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Hearing the public out

Brattleboro Town School Board receives an earful from educators and community

BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Town District School Board held a public meeting Oct. 22, and the public packed the room.

Parents, community members, and teachers past and present filled the meeting room on the second floor of the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

More than 20 people spoke at the meeting, and the speakers’ experiences of the Brattleboro town schools varied. Some fell at the rah-rah-best-place-ever end of the spectrum. Experiences at the opposite end of the spectrum etched lines of anxiety across the speakers’ faces.

Board members partitioned the two-hour meeting. The first hour the board devoted to public comment. The second hour focused on discussing methods for the board to engage the community.

The meeting finished with an executive session to discuss a personnel issue.

School Board Chair Margaret Atkinson said the board revised the original agenda, intended as a planning session, to provide public comment time.

The forum came on the heels of an Oct. 16 public step-three grievance hearing before the board, filed by Academy School teacher Lauren Ashley. The board declined public comment because it was acting in a quasi-judicial role.

During the five-hour hearing, with a full audience, Ashley alleged workplace bullying and her being singled out by administrators — in part, she said, over her age — and named Academy School Principal Andrew Paciulli and School Superintendent Ronald Stahley.

As of this week, neither the board nor Ashley had publicly announced the hearing’s outcome.

A time to speak

Atkinson set the ground rules: Speakers would have two minutes; she asked people keep their comments concise; asked that they address statements to the board; asked that they focus on situations; and asked that all refrain from making personal attacks.

The majority of people who spoke were current Academy School teachers. They said they loved their school, job, colleagues, students, and principal.

Academy first-grade teacher Deb Kardane said, “I’m proud to be there.”

Kardane described a work environment of collaboration, professionalism, peer support, and a team of people committed to identifying what’s best for the kids.

Teacher Linda Boyd added that she felt supported and respected at Academy School.

Maureen Parzych, a kindergarden teacher, said she received immense support as a new teacher at Academy School 19 years ago.

“It’s very important you understand how we feel,” she said. “We work there every day.”

The past is past, she added, saying that the teachers are “all” proud of their principal.

Academy fourth-grade teacher, Eric Cummings asked if older teachers are unfairly pushed out, why do they come back to substitute-teach?

Paciulli praised the teachers at Academy School and thanked them for speaking up during the night’s meeting.

As teacher after teacher championed Academy School, a parent in the audience turned to her friend and said, “I think we’re at the wrong meeting. This is an Academy School meeting.”

Frustration

Many former teachers who spoke said they left the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union school district, or teaching, because of feeling frustrated or because of ill treatment.

Teacher Gail Greenleaf said she left the district feeling “frustration and grief.” Instead of meeting children’s needs, she said, her prescribed teaching duties “constituted malpractice on my part.”

What happened to developmentally appropriate teaching practices? she asked.

Greenleaf also said discrepancies existed: some teachers reportedly were allowed to run their classrooms freely, and others were held, she said, to narrower standards.

“The teachers should be in charge,” she said: Not Montpelier nor Washington, D.C.

Becky Graber, a teacher who’d left the district, said her husband — a former head of the after-school program — suffered unfair treatment at the hands of the district. Graber said she left because she felt uncomfortable.

It’s great so many Academy School teachers are happy, said Graber, but it’s easy to scapegoat people experiencing problems. Even though these people have unhappy experiences, she said, it’s important to listen.

Parent Tara Sullivan said she moved her son from Green Street School to St. Michael’s Roman Catholic School. Although her son consistently tested above grade level, the school did nothing to match his interests, she maintained.

“He was bored to tears,” Sullivan said. “[At Green Street] he doesn’t have ownership of the work you’re asking him to do.”

“I like to think we have a supportive school system,” Stahley said.

But judgements have to be made, he added.

Stahley read from the Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Vermont survey pointing to the areas where the three Brattleboro town schools ranked above the state average.

An anonymous statewide survey completed by educators, the TELL survey assess teaching conditions at all levels, from school to state.

Jen Rice, a parent and teacher who has worked outside the district for 18 years, said in a prepared statement that now “was a wonderful time to open our ears” and listen.

People may not feel comfortable speaking at meetings shared by members of the administration, Rice said.

Andrew Davis, teacher at The Dover School, said, “I love our schools.”

But, he added, that doesn’t negate the fact that schools have changed.

Davis noted he sees less collaboration, more top-down hierarchy, more data collecting, and less of a thematic approach to curriculum.

How many schools receive “failing” grades based on standardized tests, yet administrators say the scores don’t fully reflect the classroom learning? asked Davis, adding, How many times can the community receive “those assurances” and believe the quality of eduction is unaffected?

“I love our schools, but I’m close enough to see the warts too,” said Davis.

Shela Linton, an advocate and a former School Board member, said that the support structure in the school district had perpetual problems past and present thus creating a dysfunctional future.

Having seen the inner workings of the Brattleboro schools as a student and as a parent, Linton said that the process of addressing concerns with the school system and the administration is “broken every step of the way.”

The board only receives “watered-down” information through the administration, she added.

Linton suggestion instituting public, 360-degree evaluations of school administration, developing a strong system for addressing staff and community concerns, and taking another look at creating staff and youth surveys.

“[The community needs to] be OK with not being perfect,” she said. “[We] can’t minimize people with different experiences.”

Stahley’s assertion that the district use 360-degree evaluations was met with audience criticism.

Rebuilding respect

Parent Susan Riedo, who also attended the step-three hearing, said she felt for Ashley.

“Last week was a real shocker,” she said to the board.

In Riedo’s opinion, the meeting was run poorly. A disappointed Riedo wanted to hear Ashley speak. Instead, she watched a teacher she respected be “publicly humiliated.”

“I’m so upset,” she said. “I don’t like bullying.”

Riedo added she didn’t feel comfortable as a silent bystander.

Ashley helped Riedo’s son, born overseas, adapt to the United States, Riedo said. Ashley is “an amazing teacher.”

Speaking to the crowd, Riedo said people can be as happy as they wish teaching at Academy, but if one person is unhappy, it’s a no-good situation. And bullying takes hold in an instant unless caught quickly.

“I want to see a fast response to this [situation],” said Riedo. “I’m really concerned and I hope you’re all concerned.”

Riedo, a member of the restorative justice program at the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, suggested the board investigate the program to see if it could replicate the model in its work.

After the meeting, Riedo said she saw positive developments and listening by the administration throughout the night.

But where is Ashley’s applause and respect? asked Riedo.

She said she hoped that the administration would reach out to Ashley to restore trust and respect, adding that it is dangerous when the divergent experiences of people are oppressed, she said.

School Board Vice-Chair Mark Truhan said the board heard a lot of “attaboys,” a lot of “aw shucks,” and a lot of passion, but that the statements lacked specifics such as dates, incidents, and names.

He asked people to get specific information to the board.

Someone in the audience asked if correspondence would be kept confidential from the administration.

Davis said years ago he spoke about the Canal Street School closing in a public meeting and was “slammed” by a former administrator.

“I learned to keep my head down in the foxhole,” Davis said. “Tell us what the rules are.”

The second half of the meeting was constructively bumpy as board and audience members hashed out ways to engage the community.

“We want to find avenues to hear from more people,” said Atkinson.

Parents face many barriers, including economic, literacy, transportation, and child care, said audience members.

The board also asked the audience about expanding the role or involvement of the parent-teacher organizations.

Topics for further discussion included developing protocols for the community and teachers for speaking with the board and providing teachers with support or resources to engage with parents.

The board needs to develop a process for responding to letters from the community, said board member Peter Yost, after some audience members said their letters to the board went unanswered.

Yost added that he felt concerned no process existed for staff to communicate with the board outside the union contract.

The board will host more meetings for community discussion, said Atkinson. At the top of the list: clearly communicating to the community steps the board takes and processes it creates.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #227 (Wednesday, October 30, 2013). This story appeared on page A1.

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