Hearst Elementary School, regarded as one of the few schools in the D.C. system that works, is in an uproar over a decision by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to transfer two popular teachers after a year of tension between parents and Hearst's new principal.
Ackerman's decision to force the veteran teachers to move, while granting the principal, Shirley Hopkinson, a requested transfer after only one year, has drawn a flood of angry letters and raised questions about how the superintendent approaches serious conflict in a school community and how well she tolerates dissent among activist employees.
Many parents say a climate of fear has enveloped the school at 37th and Tilden streets NW, especially after an assistant superintendent warned remaining teachers at a recent meeting not to discuss the school's troubles with parents or among themselves in public. After that, teachers who routinely had attended PTA meetings stayed away.
"There are a lot of people at this school who are really committed to staying and working something out," said PTA President Anne Herr. "We are very optimistic that a year is only a year and the damage can be undone with the right leadership. But . . . [administrators] are taking away the exact things that we need to rebuild the school. We don't know whether that is intentional."
Ackerman said such fears are baseless. She promises that the school, which suffered a dramatic drop in unity and focus during the school year, will get a fresh start in the fall with a new principal and some new teachers. Parents, she said, are seeing only one side.
"I was trying to find a solution that would be fair, that really recognized the complexity of all the issues so that we could begin to move forward," Ackerman said. "And that's what I tried to do. I didn't say that in doing that I would make everyone happy."
Ackerman, responding to reports that some parents have decided to leave the school and that more than half of the nine classroom teachers may leave, too, called the situation at the school very complicated. "Some parents may leave, but Hearst is a school where other parents will come," she said. "So we move on. I don't want to lose parents, but I also can't be held hostage."
Hopkinson declined to be interviewed.
In a city where most public schools grapple with terrible troubles, Hearst has boasted a racially diverse and high-achieving student body and a corps of well-regarded teachers. A small school that focuses on early childhood education for its 185 students, it draws some 65 percent of its enrollment from outside its boundaries and routinely has a long waiting list. About 40 percent of Hearst's students are white, another 40 are African American, and the rest are Latino, Asian or Middle Eastern.
The school also has a very active parent group with a reputation for being quick to complain about perceived problems. When officials considered closing the school two years ago, the screams were loud and long. But the complaints have never been more pronounced than during the past year, under the stewardship of Hopkinson, who was an assistant principal at Watkins Elementary School in Southeast Washington before moving to Hearst.
Hearst parents said Hopkinson did not want to fill vacant classroom aide positions because she viewed them as "teacher comfort." Then, she hired one aide who always carried a briefcase with him--even on the playground. He also told parents that their children were "conspiring" against him.
Parents criticized Hopkinson's stewardship when excessive levels of lead were found on a classroom floor. And they didn't like it when she told some parents that if they wanted to help out in a classroom, as they have for years, they needed to show proof of having had a tuberculosis test.
School administrators, in Hopkinson's defense, said many parents were rude to her when she made decisions that they opposed, and that parents never wanted to give her a chance to succeed.
Tensions erupted recently after a team of parents, administrators and teachers put together a budget plan for the school for next school year, one of Ackerman's efforts to allow all 146 school communities to have more say in how their schools are run.
The team devised a plan eliminating the position of principal and leaving the less expensive assistant principal to operate the school. Downtown administrators rejected the plan, and an independent mediating panel ultimately ruled in the administrators' favor.
The incident intensified strains at Hearst, and many parents wrote to Ackerman asking for Hopkinson's removal. The superintendent spent a day at Hearst, interviewing staff members, and Hopkinson asked for a transfer shortly after Ackerman's visit. But Ackerman also decided to move two teachers who had been on the budget team and were seen by administrators as being too involved with parents in complaining about Hopkinson.
Ackerman decided to involuntarily transfer Brenda Burns, a popular pre-kindergarten teacher at Hearst for 17 years who has been the school's union representative for several years. Ackerman said she did so because Burns was identified too strongly with parents and she wanted to give the next Hearst principal--who has not yet been selected--a chance for a fresh start.
Parents immediately protested, flooding Ackerman's office with angry and sad letters.
"Actions like these undermine the confidence of parents in DCPS [D.C. public schools] and risk driving them away," Elizabeth L. Vandivier and David E. Dreyer wrote.
Sue and Charlie Bell wrote: "Targeting Ms. Burns for removal will most likely cripple the school. As you no doubt heard from parents and colleagues in your fact-finding, her institutional memory, leadership skills and commitment to the school are irreplaceable."
With the school already abuzz, Ackerman decided to involuntarily transfer another popular teacher, Karen Dresden, who headed the budget team and recently had won a year-long fellowship at Harvard University.
Assistant Superintendent Audrey Donaldson met with Hearst employees and warned teachers to stop talking to parents about the situation and not to discuss it with each other in public, according to several at the meeting.
Donaldson did not return phone calls for this report.
Involuntary transfers are rare in the school system and are not intended to be punitive, administrators said. But many parents said they viewed the involuntary transfers as just that.
"We don't know enough about the mechanism of an involuntary transfer, but it strikes us as an intimidation tactic," Herr said.
"DCPS has long been a system ruled by fear," parent Catherine A. Sunshine wrote Ackerman. "Employees fear retaliation, fear for their jobs, if they speak out or rock the boat in any way. This incident suggests you are not going to change that institutional culture."
Sunshine said the transfers also raise questions about the independence and meaningful role of the budget teams. Dresden, she noted, was chairman of the Hearst team that wrote a plan that was subsequently disputed, and "her transfer sends a chilling message to others who would venture to serve on these bodies."
Ackerman said she knows her attempts to change the culture of the school system, where some parents think they can run their own schools, will create unhappiness. Those parents planning to leave Hearst, she said, are saying, " 'The only way I will stay is if you give me exactly what I want.' "
As for complaints that she is trying to run the system through fear tactics, she said: "If this system was one about fear, we would have better student results."
Although Ackerman said she will stand firm on the teacher transfers, parent still hope to persuade her to bring them back.
"I know there is a lot of anger out there," Herr said. "But the school system needs to deal with the forces this has unleashed."