Student Voice

Students walk out of Memphis school demanding to know why principal and teacher were fired

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School protest administrators firing a teacher and principal.

About 30 students walked out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning, three months after school administrators fired the principal, and days after firing a beloved teacher.

Unease has filled the North Memphis charter school since the staffing changes. Teachers have quit, and students and parents do not believe they have received clear answers from administrators about the firings.

According to internal emails, principal Reginald Williams was fired because of the school’s poor performance on 2018 state tests — the same computerized test state lawmakers tried to block from negatively impacting teachers, students, and schools after major technical glitches.

Three student leaders gathered parent permission slips from classmates and walked out shortly after 9 a.m. with chants of “We want answers!” and “We want justice!” But teachers discouraged others from following, students said, while administrators lined the hallways and doors. Eventually, more students joined in protest as school leaders called an assembly to address student concerns. Student leaders say they still don’t have the answers they were looking for.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
From left, Kiahna Noel, Semaj Buckhalter, and Markayla Crawford led a student protest at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning.

“When he was our principal, the school was OK. The school was good. And now we don’t have a principal and the school is going up in chaos,” said Cherelle Bledsoe, a senior who has attended the school since sixth grade. “Teachers are quitting because it’s unprofessional, because it’s not organized.”

“He was a good principal,” said Tamia Kerr, a senior who came back to Memphis Academy on Tuesday morning for the protest after transferring to another high school. “They made it sound like he up and left, but they fired him.”

Talya Garrett, one of the interim co-principals, declined to comment on the students’ concerns. Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, said he supported students expressing themselves — even in protest.

“In this world we live in and on a day like today where the vote is so precious, it’s important to hear the voices while still encouraging the continuation of the academic instruction,” he said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Johnson appointed two administrators, Garrett and Trent Watson, to share the responsibility of interim principal after firing Williams. The school serves about 420 students.

Parents and their supporters flooded a board meeting last month, where it was revealed Williams had not resigned, though Johnson said the two had come to a “mutual agreement.” Patricia Ange, an ACT prep teacher, supported Williams at the meeting and was fired Friday.

“She is the best teacher at MAHS, and I’m going to stand my ground for her,” said Kiahna Noel, a senior who organized the protest. “She brought our ACT scores up, she encourages people who want to drop out to continue. Half of these kids going to college because of Ms. Ange, and she going to get fired for speaking her mind? That’s not right.”

When Chalkbeat asked about claims of teachers locking doors and asked for details about teachers and students leaving for other schools, Johnson directed questions to the network’s lawyer, Florence Johnson. She said no teachers have quit and no students have withdrawn. She declined to respond to the students’ allegations.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Nicole Smith shares text messages from her daughter, which prompted her to come to the school.

Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift held a small protest at the school earlier Tuesday morning and returned when leaders heard students had planned a walkout. Sarah Carpenter, the group’s executive director, has a granddaughter at the school, and said Memphis Lift wants Ange and Williams to come back to the school and for Johnson to be fired.

“We’re going to stand out here every day until every parent knows what’s going on,” she told one mother dropping off her student at the school.

Nicole Smith came to the school after her daughter texted her that students were being held in class, “so we won’t be heard because so many kids asking for answers.” If things don’t change soon, she plans to withdraw her daughter, a senior, from the school.

“If the top is good and strong, everybody else will be strong,” Smith said. “When you have a weak leader, everything else will fall. He [Williams] was a great leader because he knew how to be firm and a good educator at the same time.”

First Person

We work at Denver’s Title I schools, too. Here’s why we’re ready to strike.

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive “incentives” for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty — and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used for those incentives into long-term base pay.

Why? In short, we would rather have our base pay prioritized than earn bonuses that are not reliable, may not be working, and may also take the pressure off the district to solve systemic problems our schools face.

Issue #1: The current bonuses can’t be relied on. The “hard to serve” school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis. Teachers at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, for example, could lose their “hard to serve” label because their school dropped just barely below the threshold. Additionally, John Amesse Elementary School and McGlone Academy are less than two miles apart, serve similar populations, and are a part of the same network; however, due to ambiguous calculations based on test scores, free and reduced-price lunch numbers, and teacher turnover rates, McGlone teachers receive larger bonuses than John Amesse teachers. This is not fair nor equitable. Teachers need money they can depend on.

Issue #2: It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working. We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment. Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers. Many of the schools that receive these incentives still suffer from the same high turnover rates the bonuses were meant to remedy.

Issue #3: The current bonuses let the district off the hook. Some have argued that teachers in Title I schools deserve significant bonuses because the challenges faced in our work are difficult and taxing. However, many of these issues are due to systemic problems that the district would be better off trying to solve directly.

We know that increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools. Increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs. It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.

We support the union’s proposal because we want the decisions we make as educators to stem from a love of our schools, a desire to serve our students, and a hope to support our community. We want teachers to seek out and stay at our schools because they believe in our vision, our mission, our students, and our community.

We are also passionate about a clear and transparent pay schedule. We want that structure to recognize our dedication to the field and our commitment to furthering our education – not a system that provides one-time bonuses that are in our checks one year and absent the next due to circumstances outside our control.

Anyone who enters our classrooms will see that we are doing our best with the resources we have in order to lift up the students in Denver who are most impacted by systemic racism and poverty. Let us come together on this idea: Fair pay for teachers means better outcomes for students. If we can stand together on this, then we can help improve the lives of so many more students, teachers, and families.

This piece was written by Jessica Schneider, Noel Community Arts School; Tanessa Bass, John H. Amesse Elementary; Rebecca Roberts, John H. Amesse Elementary; Valerie Henderson, Sandra Todd Williams Academy; Brian Weaver, Florida Pitt Waller ECE-8; Michelle Garrison, Farrell B. Howell ECE-8; Michael Sitkin, DCIS @ Montbello; Cory Montrieul, DCIS @ Montbello; and Nik Arnoldi, Escalante-Biggs Academy.

Last minute

Teachers union continues voting on possible Denver strike

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver teachers resumed voting Tuesday evening on whether to go on strike, a decision that will touch tens of thousands of people in Colorado’s largest school district.

The vote comes after months of negotiations left Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association still $8 million apart and with serious philosophical disagreements about how teacher compensation should be structured. Denver teachers are riding a wave of activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. Teachers in Los Angeles just reached a tentative deal with their district after more than a week on strike.

Members of the teachers union began voting on a strike Saturday. A final round of voting began at 4 p.m. Tuesday and will end at 9 p.m. Union officials said Tuesday evening that results would be announced at 9:30 p.m.  

On Tuesday evening, a steady stream of teachers bundled against the cold made their way into a Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Denver where the last voting session is taking place.

Maria Cruz, an early childhood education teacher for the past two years who previously worked as a paraprofessional in the district, said she voted “yes” to strike hoping it will push the district to close the gap between its offer and what the union is seeking.  

“Teachers come and go and come and go and they never stay because there is not enough pay,” she said. “It doesn’t validate the teaching profession.”

The earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28. On Tuesday evening, district families received a robocall from Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova making clear that classes would go on as normal on Wednesday, and that district officials intend to keep schools open for the foreseeable future.   

Cordova has said she’ll ask for state intervention if the vote is yes, which could delay a strike. If teachers do walk out, the district intends to keep schools open and students learning by relying on substitutes, tapping central office staff with past teaching experience, and using pre-packaged lessons plans for every grade and subject area. 

A Denver strike would affect roughly 71,000 students in district-run schools.

District officials went on the offensive over the weekend, making the argument that their offer was generous and responsive to longstanding teacher complaints about stagnant salaries.   

The district also published its new salary schedule online alongside the salary schedules of other Denver metro area districts.

The two sides disagree on how much new money the district should put into teacher compensation and also on how that compensation should be structured. The district has said it will not compromise on offering bonuses to teachers at high-poverty and hard-to-serve schools. The union wants smaller bonuses and more money to go into base pay.

This would be the first teacher strike in Denver in 25 years.