On her daughter’s last day of fifth grade this year at Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., Angela Atwood-Moore joined other parents leafing through an old yearbook from when her child was in second grade.

They loved seeing how much their children had grown.

Atwood-Moore noticed something else.

Only three of the 26 classroom teachers who were at the school then were still at Kemp Mill. Atwood-Moore thought she knew why. The Montgomery County school-climate survey found that only 15 percent of Kemp Mill staff members in 2016-2017 and 17.1 percent in 2017-2018 agreed that “staff morale is positive in this school.”

The just-released figure for 2018-2019 is 11.1 percent.

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Staff morale is a relatively new tool for assessing schools. Maryland is one of 10 states that require school-climate surveys, which also ask about safety, professional growth and other matters. The importance of such surveys is not yet clear, but they can aggravate existing tensions, as Kemp Mill’s experience shows.

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Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Derek Turner said high teacher turnover is common at schools such as Kemp Mill, where most students are disadvantaged. About 87 percent of Kemp Mill’s 493 students come from low-income families, he said, and yet there have been achievement gains in reading and math.

The school has also switched to a dual-language model of instruction. Some teachers “have had a difficult time with the change,” Turner said.

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Principal Bernard X. James Sr. said: “We are moving toward being a total immersion school” in which all students would be taught in both English and Spanish. “This means fewer opportunities for teachers who are not bilingual/biliterate,” he said in an email.

Turner said 100 percent of Kemp Mill parents responding to the most recent school-climate survey said they felt welcomed at the school and believed their children were safe there. Only 13 percent of parents responded, but such rates are typical for elementary schools. The Kemp Mill staff response rate to the morale question this year was 46 percent.

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A low morale percentage often leads to discussions about the principal. Atwood-Moore said she traces teacher turnover and the morale problems to James’s appointment to head the school in 2015. When she was an elected member of the PTA board, she said, she did her best to support James. But she did not like what she called his fondness for “top-down bullying.”

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Her assessment was not shared by all parents and teachers, some of whom praised the principal for his steady leadership.

James says: “I am passionate about this work and am surrounded by dedicated staff who believe that they can substantially decrease and eliminate the student achievement and opportunity gaps that exist.”

But Atwood-Moore said she witnessed what she characterized as intimidating and oppressive behavior by the principal.

Only one former staffer went on the record criticizing James. Twelve other current and former teachers told me they agreed with Atwood-Moore’s assessment.

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Emily Hines, the only Kemp Mill staffer who criticized James on the record, was a music teacher and the school’s head representative for the Montgomery County Education Association teachers union. She said she left the school in July because she felt James “went out of his way to disrespect and intimidate me on an ongoing basis.”

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But Sara Kirner, parent of two Kemp Mill students and PTA president, said she found James “responsive, engaging with the students, and he has listened to our suggestions and worked with us” on common goals.

A mother whose child has been at Kemp Mill since last year said, “Dr. James has a positive and calming presence in the school.” That parent spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is new to the community and does not want to be in the spotlight.

I found similar disagreements at a low-staff-morale school I reported on last year, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, in the same school district. Its positive morale number was just 11.9 percent in 2017-2018. Several teachers told me the principal was to blame, but other staffers and parents said they liked her. She is still principal.

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School system officials don’t seem to know yet how to deal with this statistic and the tensions it reveals. A little investigation might help. The district probably has phone numbers or forwarding addresses for the 23 departed teachers Atwood-Moore counted in that yearbook. Why not contact them and ask why they left Kemp Mill?

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