It’s just after 2:05 p.m., and the halls at Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High School are emptying fast as students rush for freedom.
But inside English teacher Ronnie Gordon’s classroom, kids linger.
Gordon is drafting a letter of recommendation for one girl who’s job-hunting. Another student wants to borrow Gordon’s recycling bin.
A boy stops by to ask when Gordon can help with an essay. The teacher finds a time to squeeze the student into his packed schedule.
Gordon, 27, teaches English – including Advanced Placement English. He’s the faculty adviser for the school’s Key Club, Latino Club and the junior class. He mentors students at First Creek Middle School.
On this particular week, he also is helping students organize a blood drive. And he will end the week as an emcee at the school’s spring sports pep rally, where he will also be named most inspirational male teacher.
In his four years on the Mount Tahoma staff – first as a student teacher, then three years as a full-fledged faculty member – Gordon has become a fixture at the school that is also his alma mater.
But his days as a Thunderbird are numbered, because of declining student enrollment and seniority rules that govern how teachers are moved within the school district.
“A lot of our teachers are getting displaced for next year, and they’re doing it by seniority,” said Mount Tahoma junior Addison Sandoval. “Younger teachers are going to have to leave. Those are the teachers that are active in the school community.”
Sandoval was among nine Mount Tahoma students who came to a recent school board meeting to plead – a few tearfully – that Gordon and other teachers be allowed to remain at their school.
Board members say their hands are tied by the school district’s contract with teachers, which specifies that they be transferred according to staffing needs and seniority. But board members were also impressed by the depth of feeling in the students’ requests.
“In my five years on the board, I don’t remember anything like an appeal for a single teacher,” said board member Jim Dugan, referring to students’ comments about Gordon. “This is profound testimony.”
“It’s sad, because the teachers who are being displaced are the ones we need at Mount Tahoma,” junior Tina Thach said later.
Gordon has advised these students since their freshman year, and they want him to be there when they graduate.
“Mr. Gordon is the type of person who can basically change your whole state of mind,” said junior class senator Lacy Delacruz-Agor. “He’s the type of person who cares about you. It’s like the heart is missing from a lot of teachers now days – that’s something Mr. Gordon still has.”
Gordon learned in March that he is among a handful of Mount Tahoma teachers who will move to a new assignment next year. School district officials expect the student population at Mount Tahoma to drop, from 1,765 this year to just more than 1,500 next year.
That means the South Tacoma high school will need fewer teachers, and the number of faculty is being reduced by at least five. Because Gordon is one of the least experienced teachers at the school, he’s been asked to move. He will still have a teaching job – he just doesn’t know where. Although he’ll miss being a T-bird next year, he’s trying to stay positive about the forced march from his “dream job” in the community where he grew up.
“Wherever I end up, I will try my best to continue to help my students sharpen the tools they already have, while they continue to add more tools to the ever-expanding tool chest, also known as life,” Gordon wrote in an e-mail to The News Tribune.
Gordon graduated in 2000 from Mount Tahoma. He got his bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University, and a master’s in education from Pacific Lutheran University.
He knew early in life that he wanted to be a teacher.
“I have been blessed with many amazing individuals that have impacted my life,” he said.
“I figured the best way to pay it forward, so to speak, was to become a teacher.”
Gordon is one of 50 Tacoma teachers – out of more than 2,400 – who have been asked to move to a new position next year as part of a routine shift in staffing.
In addition, another 100 or so teachers are being asked to take new assignments in the fall because of major staffing changes required by federal grants that will be used to reform Stewart and Giaudrone middle schools.
The process under which Gordon and other teachers will move is known as displacement. It means they still have teaching jobs in Tacoma, but they won’t stay in their current post. Displacement occurs based on subject areas and seniority.
Tacoma Education Association President Darrick Hartman said the rules ensure that all teachers are treated fairly when changes are deemed necessary.
“You bargain a contract for 2,400 people, not 2,400 individual contracts,” he said.
Hartman also points out that the contract gives displaced teachers return rights to their former jobs for 24 months, if the jobs at their old schools are reinstated.
Seniority is a decisive factor in most union contracts, including those that govern teachers around the state.
“It’s the fairest and most objective way to make difficult staffing decisions,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association.
“It’s something agreed to by both sides, the employees and the school district.”
While unions have traditionally argued that staffing be done objectively, school districts across the country – including in Arizona, New York and Washington, D.C. – are taking a new look at how seniority plays into their staffing models.
At least two Tacoma School Board members say it might be time to evaluate whether to allow exceptions to the seniority rules here.
“We need to look at what’s going on across the nation,” board member Kurt Miller said.
“In my opinion, the school district should have in the bargaining agreement the capability to intervene in as-needed cases,” Dugan said.
“I’ll be interested to have that discussion when the time comes.”
The current Tacoma teachers’ contract runs through August 2011.
Students say they would like to see a change in seniority rules that they say deprive them of some of their favorite teachers.
“I would like to see it changed so that everyone has an equal opportunity to teach students based off the results of their teaching,” said Derrick Reinhardt, senior class senator at Mount Tahoma. “I think it’s really wrong for ineffective teachers to stay and for effective teachers to leave.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635