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Trouble brewing at Brookings’ schools

Things have been anything but quiet this summer at the Brookings-Harbor School District, where union members have issued a vote of no confidence in the superintendent, at least two dozen employees have resigned, and the implementation of a new grading system has been declared a disaster.

“We are in a meltdown,” said school board member Sue Chambers. “I am very concerned about the way things are going.”

“We can’t sugarcoat what’s happened,” said board member Katherine Johnson. “It’s been a very difficult year, but I’m a big-picture person. I want to understand the ‘why” of things. We have to look at what we can do now. We can’t put our heads in the sand.”

Superintendent Brian Hodge agreed that the past year has been challenging.

“It’s a matter of too many changes, too fast — for the staff and for me,” Hodge said. “There’s also been some miscommunication and misinformation with staff and a lack of support in some areas.” 

The changes include the implementation of a new teacher evaluation form, a new standards-based grading system, and a new state testing format.

“I understand the high level of frustration among the staff. I am responsible for the district and we’re addressing the issues,” Hodge said.

 I’m optimistic that things will get better,” Hodge said. 

Superintendent woes

Chambers was most concerned about the recent vote of no confidence in Superintendent Brian Hodge by members of the teachers’ union, Brookings-Harbor Education Association.

“It was a surprise,” she said. “It made us pause and realize that we have to take a closer look at what’s happening.”

She acknowledge that morale throughout the district was at an “all-time low.”

“I’ve been hearing from teachers for some time that morale was low — it was a common theme,” Chambers said. “I just didn’t know how widespread it was.”

At a special meeting in June, the school board voted to pursue an independent investigation into complaints they received about Hodge, who has been superintendent since 2009. Previously he was principal at Kalmiopsis Elementary School and a teacher before that.

Earlier this summer, at least 85 members of the teachers’ union approved a vote of no confidence in Hodge. However, the specific complaints are not available to the public because the vote of no confidence and specific details were presented to the school board during an executive (closed door) session. 

Union representatives declined to comment about the vote of no confidence, waiting, instead, to see the results of the investigation, which is not expected to be completed until September or October.

Terri Poponi, elementary school teacher and president of the union, said she was advised by the Oregon Department of Education to remain quiet until the investigation was done.

However, she hinted that the union was working on several efforts related to teachers’ complaints about lack of leadership in the district.

“The union will issue a statement when the time is appropriate. Until then, I can’t really say anything,” Poponi said. 

Meanwhile, the district, working with its attorney, has hired an independent investigator to interview past and present district employees associated with the complaints.

“We hired somebody with no ties to the community; someone who can conduct an unbiased evaluation of the situation,” Johnson said.

Word of the complaints and investigation have spread through the community. The Pilot has received numerous calls from school employees and citizens, most of whom wish to remain anonymous, expressing their concerns about the vote of no confidence and what they perceived as a mass exodus of employees.

On Friday, Hodge said he was aware that many employees were frustrated with problems at the district’s three schools.

“I’m hearing them loud and clear,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to address their concerns. We want the teachers to feel like they are supported. When they feel supported then they do a better job, and that helps the kids. Everything we do, every decision we make, is for the kids.” 

Morale and resignations

The district reported that 24 of 190 employees have resigned or retired in the last two months, not 48 as rumored. At the same time, the district has hired or is about to hire at least 17 new employees, including two principals, a vice principal and several teachers.

Thirteen teachers resigned in the last few months — nine at the Brookings-Harbor High School, two at Azalea Middle School and two at Kalmiopsis Elementary School. Reasons given by teachers ranged from job dissatisfaction to moving away to be closer to family.

 “We’ve lost a lot of good teachers,” school board member Bruce Raleigh said at the board’s June meeting. “It hurts. We’ve lost both veteran teachers and new teachers who were the building blocks of the program. It’s going to take years to rebuild what we had.”

Chambers said, “I hate losing young teachers, especially those who inspire our young children.”

Johnson was hoping the results of exit surveys would help explain better why employees are leaving and how the district might retain employees.

The high school has taken the brunt of the resignations. In addition to the nine departing teachers, Principal Larry Martindale retired. Several of the teachers had been teaching for more than 20 years, while one or two had worked for the district for just one or two years. 

Several teachers cited their frustration with and a lack of support from Martindale and Hodge.

High school teacher Leif Appanaitis, who resigned this summer after seven years and is moving away with his wife, was blunt about why he resigned.

“The reason we are leaving is due to frustration of working in a district that is so poorly managed,” he said in a letter to the Pilot. 

He said the superintendent and the high school administrators refused to take seriously teachers’ concerns about the new standards-based grading system. The new system gives students a number of scores that represent their proficiency in each of the skills assessed, instead of the traditional letter grade system.

In June, school officials deemed the implementation of the new system last year a “disaster.” 

Appanaitis said he and other teachers tried to bring their concerns about the new system to administrators’ attention, but Principal Larry Martindale “pushed every single issue under the rug.

“In subsequent months, staff meetings were eliminated completely and individuals were left to deal with most problems on their own. Confusion and frustration were rampant. Teaching was no longer enjoyable.”

His letter ended,  “Action needs to be taken. The school board is aware of the lack of leadership, and yet Hodge remains as superintendent. As long as he is at the helm, the majority of the staff will remain disenfranchised with the district administration.”

Before leaving, Appanaitis submitted 18 teacher surveys to the board. The surveys, created by Appanaitis, were distributed to 25 high school teachers in early December and collected over the next two weeks. Hodge and Martindale did not see or were unaware of the surveys, Appanaitis said, because he and others did not want them to be “subjected to administration screening.”

“I also wanted the surveys to be anonymous, as teachers expressed concern about retribution from administration,” he explained to the board. “I am now providing copies to you, the school board members, to shed light on the conditions at the high school in case any of you are as oblivious as some others were or continue to be.”

Copies of the surveys were also provided to the Pilot. The answers showed that teachers, as a whole, were frustrated with lack of leadership at the school and administrators’ inability to address important issues.

Many teachers felt their input was not heard or, if heard, was not acted upon by administrators.

“Our input is at best played lip-service to and then ignored; many of the issues that have sprung up this year were identified as problems by the staff last year, but our words were ignored,” one teacher wrote on a survey.

Another teacher wrote, “ I will look to see if there are positions in other districts that suit my needs. In the event that I do not find such a position, I will remain here and hope that, with new administration, things will look up. I will put my head down and work in my room to do the best I can, not expecting much in the way of recognition or support from administration.”

In some surveys, teachers expressed concern that students were falling behind in learning and the overall attitude of students had markedly declined.

“Again, it’s too many changes, too fast,” said Hodge. “There was not enough support for the staff and we are addressing that. I’m excited about the new management at the high school and middle school. We have two new principals and a vice principal at the middle school.”

New grading system

Last year, the school district implemented a new grading system across its three schools, called “standards-based grading.” 

The new system is a departure from the traditional A through F system that is the norm at most American schools and, while the new system was applied to all grades at all schools, it was only applied to math and language arts, with other subjects to be added in the future.

Standards-based grading is intended to show whether or not students meet Common Core standards, a set of national standards in core subjects, such as math and language arts, that have been adopted nationwide by 45 states, the District of Columbia and four territories. The standards, adopted by the Oregon legislature in 2011, aim to provide more conformity in the level and quality of education from state to state.

In spring of 2013, the Oregon Legislation required all public school districts to implement the new system. To meet the mandate, the Brookings-Harbor School District began updating PowerSchool — its computer-based grade reporting program — and training staff. However, in the fall of 2013, the state rescinded the mandate, leaving it up to individual districts to implement the new system its own pace.

By then, Hodge said, the district had already made so many changes that it was difficult to change course.   

“The state changed the game plan and that was very frustrating — for all of us,” Hodge said. “We had put everything into motion and we couldn’t just stop.”

The new system meant that teachers and students had to learn and test differently than before. There was some confusion about exactly what teachers were suppose to do and what the expectations were for teachers and students. In some cases, teachers and students believed that homework was not mandatory.

 By the end of the school year, teachers and students were frustrated with problems learning and using the system. Administrators admitted that the implementation was a disaster, but were hopeful that efforts being made will improve it in time for the 2014-15 school year.

“It did not work last year, but we have learned a lot about what went wrong and we have made strides to fix it,” Hodge said.

He said the administration’s communication with staff and training efforts were inconsistent. There were also problems with the technology, he said.

He was referring to the PowerSchool, the  web-based student information system that teachers use to record grades and attendance for students.

Teachers were mostly frustrated with the reporting process of the system, which meant grades weren’t being updated quickly and students and parents often didn’t know how well, or not, the students were doing in class.

“There was data loss,” Hodge said. “Teachers would put grades into the computer and the next time they went back the data was gone.”

At its June board meeting, members Johnson and Chambers asked if the district should return to the traditional grading system, but Hodge said that would be an even greater disaster.

‘It would collapse the system,” Hodge said. “We really can’t go back now. It would be a disaster. We need to move forward.”

He said the district plans to do a better job of training teachers so they can better use the system.

“Training is scheduled for the teachers in August; it’s mandatory,” Hodge said. “The administration and staff will be thoroughly involved. It’s our number one priority. We have to make it clearer and more user-friendly.”

He added, “We don’t need another year like last year. This time it has to work.”

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