Suddenly there is good news for fans of Rafe Esquith, whom I consider the best classroom teacher in the country.
He was fired by the Los Angeles Board of Education last October for reasons I think are bogus. But a judge Wednesday denied a request by L.A. school lawyers to dismiss Esquith’s lawsuit, which seeks to overturn the board’s action. And after months of silence, Esquith has revealed that he moved his intricate, multilayered teaching to a new classroom months ago and next year will revive his annual series of Shakespearean plays put on by elementary school students.
In the new program, whose location and sponsorship he did not specify, “the kids read four Shakespeare plays in addition to Great Expectations,” he said in an email addressed to “Friends.”
“The college prep sessions produced another student with a perfect SAT score, and there are big plans for performance and travel in the year to come,” Esquith wrote. “We just returned from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with the largest group we have ever taken.”
Esquith has not yet responded to my request for more details.
The Los Angeles school board moved against Esquith as part of an extraordinary effort to remove teachers from classrooms for the slightest perceived offenses after the board was traumatized by a series of real molestation cases. Many of Esquith’s former fifth-grade students and their parents, plus celebrities and wealthy financial backers, have rallied to support him. He has denied all wrongdoing.
Esquith filed a separate class-action suit on behalf of about 2,000 teachers who have similarly been removed from their jobs. That is ongoing in federal court. It probably will be years before Esquith achieves the vindication he seeks, but the Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s decision to let him continue his fight, as first reported by LA School Report, is an important victory for him. A schools spokeswoman said the district disagrees with the decision and plans to appeal.
I am biased in Esquith’s favor. I have written about him many times. I have visited his classroom often and checked him out with other teachers who have known him much longer than I have. I don’t think he could ever be guilty of the fuzzy accusations the school district released last August, including inappropriate touching of minors, inappropriate photos and videos on his computer, and ethical and policy violations in the nonprofit group that funds his activities.
His attorneys are checking the accusations. So far, they have produced a statement from one former student that the district cherry-picked parts of an email from Esquith “to depict our conversations as having an inappropriate or sexual nature that is completely inaccurate.”
The district’s special “Tiger Team” of lawyers and investigators — which U.S. education experts tell me is unprecedented — has moved against teachers often for trivial and inexplicable reasons. One Advanced Placement teacher was sent home for weeks because another staff member without expertise thought a student science experiment was dangerous. Esquith was removed in May 2015 for joking that his fifth-graders might have to perform naked, like a character in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” if he didn’t raise enough money for the next Shakespeare play.
Those performances, which I had planned to attend, had to be canceled after months of preparation by the students. Esquith apparently is determined not to let that happen again. I suspect he found plenty of students at Hobart Boulevard Elementary, the school where he is loved by the mostly low-income Hispanic and Korean families, to join his new private program after school and on weekends. He has long had a 12-hour-a-day work schedule that includes teaching eager students on vacations and holidays, as well as late afternoons and weekends.
Esquith is the kind of person for whom teaching is as important and as natural as breathing. You know the type. These are the teachers we remember for the rest of our lives. The school board that removed him and other educators should be forced to stop making judgments out of fear and remember their job is to give children the best education possible.