Sojourner Truth charter gets one-two punch; teachers leaving before doors shuttered

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By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Citing discontent with the current administration, at least five teachers or staffers at a doomed charter school have already resigned or have plans to not return after the Christmas holidays, The Lens has learned.

Parents and students at Sojourner Truth Academy were told last month that the governing board is surrendering its charter and that the school will close at the end of the academic year in May because of lagging test scores. They’re now faced with a dwindling staff for the second semester.

But former and current faculty said Wednesday that they’ve chosen to leave early not because of the school’s impending shutdown, but due to their gripes with the schools’ current principal, Reginald Flenory.

Flenory, who became principal this school year, said he’s taking their accusations in stride. He chalks it up to general grumblings that are likely to occur whenever a new leader takes over.

Out of an original staff of 36, three confirmed with the Lens that they resigned earlier this year. Two more said they have plans to leave over the Christmas break.

Colleagues say as many as six others plan to resign, though The Lens was unable to contact them to confirm.

Those we did speak to say Flenory has not provided adequate support for faculty dealing with unruly students – they said there are no provisions for disciplining misbehaving kids, outside of what the teacher imposes in the classroom. As a result, student insubordination, classroom disruptions and fights have escalated.

Despite teachers’ claims, Flenory maintains that, to his knowledge, only two teachers are planning to resign over the break, and that there haven’t been many resignations this year.

“It isn’t like there’s been a mass exodus of staff members,” he said. But he also said that there were four staff layoffs in October, and that one staffer was fired earlier in the year. He didn’t want to elaborate on why the staffer was fired, but hinted that the layoffs were due to budgetary issues.

Former staffers The Lens spoke to say they left because they were unhappy with Flenory’s tactics. Kathleen Welch, a former environmental science teacher who resigned in September, said that she left because Flenory completely threw out the discipline policies that were in place for dealing with classroom troublemakers, and instituted his own, ambiguous policies that were not documented.

“A big issue with that was classroom management,” she said. “In the past we had a strong system of culture that included positive support systems in place for students. They didn’t have anything” this year.

One of vague policies Flenory championed was the so-called “crack the door” policy, Welch claimed, in which faculty open their doors to signal that trouble is brewing in the classroom, and wait for an administrator to descend and diffuse the situation. But often after administrators gave the kids a talking-to, they released them back into the classroom, a tactic that Welch said didn’t solve the problem. Faculty who tried to remove disruptive kids from the classroom would be reprimanded, she said.

“You use all the tools you have, and then at some point in time, you’ve got to say ‘Listen, you’re disrupting everyone’s learning, so you’ve got to get out.’ And then your supervisor would come back and say to you, ‘You shouldn’t be kicking these kids out of class, shame on you.’ So I would say, show me the tools, to deal with that. And they wouldn’t show me the tools. So that was the last straw,” she said.

Flenory said that faculty can indeed leave their doors ajar if they want administrative help, but that they can also use a call button for help. When asked how administrators handle unruly students, he said it “depends on the nature of the offense.”

He also said that any staffers with concerns could go through the grievance procedure and bring it to the administration or the board.

“Initially, we like to resolve issues as swiftly and at the lowest level as possible,” he said.

Two other teachers echo Welch’s concerns. Keith Farrell, an 11th grade algebra teacher who has made plans to leave after the Christmas holidays, said that the 11th grade teachers have created their own discipline code because the school’s is practically non-existent.

“There’s been times when kids have been so disruptive that they need to be sent out of class and there’s nowhere for them to go,” he said. “So we send them to another teacher on their planning period.”

He also said that little offenses that teachers feel unable to control in the classroom turn into bigger ones quickly, and that kids are more prone to fighting.

“The fights have gotten pretty bad…everyday there’s a fight upstairs, and you can hear the building shake a little bit,” he said. He said that when there were stricter punishment systems in place last year, they had fewer problems.

Marika Barto, an algebra teacher who resigned Dec. 8, described a similar situation in her resignation letter: “The current environment at (the school) is extremely detrimental to the mental and physical health of students and staff.”

”I don’t think anyone truly realizes how horrible it is to work in that environment,” she wrote in an email to The Lens. “These are talented teachers and staff that do not want to burn out because of (Flenory) and are willing to leave in the middle of a school year. It was the hardest thing for me to ever do, because the kids mean so much to me.”

Before resigning, Barto went through the grievance process Flenory describes – she says she sent multiple emails to Flenory regarding her views on the discipline policy and other issues, including him fostering a hostile work environment, and submitted a letter to the school’s board. The board brought in a human resources consultant to speak with her about her concerns, and conducted an investigation, she said. The results didn’t yield much – board president Bob Burvant said in an Oct. 28 letter to Barto that, in response to Barto’s claim that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, “our investigation has found no such illegal conduct” and in regards to discipline issues, that the board “is mindful of its responsibility to provide appropriate oversight of school leadership,” and would conduct itself accordingly.

In addition to Barto, Farrell and Welch, one other staffer, Justin Pickel, who serves as operations manager, said that he would also not be returning after the Christmas holidays, but didn’t want to elaborate on his motivation. Another staffer who resigned in August said he left because of a “general lack of preparedness” and “unprofessionalism” on behalf of Flenory, and because he didn’t want his reluctance to follow Flenory’s edicts to be a detriment to his relationship with his students. He asked not to be identified.

Burvant said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of any teachers who were planning to resign. Board member David Perlis said the same, and added some positive words for Flenory in a Wednesday interview, citing the reduction in suspensions since Flenory came on board and describing his difficult position as a new leader trying to deal with academic and disciplinary problems three years in the making.

“It’s a matter of fact that the suspensions from school are down…from last year. When children are suspended they are not in school learning. The teachers want him to be tougher on the kids” but that’s not his style, Perlis said.

 

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