The idea seemed harmless enough: a group of black teachers at a Silver Spring school getting together off-hours to socialize and brainstorm about improving African American students' test scores.
But when the new principal of Burnt Mills Elementary School, who also is black, attended the exclusive meeting at a gym teacher's home in May, it angered many of the other staff members, who said they felt left out and disrespected, their own commitment to minority student achievement in question.
In the weeks since what some teachers call the "segregated meeting," the school staff has been in turmoil. A few teachers accused Principal Adrienne Jackson of racism, and a staff meeting erupted into a bitter shouting match. Administrators from the school system were called in for two days of emergency interviews. Eight teachers quit.
Some parents and teachers blame Jackson, saying she has fostered a racially tense climate at the school, tucked into a modest neighborhood off Route 29 near the White Oak Shopping Center, since she arrived last August. Jackson has been distant, uncommunicative and difficult, the teachers say, contending that the PTA dissolved in March because of her.
Jackson says her stormy first year at the school can be attributed to a handful of disgruntled teachers who are resistant to her back-to-basics policies.
"Any time you have a change in administration, you have people who are very uncomfortable with that," Jackson said, as she sat for an interview in her conference room. "We're dealing with those types of personalities at this school."
Still, she sighed, "it's been a tough year."
The school system has moved in recent weeks to quell the turmoil at the school. In late July, staff members received a letter from Community Superintendent Kimberly A. Statham that outlined the system's response to the crisis: a weekly newsletter, quarterly community forums, the formation of a school advisory group and "team building" sessions with teachers.
"We need to make sure that this year the focus is on instruction and [that] staff members go into an environment where they feel comfortable and can bring up issues of concern," said Statham, who added that she did not believe the problems at the school were a question of "African American vs. white.
"What we found in the one-on-one interviews is that there are both races on both sides," Statham said.
Jackson came to Burnt Mills after spending three years as principal at Warren Lane Elementary, one of the worst-performing schools in the Inglewood, Calif., school district. After her last year, her school's scores on the Stanford 9 achievement test improved an average of eight points, which educators there called a small but welcome increase.
She arrived in Silver Spring to an elementary school of wide diversity -- 58 percent of the students are African American, 27 percent are Hispanic, 9 percent are white and 8 percent are Asian American. More than half are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty.
The school was struggling academically: Burnt Mills ranked 119th of 124 Montgomery County schools in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test in 2000.
Then, as now, Jackson saw her mission as improving test scores and student achievement, a top priority of Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who has pledged to narrow the school system's achievement gap between white and minority students.
Teachers who support her say she ushered in a tough, "no excuses" policy designed to ensure that all children show improvement. Several youngsters who started the school year reading below grade level ended the year reading at or above grade level, said Audra Fladung, the school's staff development teacher.
"I think Dr. Jackson has a strong vision for our school and the overall success of our students," said Fladung, who is white.
But Jackson's approach quickly put some teachers and parents in the school's active and majority-white parent-teacher organization on edge.
"We never got to know her personally," said Julie Reiner, the past treasurer of the Burnt Mills PTA. "You never saw her in the hallways, greeting kids. Her office door was always closed, literally and figuratively."
Jackson said that she may not have been in hallways as much as teachers and parents would like but that she spent her first year "observing, questioning, providing information to staff to spark discussion . . . to develop a program we can implement this year to improve student achievement."
Jackson's relations with the PTA worsened over the next months, and in December, a dozen of the most active parents sent an angry letter to her. In it, the parents said they were unhappy with Jackson's decision to discontinue a biweekly principal's letter and complained that they were never notified of the school's MSPAP results or of the proposed expansion of the crowded school.
"There was a breakdown of communications early on as to what the focus of the PTA should be," Jackson said. Further, efforts to broaden the group to bring in parents who were more representative of the diversity of the school were "slow in coming," she said.
When she tried to reach the letter-writing parents, she said, they would not meet with her. The parents deny that.
In March, the two elected PTA members resigned, taking several of the more active families with them, Reiner said. A new, more ethnically diverse PTA executive board has since been elected, Jackson said.
In May, one of Jackson's supporters on the staff, gym teacher Marvin Cofield, sent an e-mail to the school's other black teachers. Titled "Meeting of the Minds," the e-mail urged the other teachers to meet to "brainstorm ways in which we can increase student achievement of the African American student population at Burnt Mills."
When uninvited teachers heard about the meeting, several said, they were furious at being excluded. Those teachers said the meeting should have included other instructors, such as the two white teachers who spent Saturday mornings tutoring struggling minority students.
The teachers also were angry that Jackson had attended Cofield's meeting instead of a parent meeting about the school's English-Spanish dual language program held at the school the same night.
A staff meeting in the cafeteria after the gathering sparked by Cofield's e-mail disintegrated into a nasty shouting match. Later, an anonymous group of teachers calling itself "Concerned Burnt Mills Staff" described the staff meeting in a letter to Weast.
"[S]everal teachers asked questions and voiced concerns as to the exclusive manner in which this meeting was held," the teachers wrote. "Dr. Jackson interrupted the communication and became defensive and insulting. She emphatically supported [Cofield's] actions and her attendance at the segregated meeting and became enraged at the remaining staff, yelling that we were 'petty' and that 'you people need to get over it.' "
"I walked out of that staff meeting and said, 'I'm outta here,' " said Phyllis Youngberg, who requested a transfer after 12 years at Burnt Mills.
Jackson, who calls the description of the staff meeting "an outright lie," said she did support Cofield's meeting. "This was a discussion that needed to take place," she said. "And it hadn't taken place at the school."
To raise test scores, Jackson said, she needs all of the help she can get. Her critics would be only too happy if she were removed from her post, Jackson said.
"We need to put this to bed," she said, pointing to a reporter's notebook. The school system, she said, "has not asked me to transfer. They have not asked me to leave. I am planning on staying."