los Angeles Unified School District. She learned they were hiring Special Education Assistants. She got the job and she’s loved the work ever since.
“I was so inspired by the students in the Special Ed classrooms. They needed more help from me than the students I’d had back in the Philippines. I love to help,” says Gloria. “And it’s very rewarding to work with the students with special needs. They really express their feelings. We can feel the love.”
Gloria and her colleagues offer Community Based Instruction to high school students at James J. McBride Special Education Center in West Los Angeles.
“We help prepare kids for life after Special Ed,” says Gloria. “We teach them to take the bus, go to the library, how to behave in a restaurant. They learn how to take care of themselves, basic hygiene and how to dress themselves.”
She works with a girl right now who has severe behavior problems. Gloria has discovered some secrets that reduce her outbursts. “She still has meltdowns sometimes, but fewer. This leaves more time for learning. She follows directions and can focus more on developing the important life skills we’re teaching her.”
When Gloria first got the job, her goal was to see how she liked the special education classroom and then transition to a teacher position later. But she loved how she was able to work directly with the children. She also witnessed years of teacher layoffs.
“In 2002, they were hiring people who passed the CBEST, but they only offered part-time positions without benefits,” says Gloria. “I had an 8-hour job with benefits. It just felt more stable to stay in my position.”
There’s one part of Gloria’s job, though, that is very unstable.
“I’ve worked for the District for 17 years, but I’ve only been offered six summer assignments. Most summers, I don’t have a paycheck,” says Gloria. “It’s hard because my family depends on me. My husband has a pretty good job as a clinician in a dialysis center, but he doesn’t get enough hours and has no medical or retirement benefits, so he depends on me. Our son starts 7th grade at Le Conte Middle School this year and he’s starting to want things like a computer and a phone. How can we afford that? And I help support my mom back in the Philippines. She’s all alone.”
Summers are tough for Gloria and her family…but she tries to see the glass half full.
They live in a one-bedroom apartment.
“Luckily it’s rent-control and we’ve been there a long time, so it’s affordable. Pretty soon, though, my son is going to need his own room, especially when he gets into high school.”
They had to get rid of their second car this past May.
“It’s hard to find parking in my neighborhood anyway. And it’s pretty easy for my husband to take the bus. I need the car, though, because my school is 12 miles away.”
This summer, they couldn’t take the short weekend trips to Vegas or Big Bear that they enjoy. They just stayed at home.
“The good thing is that my son got to spend 21 days at Loyola Marymount this summer. He got a free scholarship to The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a special academic program. He made friends with children from all over the world. He loved it! I told him that was his summer vacation this year.”
They don’t participate in family gatherings as much anymore.
(There’s no “glass half full” for this one…)
“We don’t go to family gatherings anymore — we decline invites to birthday parties and baby showers. We can’t afford it. Most of the events are with my sister and her family up in Fresno. We used to go all the time, but just the gas alone is $60. That’s a trip to the grocery store for us.”
Gloria tried to find work for the summer. She went to the Vons grocery store in her neighborhood. She applied at the nearby McDonald’s. She inquired at nearby restaurants and shops. No one called back.
“They didn’t want to say, but I could tell that they wanted someone younger. Everyone working at all of these places was young,” says Gloria.
So instead they cut down on groceries, use the union’s food pantry, watch free movies on YouTube, and take out loans against her retirement from her credit union. She’s had to get that loan every summer for several years now and spends each following school year paying it back. Then as soon as it’s paid off, she’s had to borrow it right back again.
Like classified school employees across the state, Gloria hopes that the state legislature gets AB 621: The Summer Bridge Fund to the Governor’s desk and that he signs it.
“That would make a huge difference for my family,” says Gloria. “And it would finally send a message to all of us working at our schools that our contributions and hard work are valued.”
Dedicated school employees in California are the only seasonal workers in the state denied access to unemployment insurance.
Like many classified school employees in California and across the country, Gloria and other members of SEIU Local 99: Education Workers United use their strength in numbers to establish the good working conditions necessary to deliver quality student services. To learn more, visit www.qualityschoolsbetterlives.org.