LA Teacher Union Activist Calls it a Day

May 22, 2015 Updated: May 22, 2015

Adult education in Los Angeles has withstood budget cuts, school closings, and staff layoffs each year since the beginning of the recession in 2009, but perhaps nothing presents as stringent a challenge as the one ahead.

Notices of reduction in force, or RIFs, laying off hundreds of teachers and staff in the already short-handed Division of Adult and Career Education (DACE) in the Los Angeles Unified School District, have rallied teachers, students, and community leaders to save the once-vibrant adult schools, which connect local communities to education and training opportunities leading to jobs and better neighborhoods.

In the thick of this gloom is a familiar figure known for years-long advocacy—rabble-rousing, some would claim—that has helped spare public adult schools in Los Angeles from extinction. He has also laid a legacy for speaking up for fellow teachers, many of whom do not raise voices for themselves out of fear of administrative disapproval. Whatever the conundrum, Ernest Kettenring, a 30-year teaching veteran at LAUSD and present director of adult education with United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), has beat the drum for adult education. That beat will become silent after June 5, the time Kettenring has set for his retirement.

“Ernest has been a great teacher who has affected many people’s lives across Los Angeles,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of UTLA, in an email to the Epoch Times. “He has also been a tireless advocate for educational justice and professional respect for educators.”

“Irreplaceable” and “inimitable” are familiar accolades for Kettenring, presently leading his teacher brethren onto the battlefield one last time to spare adult education any more disquiet. Many career and technical fields in high demand by industry have gotten the axe beginning next fall. So have scores of teachers. Many wonder if Kettenring’s departure will be the death knell for public adult schools in Los Angeles. An heir apparent of equal talent is not yet known.

In his role advocating for adult education teachers and programs, Kettenring has cultivated respect for his articulateness, organizational abilities, and attention to minute details. “An encyclopedic mind,” Robert Sucher, a teacher at Abraham Friedman Occupation Center says of him, adding, “His dedication to teachers is second-to-none.”

“He speaks his mind with conviction,” adds Matthew Kogan, a UTLA leader and ESL teacher at Evans Adult School. He credits Kettenring’s integrity and knowledge of state education code for the apparent respect LAUSD school board members and adult school officials accord him. 

Kettenring’s style not only captures respect from teachers but may be the lasting image of him in years to come. At adult education committee meetings, for example, this man with long gray hair and full beard perched on a table, cross-legged and barefooted, look every part of a guru.

“He suffered no fools,” says Julie Carson, a UTLA leader and teacher who recently announced her own retirement. 

Kettenring squared off with DACE on such issues as tenure and on what he terms “incompetence, willful noncompliance with ed. code [and] malfeasance and misappropriation of funds.” Tête–à–tête with top DACE administrators wasn’t without backlash. One administrator tried to fire him, he says, and another opted for administrative procedures in an effort to get him to resign.

Kettenring’s strength, Carson observes, comes with a downside. “Because he doesn’t suffer fools, he’s often perceived as arrogant. Fortunately for us [adult education teachers], it’s that ‘arrogance’ that has allowed him to persevere where others would have given up.”

Raised in Chino, Calif., Kettenring’s early path bore little semblance to what would lead to union activism. However, it may have shaped him to be the leader unafraid to stare down obstacles in uncharted waters that he was to become. Music degrees at CSUs Fullerton and San Bernardino paved the way, in 1978, to Cape Town, South Africa, where he did graduate studies at a British university and played French horn in the South Africa Symphony Orchestra, a stint that lasted four years.

Kettenring’s return to the United States was preceded by him traversing up the African continent in a converted army truck. “One bath in five months,” Kettenring remarked. This period took in experiences like hunting with the Pygmies in the Congo, sightseeing the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and being hospitalized in Cameroon with malaria.

After a full scholarship to the University of New Hampshire for an M.A. in history, he studied Swahili in a doctoral program at UCLA, winning a Fulbright Scholarship for a year’s study in East Africa, and distinction as the first-ever teacher credentialed in Swahili.

Kettenring became active in UTLA in 1992 at the urging of Carson, who, as well as other supporters, wonder how it will be for him to “let go” in retirement.

“Easy,” claims Kettenring, who plans to return to East Africa. “I’ll polish up my Swahili.”

Timothy Wahl’s experience in business, education, the sciences, and the arts gives him a unique platform on a spectrum of subjects.