Innovation in public schools apparently comes at a price.
On the same day that state education officials approved Tacoma’s plans for innovation at Stewart Middle School, Tacoma Acting Superintendent Carla Santorno announced a change in Stewart’s leadership Thursday.
Jon Ketler – the principal who has simultaneously led bold programs at Stewart and a pair of non-traditional high schools – will no longer be principal at the middle school on Pacific Avenue.
Multiple complaints from teachers prompted an outside review at Stewart, which led to the change at the top. The controversy echoed through last fall’s eight-day teacher strike.
Ketler could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Stewart is one of three struggling Tacoma middle schools participating in a three-year, federally funded reform experiment. Begun in 2010, the reforms will bring a total of $11 million in School Improvement Grant money to Stewart, Giaudrone and Jason Lee middle schools.
Ketler will continue oversight of the School of the Arts (SOTA) and the Science and Math Institute (SAMI), both small alternative high schools that he founded. They have drawn praise from state officials and, in the case of SOTA, a national award from the Kennedy Center.
Santorno said she will ask Ketler to lend his expertise to other schools seeking innovative change.
“He’s a creative genius,” Santorno said. “We want to take advantage of that.”
On Thursday, Janet Gates-Cortez, who was named co-principal with Ketler at the beginning of the school year, became Stewart’s sole principal.
Meanwhile, state education officials announced approval of 12 innovation plans for schools and districts across Washington. Six are from Tacoma Public Schools.
The list includes five individual Tacoma schools – First Creek, Baker and Stewart middle schools, Foss High School and Bryant Montessori – as well as the entire school district, which applied to become a districtwide Innovation Zone.
The innovative schools project was approved by last year’s Legislature. It allows schools and districts to request a waiver from some state rules. Districts must develop innovation applications in cooperation with parents, communities and employee unions.
Tacoma Education Association President Andy Coons said he submitted letters in support of the district’s plans at other schools, but not at Stewart. He said he had difficulty endorsing more restructuring at a school going through so many changes without a clear focus.
District spokesman Dan Voelpel said that the district made a mistake; it thought union support “was a simple endorsement, not a requirement.”
This week’s leadership switch at Stewart was prompted by complaints from teachers about what they described as a chaotic, rumor-driven and, at times, anti-union work environment.
Talk among teachers about problems at Stewart contributed to tensions that erupted in last fall’s strike. Teachers walking the picket lines said problems at the school made them fear a district contract proposal on teacher reassignments. That proposal is now being refined by a joint school-district union committee.
Ketler got his start at Stewart nearly two years ago. Under federal reform guidelines, the school had to replace its principal and at least half of its faculty at the start of the 2010-11 school year.
Ketler said he wanted to engage students to improve achievement at the high-poverty school, where test scores languished in the bottom 5 percent of all schools statewide.
Last summer, he told The News Tribune that he brought aboard teachers with fresh energy to help encourage students to explore new paths.
“If (students) don’t make this whole education thing theirs,” he said last year, “it’s like a waste of time.”
Initially Stewart was termed a STEM school – one that would feature science, technology, engineering and math. Ketler added another component – the arts – and called the model STEAM. In addition to more math and science, he added music and other arts-based electives.
Problems surfaced during the first year as Ketler’s leadership style came under scrutiny.
By the end of that school year, more than a dozen Stewart teachers had left, according to Coons. Formal union grievances were filed. As part of last year’s strike settlement, those grievances were dropped. But the district still spent $12,000 on an outside investigation at Stewart.
That investigation – delayed because of the strike – resulted in a 41-page report issued in December. The News Tribune obtained a version of the report, with all names but Ketler’s blacked out.
“We asked for the review because we wanted to understand the dynamics,” Santorno said. She said that at various times throughout Stewart’s struggles, district officials thought the problems were resolved. But teachers felt they had not been.
In August, as teacher contract negotiations continued, the district hired the Enumclaw law firm of Reynolds-Burton to look into complaints. While the report did not draw overall conclusions, the law firm did review documents and interviewed more than two dozen Stewart teachers, staff and administrators, including Ketler.
The report described Ketler as “the classic conceptualizer and idea man who leaves behind a long swath of details for someone else to handle.”
One staff member told the investigator that “she cried every day in the fall because calendars were changing, schedules were changing, and it was all about ‘vision-vision-vision.’ ”
Complaints were wide-ranging. Some of the most serious concerned teachers who said they were not equipped to follow Ketler’s model of including special education students in mainstream classrooms – a model he also uses at SAMI and SOTA. Stewart teachers said special education students were short-changed.
Other teacher complaints centered on whether their job performances were evaluated fairly. Teachers said Ketler failed to abide by a contract agreement developed especially for the SIG schools. Ketler told the investigator he was not given a copy of the agreement.
Teachers were upset that Ketler asked them to watch the movie “Waiting for Superman,” which is critical of teacher unions. Ketler said in the report that he wanted teachers to learn about education reform.
Math teacher Trish Hauert was interviewed in the report. She began the 2010-11 school year teaching part-time at both Stewart and SAMI, but left midway through the year to take a full-time job at Giaudrone.
In a Thursday interview with The News Tribune, Hauert described the differences between the schools as “night and day.”
She said the main difference was that the academic focus was firmly in place at Giaudrone, while at Stewart it was constantly evolving. Hauert, who has taught for 15 years, said Stewart had few veteran teachers to mentor those new to the profession.
She said she sought a change because teaching at two schools required her to work at “a pace I could not sustain for the rest of the year.”
She said she hopes the change in leadership announced Thursday will prove that “teachers have been listened to.”
“My hope is for all positive things for everyone involved,” Hauert said.
Debbie Cafazzo: firstname.lastname@example.org