Students at Chief Leschi Schools staged a peaceful protest Wednesday to express their anger, grief and confusion over recent teacher and staff layoffs.
They say adults have given them few answers about why an estimated 27 percent of the school staff — at least 50 teachers, counselors and others — were told in mid-May that they’d be let go at the end of the school year.
Sophomore Elisia Quesada said students came to the school board with questions over the layoffs but didn’t get satisfactory answers.
“They told us students it was not any of our business to be asking the teachers what happened or to be concerned about why they’re firing the teachers,” she said.
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Teachers were given a script to read, in answer to student questions, Quesada said.
The school, operated by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Education, includes nearly 900 students in preschool through high school.
Tribal officials have said the layoffs are part of an attempt to boost academic performance at the school.
“We are trying to better our academics,” tribal spokesman John Weymer said, adding that the school board had determined change was needed.
I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to let anyone go
Tribal Council member David Bean
Tribal Councilman David Bean said new Superintendent Amy Eveskcige, — who came to the school a year ago from Tacoma Public Schools and is the first Puyallup tribal member to head the school — laid out a plan for improvements at the beginning of the current school year.
Among the initiatives listed on the school’s web page:
▪ Project-based learning.
▪ Introduction of the study skills program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination.)
▪ A program to help staff members understand and react to the types of trauma children experience at home that can affect learning.
▪ Restorative discipline practices that emphasize righting wrongs and learning through mistakes.
All are practices in use in public school districts throughout the state and the nation.
He said Eveskcige began talking to staff members earlier in the school year about their commitment to the new initiatives.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to let anyone go,” Bean said. “But Amy did it as kindly and as gently as she could. She did it face-to-face, as opposed to saying, ‘Here is a piece of paper in your box.’ ”
Some parents and staff members, however, disagreed with the way layoffs were handled. They said staff members were lined up in a hallway and called in one by one to be told their fate.
“That approach does not align with what I know of traditional Indian values,” said Leschi parent Rose McKenney, whose heritage is Haida. “I’d like to know when staff are going to stop getting blamed. There are some staff who are absolutely not a good fit for here. But we have got to stop blaming them for the shortcomings of our school.”
Julie Van Every, who has grandchildren at the school, said teachers had all school year to make changes.
“They were given a chance to put themselves together. A whole year,” she said.
One Leschi teacher, who was not laid off but who asked to remain anonymous because she feared for her job, said staff members were asked in late April to complete a survey that asked questions about teaching youth from different cultural backgrounds.
She said that while teachers incorporate Native culture into what they teach, they also are aware that Chief Leschi students want to attend colleges like the University of Washington.
“You also have to show them what you have to learn in Western culture to survive college,” she added.
The teacher said she supports Eveskcige’s vision for improving Chief Leschi, but she worries about how that vision is being implemented.
She said educators who answered questions the same way she did were among those let go, adding she did not know why that happened.
The News Tribune asked, through the tribal spokesman, for an interview with Eveskcige. She did not respond by press time.
These are teachers we trust and who believe in us
Student Elisia Quesada
Meanwhile Wednesday, students were carrying signs of protest that said, “What about us?” and “We are Warrior strong,” a reference to their school mascot and their Native American heritage.
Kids sang and drummed around the totem pole that fronts the school, which is on 52nd Street East in the Puyallup Valley.
Students said they are upset that teachers they have known and loved for years no longer will be part of their school.
“These are teachers we trust and who believe in us to overcome the statistics as Native Americans,” said Quesada, who is vice president of her sophomore class.
Added sophomore class President River Korndorfer: “They fired the teachers that have impacted our education over the years. They’ve impacted our education by teaching a lot about our culture.”