Last year, I wrote about an interesting way to measure high school quality. It’s called school climate data, and it reflects in part the percentage of school employees who agree with this statement:
“Staff morale is positive in this school.”
Last year, I had those numbers from all 25 high schools in Montgomery County, Md., in the D.C. suburbs. Some were good. Some were bad. Among the surprises: Only 23.9 percent agreed with the statement at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, by most measures one of the best schools in the country.
In a new survey, the school’s number is even worse — 11.9 percent. How could that be? The school is popular with parents. It just opened a $30 million, ultramodern wing. The issue has relevance for the entire country, because 10 states, including Maryland, have added school climate to their ratings systems, and other states appear destined to follow.
Morale problems usually have something to do with the principal. It’s startling the differences of opinion I heard about Bethesda-Chevy Chase Principal Donna Redmond Jones.
One staff member — who, like several others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared that their comments might anger Jones — said the principal has told teachers who clashed with students in their classrooms to take time off to think about the episode. The staff member described “interactions that students have exaggerated to their parents and the teacher was not allowed to respond to.” (Jones, in an emailed response to The Washington Post, called that account “inaccurate and incomplete.”)
On the other hand, Deborah Ford, former leader of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association, said Jones is “an amazing principal who cares professionally and personally for the staff and the students.”
Asked for a response to this column, Jones said: “Our teachers do amazing work each and every day, and we share a commitment to increasing access to rigor for all students. I will continue to collaborate with all stakeholders to foster an environment that is welcoming for every student, staff member and family.”
Bethesda-Chevy Chase is in the top 1 percent of U.S. schools measured by participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. Seventy-four percent of its graduating seniors in 2017 passed at least one of those difficult exams.
High schools with many impoverished students put extra demands on teachers that can lead to poor morale. But only 12 percent of Bethesda-Chevy Chase students are in that category. Damascus High, where 15 percent of students are from low-income families, had a positive morale number last year of 49.4 percent, close to the average for the Montgomery County system.
The most recent survey of Bethesda-Chevy Chase staffers was done in May. Sixty-eight percent participated, compared with 52 percent the year before.
The key complaint I heard from teachers was that they weren’t being listened to. Some said that Jones, in her fourth year at the school, was too quick to blame them for problems and now was not trusted when she sought their help.
At meetings on Sept. 27, teachers said, Jones asked them to pair up, think about morale and share their thoughts with the group. One teacher said that “it was terrifically awkward watching pair after pair of teachers dance around the issue . . . to avoid sounding overtly critical.”
When word reached the school that I was working on this column, unsolicited emails poured in from teachers saying the atmosphere was changing for the better. They said an article in the Tattler, the student newspaper, about the morale ratings this year had inspired more administration efforts to win staff support.
Science teacher Joe Sacks said that “the administration, led by our principal, Dr. Jones, has made sincere and earnest efforts to address this.” He said that “my conversations with colleagues have shown an appreciation and admiration of the willingness of Dr. Jones to take these past concerns seriously.”
Mathematics teacher Linda Schaus said one complaint involved administrators not observing teachers often enough in the classroom, making it difficult to form “respectful relationships.” That has changed, she said, with more observations and feedback to teachers.
“Staff feel that now the administration is listening and that there is a genuine attempt to turn things around,” English teacher Christine Smithson said.
One irritant had been Jones’s attempt to discourage underage drinking. The Post in 2016 reported that she tried to banish six seniors from graduation ceremonies after concluding that they drank alcohol on prom night. The interim schools superintendent overruled her.
Many parents admired Jones for getting tough. Teachers filled her office with flowers and warm notes. But Ford, former head of the PTSA, said the incident created some animosity toward Jones from parents whose children were punished. That, she said, led to “an underlying negativity that spread to staff, students and the community.”
Matt Gandal, a parent who is president of the school’s volunteer educational foundation, said some of the faculty irritation may stem from Jones’s “stronger push to increase access to rigor and close achievement gaps . . . but there is no evidence that the frustrations teachers may feel are getting in the way of their ability to deliver high-quality instruction.”
School administrators are showing that they understand the need to listen to teachers more. The emphasis on staff morale and the enterprising work of student journalists has helped. My question is: Why did it take so long?