Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dodgeball, Anyone ?

Our radio discussions frequently return to a critical problem with education: parents need to care, parents need to participate.

But what happens when they do? 
Some years ago, concerned parents resuscitated the parents' group at Desert Hills Elementary School. They organized and ran several large-scale fund-raising events. They were deeply involved in what went on at the school. 
The group reportedly did a lot of good. Members raised funds and helped teachers, students, and staff. “It was becoming a family,” said Gena Castillo, who headed up the group.

Then Desert Hills got a new principal, Liz Gonzales, whose people skills allegedly weren't strong. One teacher recently told me that but for the parents' group, she'd have transferred.
Turnover rose dramatically: formerly, one or two of 74 teachers/staff left each year. One teacher was told when she arrived, “You're awfully lucky. People never leave Desert Hills.” Now turnover is more like 18 of 74 – with a few departees reportedly stating they'd have stayed but for Ms. Gonzales.

The school's warmth and unity have reportedly disappeared. 
Ms. Gonzales's management style is an issue. During the spring and summer, parents tried repeatedly to get a meaningful response from the school administration. They met with two people from H.R., then Steve Sanchez, and ultimately Superintendent Stan Rounds. They say they got no satisfaction at any level. Almost everyone promised to get back to them. No one really did.

Then on August 5, Ms. Gonzales sent out an email announcing that the Parents' Group was being disbanded, but would be “folded in” to a new School Advisory Committee (“SAC”). She created the SAC without following District rules and regulations. (She reportedly said the School Board or Superintendent Stan Rounds had authorized an exception.)

Regulations state that within the LCPS District, to start an SAC the principal should solicit candidates, announce an election, and hold the election by the end of the academic year. Ms. Gonzales should have started by Spring 2013, to create a democratically-elected SAC for the 2013-2014 academic year. Instead, she created her own.

The SAC is meant to provide outside advice to the principal. By appointing her own rather than having parents vote, Ms. Gonzales undermined the chance for such independent advice. 
SAC's are meant to encourage parental involvement in policy matters. The existing group was highly involved, and knowledgeable. The principal placed none of its members on her new hand-picked SAC. 
Ms. Gonzalez also allegedly retaliated or tried to retaliate against parents and faculty who spoke up about her. At one point she reportedly demanded a list, with contact information, of all parents who'd attended a certain meeting of just parents. She told teachers not to talk with parents about internal matters at the school. She told a teacher who'd openly criticized her that the teacher would get a “marginally effective” rating under Professionalism on her evaluation, but backed down when the teacher pointed out how that would look. She allegedly offered to raise another teacher's evaluation if the teacher would contradict others' accounts of the problems at the school.

Morale at the school is said to be lower than ever. Superintendent Stan Rounds spoke to the teachers at a special meeting in mid-December, and said his assistant Liz Marrufa would be there to help fix the problems; but one teacher said Ms. Marrufa has been to the school only once since that meeting.

I've never been inside the school. I have no idea who's right. 
But whoever's right (or if each side's testimony contains some truth), a serious issue is the apparent failure of the school administration to address these problems candidly and productively. “We just want to be heard,” one parent told me.

Beneath the surface lie other issues, some very serious, that I'm not yet in a position to discuss in a meaningful way. (I invite teachers or parents with useful information to contact me.) 
And I'm hoping to discuss with Mr. Rounds some of what he said to the Desert Hills teachers on December 12th, and what follow-through has occurred.

Two things happened as I was writing this column: a parent spoke about this issue to Tuesday's regular school board meeting; and Ms. Gonzales provided a great example of just what parents had complained of in the way of non-responsiveness.

I called. She called back. She very politely said nothing substantive. She asked that I call back at a certain time the next morning. I did. Didn't get her. I called twice more. No call back. That evening I got a call from Eric Montgomery, a parent new to Desert Hills. He's on the new SAC. He knew nothing about the issues I'd been interested in, but said that the SAC was accomplishing good things and always seeks additional parental involvement.

However, he hadn't even heard of the December 12th meeting or the serious problems discussed there by Rounds, which suggested the school hadn't disclosed to the SAC things the old parents' group had known.

Dodgeball, anyone?
[This Sunday column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on 26 January, 2014.]
[Writing this column, I'd have preferred to hear from Ms. Gonzales her views on these issues.  Even when I spoke with Mr. Montgomery, who seemed like a concerned, candid, and well-intentioned parent, I urged him to point out to Ms. Gonzales that I was interested in presenting a balanced column; but she never chose to present her side, or even call back to explain that for some reason she shouldn't or that I should talk to someone else or whatever.  Frankly, she started sounding a whole lot like the non-responsiveness that  others had described to me.]
[I do know that one issue that helped create or deepen the rift at Desert Hills was the handling of the suspension of a fourth-grade teacher accused of sexual misconduct.  He was reportedly very popular with his students.  While it's not clear that anyone questions his suspension, the students (who saw him there one day and gone the next, with no explanation whatsoever, not even that there were legal issues administrators weren't allowed to explain yet) were understandably unsettled.  (So were some teachers.)  According to one source, Principal Gonzales was surprised to hear that the teacher's disappearance troubled the students.  If true, that would seem a symptom of being insensitive or out of touch with her students.]
[In any case, there's reason to suspect that there are several interesting stories here that demand to be looked into.  I'm particularly interested in the specific causes (and results, if any) of the December 12th meeting Superintendent Rounds had with teachers at Desert Hills.]

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