Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


Teacher faces dismissal for not getting book OK


This update from an Anna Quindlen column features a long comment by Connie Heermann's husband.

August 2010: Connie Heermann listed as "new hire" at Southport High School

Ohanian Comment: Kudos to Sarah True for taking the time to give a full account of this story. I've added some more.

The school board and top administrators of the Metropolitan School district of Perry Township, Indianapolis, insist this is a story about insubordination. I think it is a story about students at the bottom of the heap needing different approaches.

I admit to finding it appalling that a teacher, having consulted her department chair and principal, must then get approval from top administrators for supplemental reading. There are 19 teachers listed in the English Department at the school. One could hope that over the course of a year, a number of them might be provoked by the student interests and needs to recommend supplemental reading not on the approved list.

THEN the school board dismisses a teacher who loves working with difficult students:
"There's the gifted and talented, then the accelerated college prep, then college prep, and then there's me," Heermann said, explaining her classes. The odds are against them to graduate, she explained. Some have experienced abuse, gangs and juvenile detention centers, and others have emancipated from their parents.


Are these people nuts? Is it so easy to find an experienced teacher who loves working with students not finding success in traditional classes? Don't they see that these students need different approaches?

Oh, by the way, besides canning Connie Heerman, there was another agenda item for this special school board meeting: approve the READ 180 program.

Here is the official district statement on adolescent literacy.

Some district background is undoubtedly relevant. This district just got itself a new superintendent on March 5, after more than a year of feuding between four of the seven school board members and the community. The new superintendent will succeed Doug Williams whose 13-year tenure was terminated after a bitter struggle with new members of the school board. The board put Williams on leave in November 2006 while investigating accusations against him, including insubordination. For months, hundreds of community members supporting Williams protested the board's actions at board meetings. In July 2007, the board made a $407,000 settlement with Williams. . . So the district was in leadership limbo from November 2006 until March 2008. Apparently nobody was available to make a timely decision on a book a high school teacher wanted to offer as a supplement to other materials.

Of course, the real background to underline the import of this story would be the stories of the students involved.

Finally, here is why I don't trust mission statements. Here is the mission statement offered by the Perry Meridian High School English Department:

We are committed to language literacy in all its forms as a critical tool for lifelong learning.

That should read in all its forms approved by top administrators. . .

This story causes a crack in the heart. . . or widens the fissures already there.



By Sarah True
Jam. 24, 2008

Connie Heermann has been teaching for 27 years.
On Nov. 26, she was told to turn in her letter of resignation from Perry Meridian High School.
Earlier that month, she had handed out copies of The Freedom Writers Diary to her students to read.

Now she's at home, on administrative leave with pay, waiting for a Feb. 7 hearing with the school board to decide if she can keep her job.
Because it's a personnel matter, the hearing will probably be an executive session, or closed to the public, officials said.

She's not optimistic about her chances.

"My lawyer said the odds of winning a dismissal hearing are pretty low," she said, seated at dining room table in her Greenwood home.
Copies of the book, the movie, other novels and her recollection of the events leading to this stage are stacked neatly on the tablecloth.
The Freedom Writers Diary was written by underperforming students at a Long Beach, Calif., high school. Using their own voices and words, they talked, often explicitly, about their high school experiences and class discussions.

Their teacher was Erin Gruwell and her story was made into a movie. Heermann had attended Freedom Writers Institute training over the summer, a program for teachers about Gruwell's three-stage process for student success: Engage, Enlighten and Empower.

Heermann said she was excited to implement her July training to reach her students at Perry Meridian High School, students at the bottom of the school's four levels of English classes.
"There's the gifted and talented, then the accelerated college prep, then college prep, and then there's me," Heermann said, explaining her classes. The odds are against them to graduate, she explained. Some have experienced abuse, gangs and juvenile detention centers, and others have emancipated from their parents.

"These kids are survivors. If we were at war, I'd want them on my side," Heermann said, characterizing her students.

She'd found a sponsor to pay for 175 copies of the book. She asked for permission to use the book in class. Her school's principal, Joan Ellis, was hesitant, she said.

Heermann said, "they didn't want students to feel like the students in the book, and the profanity might cause trouble for the school."
She put the book reading on hold, having students read John Grisham's The Street Lawyer. As Heermann continued to read her students' journals, she was convinced they were ready to read The Freedom Writers Diary. She sent home permission slips, explaining the project, and allowing for an alternate book, The Wave, to be read if parents objected. All but one student had permission to read the book.

"The principal gave permission and said what we needed now was assistant superintendent permission. The central office has to OK the book," Heermann said.

She sent all of her materials to central office and heard nothing back about it, she said. She handed the books to her students in morning classes. That afternoon, she got an email from the principal asking her not to distribute books until there was further discussion.

Because the book was supplemental reading and not a textbook, it didn't have to go through the same approval process as a textbook. But she still needed permission from the district.

"She acted without clearance to pass out materials she should have gotten clearance for," said Perry Township school district attorney Jon Bailey. The books were examined by four levels of administration, he explained, and found to be inappropriate for the classroom.

"She got frustrated by that and went ahead and did it anyway," Bailey said.

"Here's my pivotal moment. I chose my fate," Heermann said. The next message Heermann got was that she needed to collect the books back from the students. If they didn't surrender the books, she had to write down their names.

"I respect my principal and my department chair," she said. Heermann blames the central office for the problems. "Central office is wishy-washy. Administrators are living in fear for their jobs."

Since being placed on administrative leave, the Christmas season was stress-free.

Her husband, Tom, said, "She was putting in 60 hours a week. And she has to tutor an autistic daughter at night."

They have two children, Maggie, 13, and Dylan, 10.

Heermann would like to go back to teaching, though she's not optimistic. Because she has 27 years of teaching experience and makes about $60,000 a year, no other district is likely to hire her -- she's too expensive, she said.
"I'd like to go back to the classroom. After 26 years, I found a program that works. And I had 14 weeks with these kids. I finally reached these kids."

Her husband has been totally supportive of her decision. "You don't have courage until you have to," he said. "We've found a lot of faith through this."

Perry Twp. offers teacher unpaid leave
By Bill McCleery

Indianapolis Star
March 24, 2008
http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080324/NEWS/80324049

A Perry Meridian High School teacher suspended for violating a supervisor's directive might reclaim her teaching job in the district after all.

Today, the Perry Township School Board offered Connie Heermann, 50, the option of serving an unpaid suspension from now through the end of the 2008-09 school year.

"There was insubordination," said Steve Maple, the board membe who proposed softening administrators' recommended firing of Heermann. "(But) I think the penalty of canceling the contract exceeded the violation."

Heermann went against a supervisor's directive by continuing to use "The Freedom Writers Diary" in her classroom last semester after an administrator told her to quit using the book. School officials disliked the book's use of racial slurs and stereotypes and its sexual content.

Earlier this month, the board heard testimony from school officials arguing for Heermann's dismissal and from Heermann and several of her supporters, including Erin Gruwell, the California teacher whose students wrote "The Freedom Writers Diary" as part of a classroom project.

The board voted 7-0 to offer Heermann the year-long unpaid suspension.

Heermann will discuss her options with her husband and others, she said after the meeting, adding that she cannot do without income until the fall of 2009.

"I don't think I am actually going to sit back and do nothing for a year and a half," Heermann said, "but to jump into any rash decisions is certainly not what we're going to do at this time, either."

This update offers some new information, including the fact that the book in question, The Freedom Writers Diary is now an option for students. Apparently, having made their point that teachers must march in lockstep, school administrators no longer object to the book's "use of racial slurs and stereotypes and its sexual content."

Perry board offers teacher 1-year suspension
By Bill McCleery

Indianapolis News
March 25, 2008

A Perry Meridian High School teacher suspended for insubordination might reclaim her teaching job.

On Monday, the Perry Township School Board voted 7-0 to offer Connie Heermann, 50, the option of serving an unpaid suspension from now through the end of the 2008-09 school year -- a lighter penalty than the dismissal sought by administrators.

Heermann violated a supervisor's directive by continuing to use "The Freedom Writers Diary" in her classroom last semester after an administrator told her to quit using the book. School officials objected to the book's use of racial slurs and stereotypes and its sexual content.

Since November, Heermann, an educator for 27 years, has been on paid leave. She said she is happy she has the option of returning in 2009 but said she still considers her punishment harsh.

"It's going to be very difficult to be away from the classroom . . . for that length of time," Heermann said after Monday's board meeting, adding that financial pressures might force her to find another job.

She declined to say whether she expected to land back at Perry Meridian.

"I will be somewhere working with young people and helping them develop a voice," Heermann said. "I will be teaching somewhere."

Board member Steve Maple, who proposed the suspension, said the punishment is fair.

"There was insubordination," Maple said. "(But) I think the penalty of canceling the contract exceeded the violation."

Earlier this month, the board heard testimony from school officials arguing for Heermann's dismissal and from Heermann and several of her supporters. Her backers included Erin Gruwell, the California teacher whose students wrote "The Freedom Writers Diary" as part of a classroom project.

Heermann's case has little to do with the merits of Gruwell's compilation of student writings, said board member JoEllen Buffie.

"I'm very happy we have 10 copies of Freedom Writers Diary at Perry Meridian High School," Buffie said. "That's not what this (issue) has been about -- not about the book, but about following the rules."

In Heermann's absence this semester, a substitute teacher filling in for her has allowed students the option of using "The Freedom Writers Diary" for various reading assignments, Heermann said -- this time, with administrators' consent.

— Sarah True and Bill McCleery
Indianapolis Star & Southside Times

2008-03-25

http://www.ss-times.com/new/home/teacher-faces-dismissal-for-not-getting-book-ok/

IN


MORE OUTRAGES


FAIR USE NOTICE
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.