OAKLAND -- Until this month, it seemed that nothing could come between Lissette Averhoff and her fifth-graders at ACORN Woodland Elementary School -- not even a cancer diagnosis. In 2009, when her doctor insisted an elementary school was no place for someone with a compromised immune system, she taught her students to properly wash their hands. And found a new doctor.
In December, her principal nominated her for Oakland Teacher of the Year.
But Averhoff, 34, might not be back in the fall. She was one of 657 Oakland teachers, counselors, librarians and administrators to receive a layoff warning from the school district based on their seniority and type of credential they hold.
"It feels really good to come to work every day, and I can't imagine that not being the case anymore," Averhoff said. "It's incredibly sad."
A combination of forces are at play: California's budget crisis, the Oakland school district's response to that crisis, a law that requires school districts to tell teachers by March 15 if their jobs are at risk, and layoff rules that give principals no control over who they keep and who they lose.
Oakland Unified issued so many pink slips this year that notices came to elementary school teachers who started as far back as August 2005.
Averhoff's principal, Leroy Gaines, was dismayed to learn that up to four of his 12 teachers could be replaced. Gaines, who is new to the East Oakland school this year, has a trace of wonder in his voice when he describes his staff members, who write their own curriculums and organize countless events and projects with the school's families.
"At ACORN Woodland, every teacher is a rock star," Gaines said.
Averhoff came to Oakland in 2006 with seven years of teaching experience -- years that don't count in layoff calculations. She is bilingual, mentors new teachers and takes students on weekend field trips. When some of the elementary school's alumni said they were having a tough time adjusting to middle school, she started a group to help them, Gaines said.
"She goes above and beyond in so many ways," he said.
ACORN Woodland and EnCompass Elementary share a pristine campus with new buildings, play areas and gardens. A new public library just opened right next door. But the neighborhood near 81st Avenue and Rudsdale can be a harsh place to grow up or raise a family. Mothers walk their children to school past provocative gang graffiti and, at times, drug dealers. Shootings between rival gangs have happened during the daytime.
Averhoff said parents, teachers and school leaders don't always agree, but that they always come together to do what's best for the children.
In the same way, they rallied to support her, then 32, as she grappled with her breast cancer diagnosis and underwent chemotherapy. It was because of that support, she said, that she chose to return to the classroom after her surgery in 2009, which she scheduled during the summer.
"I was like, 'I can't not come to work,' " she said. "The other option was staying home and feeling sorry for myself."
For the first half of the 2009-10 school year, Averhoff had to leave at 3 p.m. each day for radiation treatments, so she came in on the weekends to catch up. It was tiring, she said, but so was the job when she was in good health; sometimes she couldn't tell the difference.
One of her students, 11-year-old Sotida Seng, said the teacher once squeezed a treatment session around a school camping trip. "She's a fighter," Sotida said.
Averhoff says she wants, badly, to stay at ACORN Woodland. But, like other teachers in her position, she is checking out her options. Local charter schools -- which aren't subject to school district layoffs -- have openings, she said.
"How many of our good teachers are going to work at a charter school now, and who's going to work at a public school?" she asked.
Since 2006, ACORN Woodland's state test scores have risen from 656 to 807 out of 1,000 possible points. Averhoff and some of her colleagues wonder how such a trajectory will continue without the same cohesive staff, small class sizes and programs.
They are pushing for the school district to adopt other measures, such as freezing professional development expenses, during this crisis.
"There's got to be other ways to cut and make sure kids are getting the best education possible," Averhoff said. "I don't know what the answer is -- I just know there should be an answer."
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/KatyMurphy.