OAKLAND -- When his economics teacher went on maternity leave last fall, Eric Flood said, a procession of Fremont High substitute teachers filled the days with easy, irrelevant and uninspiring work. It was so boring, many students stopped going to the first-period class altogether.
When his teacher returned, she expected them to be caught up with the work. Many of them ended up with D and F grades, Flood said.
Flood, 17, is one of 11 student plaintiffs across the state in a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday against the state Department of Education.
The suit says the students have been denied equal access to teaching time compared with students who attend schools in more well-to-do neighborhoods.
The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, cites a loss of valuable learning time due to a number of systemic failures, including a shortage of teachers and mental health counselors, and the failure to have class schedules ready at the beginning of the year.
"We didn't even have to do the work. The substitute just marked us as being there even if we weren't," Flood said Thursday. "There was no point in going to that class anyway, so we just stayed home."
Lawyers involved in the suit say they hope it will get the state to devise a way of tracking how many hours and minutes of instruction students actually get at school, so schools will be forced to provide a minimum standard for learning time. Currently, schools simply report whether a student was there sometime between the start and end of the day.
Northern California plaintiffs in the lawsuit include two students at Castlemont High School and two at Fremont High School in Oakland and one at Nystrom Elementary School in Richmond. The other named plaintiffs are at four Southern California schools.
Also named as a defendant is the state superintendent of education, Tom Torlakson, who is running for re-election.
Attorneys from Public Counsel, an advocacy firm, the ACLU of Southern California and other lawyers are handling the case on behalf of the students.
The ACLU of Southern California was part of a similar class action brought against the state and settled in 2004 that contended the state failed to provide public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities and qualified teachers.
"We interviewed teachers and administrators in low-income schools and identified several factors that cause students to lose days and weeks of learning time," said Michael Soller, spokesman for Public Counsel, about the suit filed Thursday.
The suit alleges the schools' failure to have class schedules ready at the start of the year takes away from learning time.
A lack of mental health counselors in schools where kids are victims of violence and where shots are fired near schools takes away teaching time when teachers become ad hoc counselors, the suit says.
And at schools where there are not enough teachers, substitutes do a poor job, and students are assigned to help out in school offices instead of being in class learning, the suit alleges.
It also says both Castlemont and Fremont high schools have a difficult time just getting students inside their classrooms.
At Castlemont, "Each morning, more than half of the student body arrives late to school and misses the beginning of first period. In many first period classes, there are typically fewer than five students present in a 25-student class when the bell rings to start the school day, and in some classes, there is not a single student present for the first few minutes of class. Many students miss first period altogether," the suit alleges.
"All of those contribute to a really challenging teaching environment and leads to higher turnover and higher vacancies," which cuts down on teaching time, said Public Counsel staff attorney Kathryn Eidmann. "We really don't see this as a case of schools needing more money. We see it as identifying a need at these schools."
Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint said the district has been trying to turn around Castlemont and Fremont high schools for a number of years with little success.
"We are grateful for any action that is going to produce more resources we can use to improve outcomes at schools in the district," Flint said.
Torlakson and state board of education President Michael Kirst issued a statement Thursday in response to the suit, calling it "costly and unnecessary." They said the new shift toward giving school districts more control over how they spend state money, called the Local Control Funding Formula, is "the best way to improve student achievement and meet the needs of our schools."
Danielle Dixon, a special-education teacher at Castlemont for the past two years, said she is quitting her job because a lack of teachers makes it too stressful to stay.
"Mental health is one of the greatest needs I see," Dixon said. "My students on a daily basis know students who have been shot. I have homeless students who don't have enough to eat and are still expected to take the tests and earn the grades to graduate, but they don't have the support to do that. We need an investment of qualified and certified psychiatrists and counselors. We need wraparound services, which we don't have right now."
She said the school has vacancies for special-education assistants that are not filled for an entire year.
"There should be people whose job it is to bring those assistants to us," Dixon said.
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.