Horror Inside Pt. 2: Charter Teacher Turns Whistleblower #SCW

Today Cloaking Inequity concludes an exclusive story written by Jennifer Ventimiglia, a veteran charter school teacher. This post is the continuation of the story that began in the post Horror Inside: A No Excuses Charter School #SCW

After school on Friday, the day before winter break, I was called into the Site Director’s office…

He said, “I just want to inform you that today is your last day as an Amethod employee.” Then he got up and walked out of the office.

The Amethod Public Schools (AMPS) corporate charter school chain is not required to even give me a reason for my firing— they did not— because all employees are required sign a contract as a condition of employment that says we can be fired at anytime and no reason has to be provided.

I was left with a Human Resources employee who had me initial a paper that I was receiving unemployment and Cobra information.  With that I was escorted to my classroom to retrieve my belongings and be seen out of the building.  It was not considered that I had a classroom full of my things including 3 bookshelves, 5 bean bag chairs, about 2000 books, and totes full of materials and supplies I had purchased with my own money for my students. I only had a couple of hours to rent an UHaul, pack up my belongings, and move everything out.

School has been in session for 2 weeks now since winter break and a new teacher still has not been hired to teach my students in 2016.

Jennifer has turned whistleblower and is describing from her experience the detriments of the “no excuses” discipline, special education practices, leadership and teacher quality issues plaguing Oakland Charter Academy (OCA) the first charter school established in Oakland (and one of the first in California). The following information is excerpted and adapted from a letter written by Jennifer Ventimiglia and Karen Toepp to describe the conditions in AMPS charter school chain.

We feel that it is important to call attention to the damaging practices and policies of OCA so that change can be made for the betterment of the children in the Oakland community.  It is important to highlight details of what is happening to students at OCA and the difficult learning conditions for children and working conditions for teachers.

Teacher credentialing

As of December 18, 2015 the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teachers were as follows:

  • 6th grade: Teacher 1 (not-credentialed), Teacher 2 (not-credentialed), and Teacher 3 (credentialed)
  • 7th grade: Teacher 4 (credentialed) and Teachers 5 (credentialed)
  • 8th grade: Teacher 6 (credentialed) and Teacher 7 (not-credentialed)

50% of the middle schools teachers in OCA are not credentialed.

We also allege that AMPS leadership verbally told Teacher 1 in August 2015 to apply for a 30-day sub permit in the case they had to pretend she was a sub during an audit.

Special education services

As of December 18, 2015 there were no special education services being offered to students with Individualized Education Programs.  Students with IEPs or students performing 1 or more grade levels below in math and reading according to NWEA data were pulled out of English and Math classes by tutors.  OCA’s tutors are young individuals, many who have not graduated college and who have no experience with education.  These tutors use the Language Live program for students with IEP goals in reading, English Learners, and students 1 or more years below grade level.  From what we have observed, all students receive the same instruction that consists of work on the computerized part of the program and grammar worksheets accompanied by the workbook.

no teachers

From what we have observed, for math, all students receive 45 minutes of instruction with Pearson’s Digits curriculum and students with IEPs in math or who tested 1 or more grade levels behind according to NWEA data are pulled out for an additional 45 minutes by the tutors. The instruction provided by the tutors is the same Digits lessons or extra practice worksheets, sometimes unrelated to the skills students need to master for their current objectives.

IEP meetings and parent involvement

We allege when a parent expressed concerns to Teacher 4 at the beginning of the year that she wanted her daughter to be tested for a learning disability, Teacher 4 sent an email to the Dean of Students asking her what is the school’s protocol.  The next day, the Dean angrily came into Teacher 4’s room and said, “You should not have put that in writing because now we will be obligated to test her and that is not our priority.” Despite this warning, the student was never tested.  When the mother brought up her request again to Dean of Students during a parent meeting, she avoided the question and said they would talk about it later although they did not.

We allege that Teacher 1 sat through IEP meetings for her students and saw that accommodations were promised to the students’ parents by Amethod’s special education director and the Dean of Students, that were never complied with. When Teacher 4 reached out to the Dean for strategies to support her 6th grade student with Tourette Syndrome, the only advice she received was, “put him on a computer.”Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 9.28.57 PM

Social emotional support

We allege there are no counseling services provided to AMPS students despite the high need of support as students grapple with abuse, bullying, thoughts of suicide, depression, cutting, etc.  There is one psychologist for 5 charter schools and after a medical leave for work-related stress, she was able to convince AMPS to hire 2 more part time psychologists although it is unclear to us if they have been trained to work in school settings. From our interactions with Oakland students, we know that they are dealing with a lot and want help, but there are little to no supports in place for these students.

English Learner services

Aside from ELs being pulled out for English class by the untrained tutors with the Special Education students and students below grade level to complete the Language Live program, we allege the only other support provided for students was after school computer work with the Rosetta Stone program.

English Learners received no accommodations or differentiated instruction in their core classes and many were failing all subjects.

Teacher 4, having 10 years of experience in education working with ELs, a Masters degree in TESOL, and previous EL coordinating roles, continuously offered her services to train teachers and tutors to work with ELs and suggested materials to order that could better support their English language development.  We allege not only did OCA leadership never respond to her suggestions, they often actively sought to dissuade her from supporting EL students. For example, one 8th grade EL student in Teacher 6’s class sought out Teacher 4 for support as she had received all F’s on her progress report.  The student is an Arabic-speaking newcomer, recently arrived to the U.S. We allege when Teacher 4 approached the Dean of Students asking her how we could better support this student since it was not fair she was getting all F’s without receiving any accommodations in her classes, the Dean of Students only replied, “She is not your student and I am not engaging in this conversation with you.” The student continued not to receive any support and scored all F’s again on her final report card for the first quarter.

Teacher 4 had 2 newcomer ELs in her class who through differentiated instruction received all As and Bs on their report card. We allege that the OCA School administration, site director and the aforementioned Dean of Students, tried to pressure Teacher 4 to lower their grades because it was “not possible English Learners could access grade level content.”

scantronWe allege that the Site Director and Dean of Students also tested more than 60% of the student body using the CELDT assessment in October instead of simply retrieving student scores from their feeder elementary schools.  Many of the students’ families have been in the U.S. for generations and do not even speak a language other than English at home.

Parent/teacher communication

We allege AMPS does not allow teachers to communicate directly with parents because they are afraid, “teachers will say the wrong thing.” Despite this policy, the Site Director allowed teachers to contact parents mainly because he has “too many things to do.” Although Teacher 1 and Teacher 4 established strong relationships with parents through phone calls, emailing, Class Do Jo, and student run parent nights, we allege several times parents were turned away by the Site Director when they came to the school after school hours for a meeting with their teachers.  For example, Teacher 4 had called home to discuss a student’s progress report grades and the mom enthusiastically suggested she come in to meet in person.  Teacher 4 informed the front office the time the mother would come in and asked if she could be notified when she arrived.  When Ms. Venti went to check back in with the office, the secretary told her she had the mom leave because the Site Director was not notified of the meeting and he had to be present.

Several times parents came to see Teacher 1 and she was never notified.  It was only after that Teacher 1 was speaking to parents on the phone that they mentioned having come in and no one ever notified her.  There are only 200 students in the school so these oversights could be interpreted as intentional.

Physical education (and funk)

Each day all students have physical education for 45 minutes on the blacktop of the school.  Once a week they run the mile, which is about 24 laps around the blacktop.  Students are only allowed to change their shoes for PE.  This means that students run a mile in their uniform and then spend the rest of the day in their warm, wet, sweaty clothes.  6th grade has PE in the morning so they literally are in their sweaty clothes all day long each day.

Lack of professionalism among leadership

maxresdefaultLeader/student relations. Although all schools have different educational philosophies, we believe AMPS policies are harmful to the formation of its student body.  Teachers are supported and encouraged to yell at, swear at, and threaten their students and school leaders also model these practices.

At morning lineup it is common for the Site Director to yell “shut up” at all of the students.  Students have told us that he has also told girl students individually that, “girls are prettier when their mouths are closed.” When a student gets in trouble his strategy is to say he doesn’t “have time for this” and now that the student has “made his life hell” he is going to make their life hell.

We allege students are clearly affected by these practices. Many 6th grade students especially have expressed concern to teachers and parents about the Site Director and other teachers’ and tutors’ swearing at them.  One parent, for example, was very dismayed that Site Director told her child that, “he wasn’t very bright” because he forgot his book in his desk leaving for Thanksgiving break and came back that day to retrieve it.  The mom, however, was too scared to complain because Site Director and other AMPS leadership have created a culture of fear amongst parents at OCA based on intimidation and threats.

Unfortunately these antics are supported from the top of the organization.  School founder (aka The King) led a professional development training for all AMPS teachers in fall 2015 on classroom management that was based on scare tactics including the teacher slamming his or her hands on the students’ desk and “getting up in the students’ face.”

Leader/teacher relations. AMPS charter schools have a history of a vertical power structure in which the message is always exercise obedience or be fired.  In the 2014-2015 school year there were at least 3 administrators fired and 4 of the 6 teachers at OCA alone.  At the start of the 2015-2016 school year a tutor and 2 teachers were fired for allegedly not following AMPS procedures.  We allege AMPS anticipates firing any teacher or staff member who disagrees with one of their practices or expresses concern for student wellbeing.  For this reason all staff members must sign a contract that they can be fired anytime for any reason.
We allege that in every sense of the word, teachers and staff members have no voice and no rights.  The PE teacher, for example, has no break whatsoever during the day.  He has morning duty, welcoming students at the front gate and directing them to morning line up, is expected to start his first 6th grade class at 8am, there are no passing periods in the schedule during the day so his classes are back to back, and during the 30 minute lunch period he is expected to supervise the students in “penalty box,” a room where students eat lunch who did not do their homework or who received some type of punishment from their teacher.

No organization can function productively with the use of fear tactics, threats, manipulation, and disrespect.  This is damaging to students, teachers and staff, families, and the community.

Thank you so much for reading and considering our concerns and for helping to improve Oakland Charter Academy for the wonderful students and families it should be serving. It is our hope that an investigation will ensue at all AMPS charter schools to ensure students’ needs are being met, teachers’ integrity is being maintained.

I can already hear education “reformers” naysaying these charter school teacher voices. We ignore their perspectives on the discipline, special education practices, leadership and teacher quality “innovations” (probably better characterized as draconian and grossly inadequate) occurring at OCA and AMPS charter school chain at local peril. I wrote yesterday:

So about that charter “innovation”… The original 1993 vision for Jingletown was “a safe alternative for neighborhood kids with a vision based on community involvement, multiculturalism, and bilingualism.” Who could not love that mission? Now, decades later, the evolution of the charter school has apparently taken a disturbing turn.

I think this is an important meta question for our society, where will charters be in ten years? As we lose democratic control of our neighborhood public schools and move towards a system of privately controlled (and profit making) corporate charter schools… will charters evolve into a separate and unequal system often entrenched with a punitive and penitentiary approaches to the education of (primarily) students of color?

The unfettered spread of “no excuses” and other charters that function largely unmonitored like OCS also has clear national implications and consequences for our children if we choose to ignore teacher and community voices.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on charter schools click here.

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  • I was sad reading the two day article. Sad for the students and parents. Sad for the teachers. I retired from teaching in June 2015, over 30 years. I worked in low income public schools the entire time but not once experienced what this teacher did. To think that as I comment now students finished classes in such a school today and learned very little. Sad.


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