Monday, December 15, 2008

Mountainville Academy's 6th Grade Teachers

On Friday, 12/12/08, the three 6th grade teachers from Mountainville Academy (Alpine, UT -- a charter school handling grades 1-8) were fired. The decision was made by the Board, involving no parents (less those seven on the Board). The firing came before the end of the term, a week prior to the Christmas/New Years break, in the middle of the science fair lead-up, etc.

The reasons that were communicated via email from the board to the parents (whose email addresses they have) are:

1. Under utilization of middle-school teachers
2. Budget problems
3. The middle school is using an inequitable amount of the school's resources for the number of students being served.

Whereas these problems are real problems, the way the board handled the dismissal of the entire 6th grade teaching staff has become a bigger problem.

Reductions in staff are to be expected in economic down times. How these are handled makes all the difference in the world -- for those being dismissed, those remaining, the other staff members, the parents, and most important, the students.

Reasons #1 and #3 should have been known before the school year began; reason #2 has come on only recently.

These teachers did nothing least we have not been told they did. Students build a great bond with their teachers. Teachers should be the last to get dismissed, especially in the middle of the school year. Are there other, less critical roles that should have taken precedence?

There is no real "proof" that 6th graders are going to be better off in middle school with the 7th and 8th graders. I think you'll probably find the opposite to be the case. I know my 6th grade daughter will not do as well mingling with the 7th and 8th graders. If this were discussed openly during this past summer and and implemented prior to classes beginning in August 08, parents could have made a decision as to whether they wanted their 6th graders in a middle school environment or not. The way this has come down, it is being forced upon them, whether the parents like it or not.

All of the "logic" displayed by the board of trustees seems to be lacking. One of its chartered principles is 'parent involvement.' In this case, it did little listening. Its decision was unilateral.

As I was listening to a board member talk today to one informed parent, he stated that few parents are present at the board meetings. He said he assumed his trustee role because no one else was interested. This very well be the case, for a myriad of reasons. But the board is there to represent all the parents who are not on the board. They assume the role because they want to be involved and make a difference. Good for them. They are probably second-guessing their decision today.

In this case, the board made a decision that has become detrimental to the students and the school. The message it sent was that anyone can be fired at the drop of a hat, with no due process. "Students, don't get attached to your teachers...they may not be there the following day."

This firing policy seems to be the exact opposite as found in the traditional public schools who keep teachers on who should have never entered the profession.

These three 6th grade teachers were fired not for being poor teachers but as scapegoats in a questionably ran organization. Last year, the original principle was fired with no meaningful explanation.


UPDATE 12/15/08 -- 10:00am

This morning, a group of 6th grade parents -- three-quarters were women -- showed up at the school. I was there. I listened to a few parents express their views to the 2-3 board members who showed up. Neither the principal nor the board chair were present. Cameras from the three major SLC networks were present, along with a newspaperman.

Nothing was accomplished. The board had no intention of listening to the parents in that setting. They deferred all comments until tonight's meeting (6:30pm).

One thing that some parents did was keep their children out of school. They asked for a boycott. Few complied. It did not seem to be a reason to keep our child out of school for a day. They hired 6th grade substitutes for the week. (That makes lots of sense after firing the teachers that have been there all year.)

My daughter did not want to go when she saw some of her classmates present in their regular close -- no in their Monday dress uniforms. Nevertheless, I took her to class and she got over it.

I left the school around 9am. so did the news media. They will all be back at 6:30.


UPDATE 12/15/08 - 3:30pm

My daughter came home from school at around 3:30. She said only seven students were in her 6th grade class, out of a normal 24. She said that many of her classmates said they are going to transfer schools.

I can see why parents are upset but that action is extreme. It is childish.

The grass is rarely greener on the other side, especially when comparing a charter school program (that has been great from my daughter) to the traditional public schools (which were terrible for my daughter, even in Highland Utah).

We have no intention of pulling our daughter out of Mountainville Academy.


UPDATE 12/15/08 - 11:00pm

The Mountainville Academy Board meeting (parents meeting on 6th grade teach RIFs) was held tonight. the best attended meeting every. The major TV stations were present: KSL, ABC4 and Fox13.

My wife and I stay about 1.5 hours. We heard the board share their thoughts, the state charter organization rep speak, and a number of parents. (We left when the kids spoke telling everyone how great their teachers were -- embarrassing for them and their parents.)

The board probably made the right decision given the circumstances. There were some mistakes that placed them in this position:

i) They mismanaged the funds (not criminally) and did not find out about it until recently after a lengthy audit. A deficit of over $200k forced them to this action which they felt will cut that deficit in half -- making it manageable.

ii) They did a poor job creating electives for the 7th and 8th graders. As a result, there were too few students enrolling in the classes the board hired teachers to cover.

iii) There were too many 7th and 8th grade middle school teachers with not enough to do -- few students (classes with 4-5 students) and few classes (some teachers with only 3 classes a day) while the elementary teachers were more burdened with larger classes (in the 25 student range).

The board was right in not discussing personnel with the parents in open meetings. That would send the wrong message.

However, they board needs to a do a better job in making the faculty feel wanted and more secure.

The public schools are loaded with a high percentage of teachers that should have been fired a long time ago. But their unions keep the bad in.

Charter schools need to be more reasonable in their firing -- they tend to pull the trigger too quickly, creating a more hostile employment environment. Whereas these charter school teachers like the freedom and academically more challenging and rigorous programs, the lack of anything like traditional public school tenure creates an uncomfortable situation, especially for a primary bread winner.

The bottom line here is that the board did a poor job communicating the RIF. there is not reason to ask for any of their resignations.

I felt that some of the parents were a bit over the top. Too many of them were on edge due to emotions, not facts. Too many of the parents seem to be impetuous, ready to hang the volunteer board members without the complete facts.

It was not worth keeping children out of school for a day. That boycott was a bad decision made by those parents that did so.


UPDATE 12/18/08 - 9:00am

The Board of Trustees gave parents an option of donating funds to cover the remaining salary and benefits of the three sixth grade teachers. The needs in the $110k range.

We had a call yesterday from some parent asking if we'd commit to donate. An email also went out asking for $150 per 6th grade family.

A final decision as to whether the three teachers would be rehired for the remainder of the school year is to be made today, according to the board.

Obviously there are parents that feel much stronger about this than I do.

I think overly zealous parents have blown this out of proportion. Certainly it has not been a fun experience and the timing was poor, but it is not the end of the world. People get laid off all the time in the non-government world...over 500,000 each week for the past few weeks.

What is obvious her is that charter schools pull the plug too quick on teachers, regardless of the reasons. Traditional public school do not. For teachers, there is safety in the traditional public schools.

Just like most union-backed organizations, it is great for the teachers and administrators. However, from an economic perspective, it is very costly. The reward and benefit to cost ratio is poor. Sure there are good traditional public schools but the facts do not back this. I have sent children to schools by all reckoning are considered good or excellent schools. However, in my opinion have some real terrible teachers.

The NEA and UEA are for the teachers. They put the teachers first and the children second. Despite the obvious problems with charter schools, they are much better for the children. The education, the challenges put forth, the one-on-one care are all superior to traditional schools.


Anonymous said...

I understand that Mountainville could not afford to keep these teachers. But the timing? Inform them now, as well with the parents, and then make the switch over the summer. I feel for all of the students in the sixth grade and the parents.

Anonymous said...

You decry the teachers union, but this incident is exactly the reason charter schools will not compete with traditional public schools in the long run. As a public school teacher, I want the security my union provides. I would never change to a charter school and risk losing benefits and negotiating my own contract, never to know when the proverbial hammer was coming down. Good teachers who have a choice will stay in traditional schools. "Runoff," in the long run, will trickle to the charters. By the way, my school has a school community council with a majority of parents that contribute to policy decisions. My school runs in the black. My school has among the highest test scores in the district. And when we did not extend a contract to an untenured teacher because her evaluations were sub par, she got a job at Mountainville Academy. Sure we have a teacher or two that is below average and protected by the Union, but good teachers want to be protected, or they may show up and not have a job the week before Christmas!

Mr. Thayne said...

I was searching for Mountainville Academy because of a Ed. law class that I am taking for my masters and I came across your blog.
I must say that I am very impressed at your ability to seperate Fact and Emotion. While it was an unfortunate circumstance I have to agree with the board that under the circumstances it was the right (albeit difficult) thing to do.
Thank you for supporting Mountainville, continue to let us know how we can best serve you.