“Terrified” teachers call for headmaster firing

February 2, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

STONYBROOK—English High School Headmaster Jose Duarte should be fired for “mismanagement” that has led to chaos and academic failure in the school, according to a letter that claims to be from a group of anonymous teachers.

The writers of the Jan. 24 letter, addressed to Boston Public Schools (BPS) Superintendent Michael Contompasis, said they did not give their names “because of past retaliatory practices of our headmaster.”

“The teachers are terrified,” said an employee of the school who provided a copy of the letter to the Gazette. “It’s really a culture of fear.”

The letter comes as English High is making a controversial transformation into a new kind of pilot school, and against the backdrop of Boston Teachers Union (BTU) agitation for a new contract. [See related story.]

But the letter’s complaints are similar to those of former substitute teacher Jeffrey Herman, who last year filed a lawsuit alleging that Duarte drove him out of the school for speaking out against military programs. Herman was later allegedly bullied by students as Duarte looked on while Herman circulated a petition calling for the headmaster’s firing.

“Jeff told the truth,” said the employee, who spoke to the Gazette on the condition of anonymity. “He is really weird. But he wasn’t lying about anything he said. The way he was treated, driven out of the school, is the way Duarte treats people he doesn’t like.”

“He is aware of the letter but he doesn’t have any comment at this time,” said an English High assistant speaking on Duarte’s behalf.

BPS spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo said he has not yet seen the letter, and declined an offer to be sent a copy. He indicated that BPS is already aware of such complaints from internal discussion, and expressed unhappiness that the teachers appeared to be going public with them.

“It should be clear that no decisions have been made regarding the leadership or staffing of that building going forward,” Palumbo said. “We want to take our time and make sure we have the best leadership and staff. We’re working through that process right now.”

“The headmaster says he’s been targeted” as well, Palumbo said, adding, “There are far too many fingers being pointed in too many different directions.”

“We’re not interested in it if it takes a personal [attack] tone,” Palumbo said of the letter. When told it raises many specific management complaints, he said, “We’re not interested in talking about any of those specific issues at this time. We want to listen to everyone at the same time. A letter from teachers is appreciated and will be part of the puzzle…It just gets added to the list of things.”

“Chaotic” management
“If you really want to fix this school as you claim, why not start by removing the headmaster who has led this school into this disastrous state?” asks the letter, calling Duarte’s continued presence “unconscionable.”

“If this was a well-to-do school, they wouldn’t tolerate this nonsense for a minute,” the employee said.

The teachers allege that Duarte’s management undermines the academic environment, resulting in constant disruptions and a lack of discipline and supplies.

“Fire alarms, fights, stink bombs, students banging on classroom doors and windows, students wandering into classes late: these are characteristic of the [English High] day,” the letter says.

Young people who are not students roam the halls, the letter says, adding that a machine that creates school ID badges has been broken all year.

“Kids are sort of running wild,” the employee said. “Kids need structure.”

The day the letter was sent featured incidents that were “the last straw on the camel’s back,” the employee said.

First, citywide math and science exams were given, “without adequate notice to the students” and despite it being an early dismissal day, the letter says.

Then a large gas leak shut down the entire school. While the leak was still happening, students were let back in to get their belongings, and then teachers were ordered in to round them up, according to the letter and the employee.

“Kids could have died,” the employee said. “This is typical of the way the school is managed—very, very poorly. Today was a life-threatening situation that was handled badly.”

Despite all of this, teachers are afraid to complain because Duarte is “vindictive,” the employee said. “He’s nice to people he likes, and he’s vicious to people he wants to drive out.”

Asked exactly how Duarte “drives out” teachers, the employee said, “You might be humiliated in front of your students, yelled at, watched, harassed, insulted,” adding that Duarte is also known for “staring people down, coming into their room and examining everything with a fine-tooth comb.”

“That’s why we have such a high turnover rate,” the employee said, claiming one-third of the staff has changed in the past year. “There’s a real disrespect for the professionalism of teachers.”

Palumbo said he is unaware of any official complaints about this type of alleged behavior. “In general, from time to time, there are issues between teachers and headmasters, and one side will accuse the other of being retaliatory,” he said.

But in the specific case of English High, the American Civil Liberties Union and the BTU are backing Herman’s claim of retaliatory harassment. Noting that Herman reportedly got more than 200 signatures on his petition, the employee said, “There are a lot more who are too scared to sign a petition. It’s much, much more than Jeff Herman.”

Pilot school
The teachers’ complaints also appear to involve a perception that they are suffering more than Duarte as the school is reorganized, including a belief that under the pilot program, “many of us will lose our jobs, yet [Duarte] remains.”

Teachers approved the shift to the pilot school program, but it was largely an offer they couldn’t refuse. The state was poised to take control of the school one way or another under a pending determination that it is “chronically underperforming” academically.

Under a pilot system, teachers may have more autonomy and lower class sizes. But there may also be less control over working conditions such as longer school days and years. It’s also possible that they could be fired without cause, which is a concern if Duarte remains headmaster, the employee said.

The employee said that the pilot school budgeting method, which is based on a fixed amount per pupil, is bound to lead to teaching or program cuts.

New, less experienced teachers would be cheaper, for example. “They’re saying they’re going to be able to keep everybody, but we don’t believe they’re going to be able to afford it,” the employee said.

The employee noted that about half of the students are Latino, many of them in English-learner programs, and that about 20 percent of the students are in special education programs.

“They’re going to have to give up some or all of those things” for budget reasons, the employee said.

Palumbo noted that while the pilot model has been selected, there is no concrete plan yet. That includes nothing set about the length of the school day.

Budgets of both regular public schools and pilot schools involve per-pupil funding, Palumbo said. The difference is that pilot schools get one lump sum to spend as they wish, while regular schools have various spending rules and earmarks.

There does appear to one point of agreement among the complaining teachers and BPS.

“The school has not made the progress that the students deserve,” Palumbo said.

“It’s the kids who are really suffering the most,” the employee said.

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