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

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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About Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her reporting on charter school transparency and governance. In 2012, she was part of a team that received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for their work following a New Orleans family's recovery after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Edna Karr Secondary School in Algiers, and she obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at (504) 575-8191.

  • Marika Barto

    Suspensions are down in the building because the school is currently under investigation for under reporting or not reporting suspensions. I will be the first to admit that we had a large number of suspensions in the past but every suspension was documented and we were transparent to families, students, the RSD and the community. It is a shame that a board member is actually backing Mr. Flenory because of a suspension statistic when the staff is not asking for more suspensions, the staff is asking for more support. Mr. Flenory claimed to be able to solve our problems but has not solved anything – he actually increased the problems. Ask Mr. Flenory his policy on “problem children” – he should tell you exactly what he has told us this year: “he has no problem suspending students or telling a parent this is not the right place for a student.”

  • Marika Barto

    I am not surprised that the board president is unaware of the number of staff that are planning on leaving, I have yet to hear Mr. Flenory tell the complete truth at any of this year’s board meetings.

    What is important here is that Mr. Flenory is not an acceptable school leader. I hope that everyone at STA stands up and says what is going on in that building. This is not about disgruntled former staff members, this is about amazing staff that have been completely demoralized to the point that the students don’t want to learn because of the environment in the building.

  • Marika Barto

    Regarding the grievance procedure that Mr. Flenory references in the article – what grievance procedure? I looked for one and there isn’t one in our handbooks. I had to take matters into my own hands and write a letter to the board of directors. Unfortunately, all that has resulted in is further inappropriate (and possibly illegal acts) from Mr. Flenory that actually forced my decision to resign.

  • Alyson Theriot

    Unfortunately, this seems like a trend that is having a terrible impact on many of our schools today. Teachers just want to teach! I know Marika both personally and professionally, and I know that this was a heart breaking decision for her. She has always been dedicated to the profession and the students. It saddens me to read this article.

  • Crystal Hudson

    Flenory sounds like the epitome of what is wrong with the school system- and administration that is completely out of touch with the classroom. It hardly needs to be stated that teachers are on the front line. Administration needs to be supportive and provide the necessary tools to allow teachers to be as effective as possible. I have had the pleasure of working with both Ms. Barto and Ms. Welch. You would have to look far and wide to find two more dedicated teachers with a real passion for educating. What will become of our schools if administrators are permitted to run off the very teachers our children need?

  • Ms. Barto is an excellent teacher and Ph.D. candidate who is highly qualified and certified by the State of Louisiana. Her efforts over months to seek assistance and a resolution to serious concerns of the faculty have been fruitless.

    This school does not adhere to state law nor does the administration practice accepted and effective discipline practices. The law requires schools to provide Positive Behavior Support and yet Mr. Flenory chose to suspend 10 students recently for singing at lunch.

    Proper services are not being provided for its special education students and it’s my understanding there has been an investigation initiated at the federal level. State law requires administration to keep a disruptive student out of the remainder of a class period at the teacher’s request. Books are not provided for every student at this school. The school is breaking freedom of information law and the principal has participated in intimidation and “threats’ to the teachers.

    All of these problems could have been addressed as part of a typical school challenge but the principal has refused to do that. RSD oversight and accountability appears to be non-existent.

    I applaud Ms. Barto for having the courage to report her grievances and bring them out in the open at the risk of losing her job. You can bet that if she hadn’t resigned she would have been fired.

    In spite of the fact that a press release was published weeks ago, The Lens was the only publication to investigate. Thanks

  • Pinkerton

    Lack of administrative support in discipline can certainly ruin the learning environment for the 95 percent of kids who AREN’T major behavior problems. I have taught in two schools in OP over the past 20 years – one with a supportive admin and one without. Guess which school had higher test scores?

    Although I am in a charter school now with supportive admin and love it, this does bring up the issue of teachers’ unions. Charters are not obligated to adhere to union protection. I believe that before the storm there was something in the union agreement that if a student was so disruptive they kept other students from learning, the admin HAD to find a place for the kid in the office.

    There needs to be a better grievance process than just going to the board of the school.

  • B. Sun

    This article, including none of the previous written about ST, mention the departure of Channa Cook, the original founder and principal. Can anyone shed the light on why she left last summer? She received unanimous media attention and positivity from the community for her efforts, so it was a major surprise to see she left quietly. A discussion of that development night shed light on why the school is currently in the state of chaos it’s in.

  • Marika Barto

    B. Sun –

    I am so glad that someone has realized that the loss of Channa Cook as principal may be the key in all of this. I was in my 3rd year at the school and I will be the first to say that we had ups and downs when Channa was the principal but we worked so hard at offering such a unique education for these students. The simple answer to your question is this: the board refused to commit to her for the 4th year of the school and failed to offer her a contract extension. As a result, she was forced to seek employment elsewhere. I am as baffled as anyone else as to why the board would offer someone as utterly unqualified to lead a school as Mr. Flenory instead, but the repercussions of this decision have not only torpedoed the school and its students’ education but have also spilled over and impacted the general welfare of the public at large. I don’t know if you have been keeping up with the local news but one of our students was shot and killed today, he was truant from school during final exams along with a number of other students who were present at the scene. While it is impossible to say that his death could have been prevented, it is important to note that Mr. Flenory fired the school’s truancy prevention officer earlier this year.

  • David Adamson

    Ms. Barrios,

    According to the Teach Louisiana website, Ms. Barto has not been highly qualified or certified since 2008. Is there another certification website for charter school teachers?

  • To Pinderton and others who are concerned that teachers are not allowed to remove extremely disruptive students in some schools, the answer is that such schools are in violation of state law. I know because I helped to draft the applicable law as far back as 1998. The law states very clearly that teachers have the right to remove from the classroom any student whose behavior prevents the orderly instruction of other students. For grades 6-12 the student must be kept out of the teacher’s classroom for the entire period. The teacher also has a right to demand a conference with the parent before such a student is allowed to return to the classroom. There are other teacher rights specified in state law that are apparently not enforced in this school. Charter schools are definitely not exempted from these laws. I plan to include a post on this issue on my blog in the near future.

  • Marika Barto

    Mr. Adamson –

    I just recently sent in the renewal paperwork because STA did not do so in my first year. Unfortunately, my final “observation” with LaTAAP was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. But I have rectified the problem. It’s too bad that you haven’t seen me teach – regardless of a certification in any state, I am an excellent teacher who has devoted her life to education (my PhD is testament).

  • Mr. Adamson –

    Good question about certification for charter school teachers. Another piece of investigation that needs to be done is to identify how many teachers in the charters are traditionally certified, “alternatively” certified, non-certified and Teacher for America employees. It’s my undeerstanding that an organization called TNTP The New Teacher Project has authority to offer some kind of “certification” for TFA personnel. I don’t know. All traditional public schools in the state have to hire, by state law, fully certified qualified teachers unless there is a position for which none is available. It used to be that that teacher was then working on a T-certificate while she/he earned certification. In my case, I obtained a job teaching gifted students after graduating with certification in 1992 and had to earn at least 6 graduate credits a year toward a masters and certification in gifted in order to keep that job. One of the “advantages” of charter autonomy is that they don’t have to follow these state laws. The public is being told that traditional certification, higher degrees and experience have little influence on teacher quality. Dr. George Noell has “produced” his own research for the DOE that discounts the effectiveness of National Board Certified teachers and claims TFA instructors are in general more effective than traditionally certified teachers. Baloney. He has designed a seriously flawed system of teacher evaluation being sold to the legislature and has bailed out. Check out this timeline of events in NYC (former home of RSD John White) to see how reliable TESTING is.
    A little history on testing coming from our friend John White’s old stomping ground. This is the kind of “success” he was a part of in New York City. What this article doesn’t reveal is when/how someone realized they had the ability with these BAD tests to use the BAD scores to their advantage in FAILING schools and selling them to charters.

    We need to take a look back and create our own time line. Lee