Update from Principal Archer:
I am sorry for the delay. Unfortunately, I am still waiting for authorization from Executive Director Pritchett. This past two weeks, staff was surveyed and I personally approached several staff members about camp. Everyone has refused to accompany the children to camp. I offered to accompany them to allay concerns regarding the larger district context around overnight trips, but was not able to get anyone to commit. I have an alternative plan awaiting approval from Ms. Pritchett. Until I receive that approval, I am unable to comment on the status of the field trip. I would rather wait and give everyone accurate information than tell you what I "think" might happen, get people's hopes up, and then have to disappoint everyone.end of update
Again, I apologize for the delay but in this case, proceeding carefully and making sure all procedures are followed is of paramount importance.
I have always thought of adults in a school as part of a three-legged stool. Parents, teachers/staff and the principal. And I thought each leg was mostly equal. All these years later, I know I am wrong. There is much, much more that can go right - and go wrong - depending on who is at the helm.
The example that follows is classic SPS. The district has fairly well-paid Executive Directors who are supposed to watching over the schools in their region. And yet, Stevens Elementary appears to have been going downhill for years with the last two years being particularly difficult. If the district wants to be data-driven, they should have been tracking the school climate surveys - by both teachers and parents - and seen something happening. The filing of complaints with OSPI last year over Special Education issues should have been a huge tip-off.
The principal, Kelley Archer, has been gone, off and on for the last 18 months. There is an illness or injury involved which, of course, happens. But, when those things happen, the district has to make sure a school runs well, not limps along.
Just to be clear, I don't know Stevens well but parents there reached out to me. The 5th grade field trip that is a tradition at Stevens is something of the straw that finally broke the camel's back.
I attended a special meeting called last week by parents - not the PTA, but parents - that included the district's new ombudsperson, Heidi Henderson-Lewis, who acted as the facilitator, Katherine Barr, the PTA co-president who acted as host and Sarah Pritchett, the Executive Director of the region. Ms Henderson-Lewis also stated that Ms. Pritchett was not her boss but that Superintendent Nyland is her direct boss.
It was also made clear that the meeting was not driven by a request from teachers.
Who wasn't there? Principal Archer.
Who was there representing the administration? Assistant principal Colleen Stump, although she said nothing. (For those who don't know Ms. Stump, she used to head the Highly Capable department. When she left that job, I thought she left SPS. She told me at the meeting that she used to be an assistant principal at both Daniel Bagley and Stevens but had been asked to come to Stevens full-time. I believe she was the interim principal at least some of the time when Principal Archer was on leave. Ms. Stump has experience in Special Education issues so it is likely helpful that she is at Stevens but it is odd for an elementary to have both a principal and a full-time assistant principal.)
I would estimate the crowd at nearly 100 parents. Stevens is in a historic building but the meeting was in the cafeteria (completed with a disco ball - good for them, I love parents with a sense of humor.) Stevens has about 375 students.
Ms. Pritchett was charged with explaining the "district's understanding of issues at Stevens including clarification of high-level issues." The parents were to write their questions on notecards and she would try to answer them. (That flew out the window as parents complained about which questions might be read and answered. Ms. Pritchett bowed to this and answered questions straight from the audience.)
The high-level issues were:
- administrative ineffectiveness
- no family engagement in decision-making
- lack of transparency in processes
- inadequate and ineffective communication
- unsafe school climate
Why the meeting got called
The issue that set this meeting in motion was the cancellation of the overnight field trip for 5th graders that is a 20-year tradition at Stevens. You can imagine if your child saw all the 5th graders in his/her school go on a trip every year, that child might start dreaming of when she's a 5th grader. All kids like rites of passage.
Now the explanation for the cancellation is that the forms were not submitted on-time. The reason I have a hard time with this explanation came when parents asked why their checks had been cashed. So SPS had many, many checks from Stevens' parents and none of the trip forms were attached? And wouldn't SPS Accounting wonder what the money was for if there were no forms attached? (The parents were told that if the trip did happen, the money would be used for that; otherwise, the district would be refunding their money.)
Ms. Pritchett was asked, "You didn't get a 59 page packet of info from Stevens for the trip?" Her answer was no. Then how did the accounting office get the checks? It's a mystery.
Because of behavior issues with a couple of 5th grade children, teachers were worried about the field trip and they had asked administration for more support on the trip. That was turned down and the teachers said they did not want to make the trip. (I did not hear anything about not allowing any student to make the trip; the teachers just wanted more oversight.)
So that left things up in the air. The last thing I heard was that Principal Archer was trying to figure out a way but the trip is to be Friday so really cutting it close.
Ms. Henderson-Lewis summed up the situation this way - "there's a group of kids who feel targeted by other children as well as children who feel targeted by adults."
But the overall issue at Stevens seems to be is a slow deterioration of leadership. Ms. Pritchett admitted that she had been hearing about issues as long as a year ago and that the "process" had started then. Two different parents told me privately that they had been at the school for six years and the school had been slowly going downhill in terms of leadership and cohesive expectations about behavior by children.
How the meeting played out
Ms. Henderson-Lewis said these are "sensitive and emotional" issues. She made the statement that "sometimes you can't solve every problem but we can explain processes." That word "processes" was over and over by both SPS reps.
Ms. Pritchett then commenced her portion of the meeting and said she had talked to a number of staff and parents about concerns at Stevens. She said there were leadership issues, a "breakdown in communications and procedures and operations on a day-to-day basis" and lack of clear expectations for students and concern over the "climate" at the school. She said children are being "targeted" for specific things "be it race or other things."
Ms. Pritchett said there were issues around Special Education, math and Advanced Learning.
(I have previously reported on the Special Education issues which took a lawyer and going to OSPI to get action.) As well, Ms. Pritchett said that a special partnership program between UW and SPS for K-2 math had included Stevens as well even though Stevens doesn't qualify because of lack of enough F/RL students. She stated this twice.
One key issue is that it appeared no one was documenting student behavior incidents that teachers or parents reported to administration. One parent said his son had tried to intervene for another student on the playground and had gotten punched in the nose. He claimed that the student that struck his child was never disciplined. (The district has called a moratorium on elementary school suspensions so that may play into this particular scenario.)
What was odd is that Ms. Pritchett first said there were not common expectations being set by the principal on behavior and later said that "sometimes the administration is in a position to make decisions based on information and not all will agree." That's true but if you aren't starting from a common understanding of expectations, it might be hard to understand whatever decisions do get made.
Ms. Pritchett said she was working with the principal on leadership and the principal was coming back to the school. I believe Principal Archer is now back at Stevens.
The Field Trip
Ms. Pritchett was asked why teachers are afraid to talk about the field trip and she said, "That's a question that the teachers have to answer" which brought laughter from the crowd. It did seem a little silly to say that given the whole situation and everyone on tenterhooks.
There was actually not as much talk about the field trip itself. It does seem that more parent chaperones would not work if there were not enough teacher chaperones.
Pritchett also rightly pointed out that the field trip forms had changed this year (likely because of the Garfield incidents.) But parents wanted to understand what the concerns are for the field trip and she said, "concerns about being held accountable."
Principal Issues and No Confidence
The meeting moved past the issue of the field trip - which really isn't the issue for these parents - to the lack of leadership and what is coming (or not.)
The parents were concerned about the budget and hiring for next year and Pritchett assured them that things "were on track."
But some parents spoke up and said they felt their children "had lost a whole year of school" because of the lack of leadership. Ms. Pritchett said no, that teachers were in the classrooms teaching and dodged the meaning to the parent's statement.
Pritchett repeated talked about "processes" and "systems issues" but, of course, was never clear in what that meant. (Naturally, the issue with the principal is a personnel issue and so she had to be careful but it seemed frustrating to parents.)
One parent boldly asked if the district, when it hires principals, has "some assumptions about competency and a system in place to support principals." Pritchett said yes but "we are talking about someone's job and career." You can imagine how well that kind of statement went over with a whole room of upset parents.
Several people spoke about a walk-out by students and a possible vote of no confidence for the principal.
Several parents said they knew parents in the neighborhood who gave up and now had their children in private school and that they were also considering it. Another parent asked what would happen if Stevens' enrollment numbers dropped. Pritchett said that there could be issues with staffing if there were a big drop.
Parents almost universally said the issue was not the teachers and that they liked the teaching corps.
One parent asked if Pritchett could ask Archer to resign. That got applause. Ms Pritchett said that was "not my role" and "there had to be a collection of evidence and data" and she could not say if Archer is resigning. She said there is a procedure and it could take one to two years which brought a groan from the crowd. (I found this puzzling given her statement previously that she had been working on this issue for the last year.
Then, Pritchett talked to parents about how principals were chosen. She said they create a "team" of parents and staff (and sometimes students) and interview candidates, always keeping in mind that the Superintendent has the final say.
She made it sound like there was a policy/procedure for principal selection in the district that does include parents and that just isn't true. She slightly backpedaled and said "this would be my desire" but I think that statement was lost on parents.
One parent said that things had gotten worse at Stevens since Ms. Pritchett's involvement and that many parents wanted a "fast-track" evaluation. There was applause for this. Ms. Pritchett calmly stated that sometimes "things get worse before it gets better when you daylight things."
Parents wanted to know if the principal could be moved (meaning was the contract specific to Stevens.) The answer was that the contract is with SPS and the Superintendent could move any principal anywhere but "moving people around doesn't always help."
Was there an airing of grievances? Sure but I'm not sure exactly what parents learned.
I give all sides credit for a pretty calm discussion and all were very careful to make it about adults and no children were named. (But I overheard two guys walking out, one says, "There should have been more fireworks" and the other guy nodded.)
Ms. Pritchett, for me, was less-than-effective. She spoke very quickly and not always into the microphone. She had to be asked, repeatedly, to repeat questions from the audience. It made for a more difficult meeting. She rambled and dodged questions and giving the same answer, over and over, made for frustration.
At one point, I looked out over the audience (I had taken a seat to the side of the cafeteria to leave the main seats for parents.) I saw a lot of crossed arms and set jaws. But I mostly saw people who looked tired and defeated.
But I see from the last school newsletter that the PTA is planning a carnival and the administration was talking about the BLT (building leadership team) and behavior on the playground so it would seem there is still positive energy there. I was told by one parent that if the field trip doesn't happen, the parents will plan something else for the departing 5th grade class.
SPS has a solid school with committed parents and teachers (although some of that commitment by parents may be wavering.) An apparent lack of leadership should not leave a school community twisting in the wind, waiting for the district to do something.