Friday, December 18, 2009

Civil War Breaks Out Between Rival Groups Of "Founding Parents" At The Renaissance Academy Charter School In Lehi, Utah

2 Nephi 28: 3: For it shall come to pass...when the one shall say unto the other: Behold I, I am the Lord’s; and the others shall say: I, I am the Lord’s;

When I first read this story, the scripture above immediately came to mind, although this is not a religious dispute. Two groups of charter school parents, both claiming to be "founding parents", are squabbling with each other over the school's direction. The catalyst was the termination of a popular and capable teacher.

"Behold we, we are the Founding Parents...No, we, we are the Founding Parents"

The charter school in question is the Renaissance Academy in Lehi, Utah. The catalyst is the sudden and unexplained termination of the World Language Director, Teri Griffin. One group of parents, who calls themselves "founding parents", called for a boycott of the school. The other group of parents, who also calls themselves "founding parents", opposed any boycott. The two groups squared off at a school meeting on Thursday December 17th, 2009. A detailed story of the dispute was published by the Provo Daily Herald before the meeting; the Deseret News published a story after the meeting.

The termination of Teri Griffin was announced on Monday December 14th. For "legal" reasons, school administrators said they can't address the cause for termination, and also placed teachers under a gag order. But the confidentiality naturally breeds suspicion, and many are painting a picture of a fearful atmosphere at the school, one where teachers are scared of the board and administration. This is not the first sign of trouble; on November 3rd, Arabic teacher Kate Challis resigned, and explained her reasons on her blog. In response to Griffin's firing, Challis says that Griffin allegedly failed to comply with the terms of a previous reprimand, but administrators refused to elaborate.

So one group of parents, calling themselves original founders of the school, called for a boycott. "Teachers are afraid to speak of concerns or share solutions, parent participation is being criticized and ridiculed, and several of our students' educational experiences are being affected," they wrote in the e-mail letter. "We have quietly yet continually worked with both the current board and the administration of the school. We have made every attempt to remain objective and respectful as we have sought clarity, expressed concern, and offered input and assistance." All of this was to no avail, making the protest necessary, they said.

But the boycott, called for Wednesday December 16th, fizzled. Of the 670 students at the school, only 12 were absent, which is actually a lower number of absentees than normal. Perhaps it was attributable to the efforts of the rival group of "founding parents" who sought to quell unrest.

"Due to recent events which have involved the entire Renaissance community we felt it necessary, as founders equally, to speak out," said the rival group's statement, signed by 13 parents. "Whenever there is an employment action, it is natural for people to feel strong emotions. Unfortunately, this is often compounded by the lack of available facts upon which to form an opinion. We appreciate the professionalism of our leadership who continue to be discrete about these actions, allowing the separated employee to leave in a dignified manner and simultaneously not leaving the institution exposed to possible liability. It takes strength of character to stand by difficult decisions even in the face of intense criticism." The school "is anxious to resume normal activities," the parents said. "Let's do all we can to ensure that we as parents aren't actively disrupting the quality education of our children. Let us restore the spirit of the holidays in our hallways and classrooms and most importantly with our students and faculty."

A secondary bone of contention may be the school's vision statement, considered ambiguous by some. The problem is that different people get different messages from the same statement. I see no particular problem with the vision statement; a vision statement is not intended to be meticulously specific.

Nevertheless, an estimated 100 supporters of Teri Griffin showed up at the Thursday meeting to protest her termination. "People must be free to express opposing viewpoints, especially in an educational setting. How can teachers speak for the vision if they can't speak at all?", asked Jennifer Seeley, a parent of a student at the school. Another parent, Sharlynn Dunyon, said "I feel like our voices are being silenced. Teachers come to us frustrated, confused, hurt and angry". Emotions ran high at the meeting, which included board member Joe Tucker yelling at one parent and talking back to another. Board chairwoman Dorene Turner said the school followed its policy in Griffin's termination. Fighting back tears, Turner said it was a sad decision for the board.

But what's sadder is the board's lack of transparency. Confidentiality, originated as a defense against serial litigation, has now become a refuge from accountability. This is not an isolated problem; it's become a synoptic-scale syndrome common to countless bureaucracies. The board does not have to reveal the gory details spawning the firing of Teri Griffin, but they are accountable to the parents, and they owe the parents a simple one-line explanation.

But the parents promoting the boycott may have played into the hands of the union-dominated public education cartel, which is interested in monopolizing our kids' education and providing "iron rice bowls" for its union members. The education industry will seize upon such incidents as grist for their propaganda mills to weaken confidence in school choice. The fact is, the education industry is more interested in social engineering than in promoting academic competence and development of life skills. Particularly disgusting is the desire by public schools to promote acceptance of homosexuality and forced diversity.

Some of the comments posted to the Deseret News story provide further insight:

KBD | 10:55 a.m. Dec. 18, 2009
I am intimately aware of the situation at this school. To say the teacher was fired for expressing a personal opinion is a gross understatement. Please realize that when someone is fired, it is usually after careful consideration and weighing of ALL the facts. The administration and founding parents of this charter school had MONTHS of working with this teacher to resolve many issues. It is not appropriate for the public to be involved in or aware of all those discussions, so unfortunately, the facts have been misrepresented in this article.

Parent | 11:40 a.m. Dec. 18, 2009
To clarify, yes, the school in question is Renaissance Academy. I was at that school board meeting last night and "What" above may enjoy grandstanding but he is dead wrong about the entire situation.

This school has been wonderful for our children and the teachers and the programs have been exceptional. However, the problems in the workplace are very real and there has been a lot of bad blood between faculty and administration since the current board and administration came on last year. This isn't about crybabies, as What stated above. This is about teachers who are fearful for their jobs because they have seen firings that have not been adequately explained to them. There are other workplace issues besides.

One of the benefits of a charter school is that you are not stuck with bad union teachers for decades (though in this case, the fired teachers were both fantastic). A downside is that you have no district to appeal to in employee-management disputes. This is an awesome school and will be again once the faculty and administration can flush this whole fear and mistrust issue out of the system and move forward. Call it growing pains.

Parent | 12:09 p.m. Dec. 18, 2009
@Public school, the school in question is a public school. What it isn't is a district school.

Freedom of speech was actually mentioned at the meeting last night, but this is purely a workplace issue and has nothing to do with anything the teacher did in the classroom. Everyone involved acknowledges that both teachers fired were excellent. This is all manager-employee stuff, and curriculum choices and performance did not figure into the issue at all.

And please don't bring your politics into it. However, it is interesting that you would speculate that the teacher may have angered someone by saying nice things about Muslims, because one of the two teachers fired was the Arabic teacher. (The school still offers Arabic and is strongly committed to it and to the other languages in its world language program. At the meeting last night they said they were close to making an offer to a new Arabic teacher.)

Concerned | 2:05 p.m. Dec. 18, 2009
As a parent of three students at this school I am concerned about the turn over of teachers at the Renaissance Academy. I for one am a teacher myself. If any student is in need of stability it is elementary aged kids.

More than once have my students lost their teacher(s) mid year. All three of my kids have had this recent teacher that was fired. From the results I saw she was not a good teacher but a great teacher. If we could all just get along and put the kids first I think the school would benefit by having great teachers, the students would benefit by having great teaching, and the parents would be happy.

I also know from past experience school boards and administrators get on power struggles.

There are so many other options that these two sides should have considered. Unless this teacher stole from the school, did something illegal, or carried on a sexual relationship with a student, the school should have dealt differently. While I have never met this teacher, I have seen the effect she had on my kids and that not debatable!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A couple of points needing clarification.
1. The two "opposing groups" as you put it, did not "square off at a school meeting". In fact, those who had issued the boycott did not even make public comment, if they were indeed in attendance.
2. The recent events at Renaissance are not what has bred an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. These feelings have been growing due to a number of different incidents, small and large, for at least a year.
3. The boycott did not fizzle. Those who called it realized that a)teachers were too afraid to stand up for themselves, so they probably wouldn't participate, and b)it would do more harm than good to the students, so, it was rescinded the same day. This shows how much those parents care about what is happening. They were willing to do something, and when they realized they had perhaps made a mistake, they pulled back. They had humilty. This sense of humilty has not been shown at all by the "opposing faction".
4. Due to the mere definition of the word "vision", it is hard to articulate in any statement, no matter how detailed. Teri Griffin is a visionary person. For many, she personified the ideas behind what Renaissance was meant to be. While there are many wonderful, marvellous teachers and parents at Renaissance, none have had the impact that Mrs. Griffin did. None have so completely gone above and beyond the call of duty. None have more fully understood the vision. For most, a visionary person is someone to be admired, looked up to, used as inspiration. For others, a visionary is merely a threat. Like lobsters in a tank, they must pull down any who dare rise above the norm.