Three days before the public announcement that Georgie Perkins won a Crystal Apple Educator Award for her work as an instructional assistant at Peabody Charter School, she was notified that her position had been cut. In fact, all 13 of the school’s assistants — including Perkins’s son, Ivan — are losing their jobs.
At the Crystal Apple celebration in Buellton on May 17, Perkins stole the show, stopping at the microphone to give a short speech even though award recipients are not supposed to speak. Perkins said she was so torn up, though, that she couldn’t sleep, so one night she wrote down her feelings and decided to share them. “I tried to keep it light because I didn’t want to get up there and whine,” she said.
Afterward, Perkins apologized to Santa Barbara schools superintendent Dave Cash, but he told her she did “just the right thing.”
In the sea of budget cuts deluging public education right now, it’s easy to lose sight of the castaways. But there is probably no more heart-wrenching a victim than Perkins who has worked at Peabody for 28 years after volunteering there for four.
“She’s the backbone of the school,” said interim assistant principal and 6th-grade teacher Lauren Rodgriguez who nominated Perkins. A 6th-grade aide for her entire tenure at Peabody, Perkins is the best source of institutional memory on campus, said Rodriguez. She has taught current teachers. She has taught parents of her current students. Custodian Ricardo Zavala: she taught his four kids, too. She has even taught multiple generations of Peabody teachers.
For over 20 years, Perkins worked with now-retired 6th-grade teacher Roger Earls, who said that Perkins could always anticipate his next move in the classroom: “She is so efficient. She is so effective in the way she puts materials together. She had a personal touch with the kids. The kids truly loved Georgie. You could see that every day in the classroom or on the playground.”
Now, Perkins works with Earls’s daughter, Christy Shaefer, who said she sometimes finds Perkins in her classroom late at night laminating in her pajamas.
Outside of the classroom, too, Perkins has proven an invaluable asset to Peabody. She works at the homework center. She buys the marquee and flowers every year for promotion. And, during recess, she scans Peabody’s courtyard — along with the other assistants — with the uncanny prescience of a cop in The Minority Report, stopping potential accidents and fights before they even happen, freezing kids in their tracks with her telltale gravely voice. After school, she picks up all the childrens’ abandoned clothes and takes them to the lost and found where there are enough jackets to stock a Burlington Coat Factory. “I’m the cleanup fairy,” said Perkins. “I don’t know who’s going to do this after I leave. Maybe a real fairy will come.”
Perkins began volunteering for an experimental program to boost parental involvement at the school when Peabody — attended by both of her sons — was the black sheep of the district. Thirty-two years later, it’s the largest elementary school in Santa Barbara — with 750 students — and parents are clamoring to get their kids a spot on the roster.
Because it is a charter school that controls its own budget and thanks to a generous fundraising base, Peabody has been able to avoid or delay cuts that the rest of the district made long ago. But even Peabody can’t put off the pain anymore. Interim Principal Dana Sadan (whose regular position as assistant principal has also been cut) said “there is no more buffer.” Even after laying off all of the instructional assistants, Peabody needs to cut $375,000 more from its budget. Class sizes may go up, and furlough days are on the table.
“It is a travesty that the fourth largest economy in the world can’t pay for its schools,” said Sadan. “What’s really sad,” said Shaefer, who is on the Peabody board, “is that you are left with nothing but horrible choices.” What’s saddest of all, said Lori Bowen, one of the laid-off assistants, is that “it’s not just a job. It’s my neighborhood. This is where I’m making my mark on the community.”
Like Bowen, Perkins lives in the San Roque neighborhood where Peabody is located. Every year, she dresses like a witch for Halloween, and when trick-or-treaters say, “Hi Mrs. Perkins,” she tells them Mrs. Perkins and her husband went out to dinner and left her there to watch the place. “Mrs. Perkins isn’t here.”
Next year she really won’t be. Sort of. Peabody did create a clerical position for her, but she won’t be in the classroom. And that’s where she shines, said her longtime “boss,” Earls. “She really understands the needs of kids. At the same time she expects the highest standards of them. She’s a mother as much as a teacher there.”