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One Teacher's Passion for Pet Rescue Offers Unique Inspiration for Students' Success During LAUSD Cutbacks

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Matsui in her classroom (Photo by Nick F. Carranza, Planet Speck)
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By Nick F. Carranza/Special to LAist

As staff anxiety builds, LAUSD teachers are left wondering whether they'll be filing report cards, or unemployment documents come next school year. To close the $400 million budget shortfall, Los Angeles school officials' most recent plan is to layoff 5,000 teachers and other staff members. In times of uncertainty, one must wonder how teachers keep ambitions high, spirits up-beat, and their own anxieties quiet while the kids are listening.

"My students inspire me," says Ryoko Matsui, who has been teaching at Weemes Elementary School in South L.A. for ten years. Matsui's unique approach mixes her passions with classroom lessons, a great way to find communicable inspiration. As a dog rescue foster parent, and pet shelter volunteer, it was only a matter of time before Matsui made her animal rescue passion into classroom fashion. Each year Matsui chooses a community service learning project. Previously, she assisted her students in writing persuasive letters to food manufacturers in hopes of obtaining healthy snacks as an alternative to junk food. This year Matsui is fundraising for shelter animals.

On March 1st, Matsui's students' fluencies will be assessed by how many words per minute he or she can read. In the spirit of Matsui's charitable beliefs, she has challenged friends, colleagues, and supporters to donate $2 for every word improved during the exam. Funds raised will be used to rescue dogs from the South L.A. animal shelter. With the help of reputable non-profit rescue groups, the top three scoring students will choose which dogs to rescue. "The goal would be for the children to realize they can make a positive difference in this world...to become model citizens who care and are compassionate about helping others," Matsui said.

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Top reader Jesus, who reads 86 words per minute, and his classmates were offered a generous incentive. If the class can improve to 125 words per minute, a $900 donation will be made by a few supportive individuals, including KTLA's Lu Parker.

"I was so impressed by Ryoko Matsui's creativity as a teacher," said Parker, founder of Lu Parker Project. "The children are clearly being motivated to learn, and also get the benefit of understanding the importance of giving back to their community." Matsui has received an equal amount of enthusiasm for her project from parents, and faculty members.

In a community where stray dogs are a norm, Matsui's lesson leaps out of the classroom and into the community. "Surprisingly, most of our student population and their families do not know about the South Los Angeles Animal Shelter which is only 2 miles away," Matsui says. "I would love for my students and their families to see how adopting shelter animals is a 'kind' thing to do." Matsui's lesson may also become a vehicle for a larger discussion about adopting a family pet. Many parents find themselves turning to pet shops, or backyard breeders instead of looking to a local animal shelters.

It's hard to understand how the value of such community assets like Matsui, and many other teachers, can be compromised and negotiated. Fortunately for the kids and the community, teachers like Matsui are willing to maintain composure during this unforeseeable time. "I see one of my students have an 'Ah ha!' moment, I am then reminded that while I may not be able to save the school system, I am able to teach and touch the lives of the students in my class in one way or another."