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Charter School Under Scrutiny For Teacher Firings

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Aired 4/19/09

(Photo: Sonia Guajardo (L) and Marla Greene speak outside of a school board meeting. Both teachers were fired from King-Chavez Arts Academy. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS )

The first day of school is right around the corner. But students at King-Chavez Arts Academy in Barrio Logan will not be greeted by the familiar faces of their teachers. That's because administrators at the charter school fired almost the entire teaching staff about a month ago. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis has the story.

Yvonne Moultrie vividly remembers the day she got the bad news. It was a Monday morning. She and seven other teachers were preparing for the upcoming school year when - one by one - they were called into the principal's office.
 

Moultrie: He said 'There was a new vision for the academy, and there were difficult decisions to make, and it was a hard decision for him, but he was not going to renew my contract.' And I asked him, ‘Well what factors played into this decision?’ And he said, ‘There are a lot of factors but I don't want to get into right now.'

  school1.jpg  King Chavez Academy//Ana Tintocalis

Yvonne and the other teachers later found out the main factor was student performance. Charter school officials say the students in their classes were not making academic progress.

 
Guajardo: To hear that is just insulting.

 
Sonia Guajardo was at King Chavez for two years.

 
Guajardo: Because I was very dedicated and I truly care.

 
Greene: How can he say that if he's never been in my classroom?

 
Marla Greene taught for three years.

 
Greene: He's never spoken to my students. He hasn't seen how my kids have improved. So I don't know what he's basing that off of. 

 
The charter school's CEO Tim Wolf says he fired the teachers because of the school's standardized test scores. Results released just yesterday show the school was making gains in English and math by state standards, but those gains are not enough to satisfy the federal academic benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act.

 
Wolf says kids in this neighborhood need a school that's accountable.

 
Wolf: We know from businesses, that unless you have control over personnel, then you can't have a quality product. For charter schools, our quality product is choice for parents and excellence in education. We would like every child in the barrio to have the same kinds of opportunities as any child in La Jolla.

 
Reporter: What kind of teachers would you want to bring in then? How would they be different from the previous teachers?

 
Wolf: I won't comment on that because it ends up as a comparison.

 
So Wolf wouldn't elaborate on the kind of teachers he's looking for -- or if he plans to introduce new programs at the school.
 

Charter school administrators do have the power to make sweeping changes without district interference. Unlike traditional public school teachers, charter school teachers are at-will employees...which means administrators can "clean house" if teachers aren't working towards the same mission.

 
But UC San Diego researcher Julian Betts says a charter school could be headed for trouble if a clear vision is not nailed down before administrators start hiring a new teaching staff. 

 
Betts: I think it depends crucially on the new teachers who are arriving and whether they mesh well and what their background is. I think its very important, not just for charter schools, but for all schools to have a vision of the sort of teacher they want and also a vision of where the school is going. 

 
Former King Chavez teacher Yvonne Moultrie now wonders if the teachers and the principal at the school had different ideas of what their mission was.

 
Moultrie: We asked him as a group, 'Well what is your vision?' And he was very recultant to answer that. So I never knew, and I still don't know what is vision is.

 
Charter school officials say right now their vision is focused only on getting higher test scores. But teacher Roxanne Rojas believes that's not enough to motivate her or her students -- many of whom come broken homes and grow-up with gang and domestic violence.

 
Rojas: I feel like the way we looked at all our students was to see the brilliance that they posses. I think we were cultivating leaders, I feel like we were cultivating children who knew their actions could make a difference, could make positive change. I think that is something that goes beyond (academic) standards.
 

The six teachers say they're looking for new jobs. They remain committed to teaching inner-city minority kids, however they say this experience has made them wary of returning to a charter school.
 

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.  

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