Maryland Special-Ed School Picketed
Ohanian Comment: Note how even private schools use NCLB as an excuse when it's convenient.
Students at a well-regarded special education school in Silver Spring picketed their campus yesterday morning, upset that school leaders have asked all teachers to reapply for their jobs and miffed that they cannot hold graduation exercises outdoors.
The protest caps a year of rising tensions at the Chelsea School, a private campus that serves students with learning disabilities from across the Washington region. Leaders of the school's Parent Teacher Organization say they fear that the campus will run aground after a series of unpopular decisions by the school's governing board and instructional leader.
"We're trying to save the school, is what we're really trying to do," said Dega Schembri of the District, the PTO chairman.
The school's board and its interim headmaster, Peter Smith, have come under fire this spring for asking all teachers to reapply for their jobs and for subjecting them to a competitive interview process. The school advertised the openings May 15 in The Washington Post.
At least 25 students and parents brought their grievances to the streets yesterday, organizing a demonstration outside the Pershing Drive campus. Some carried signs that read: "Fire the board, not the teachers." The picket ended in time for morning classes, parents said.
School leaders, speaking through their attorney, said the shakeup is necessary to raise the caliber of teaching at Chelsea, citing the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Many Chelsea students come from Washington area public school systems, which are required by law to pay for private schooling for some students who don't thrive in a public school.
Internal school documents cite an inconsistent hiring process and a lack of proper training among some employees as reasons for the rehiring.
"I think there is a desire to systematize the hiring and retention process to make sure that the file is complete and the teachers are indeed as qualified as they need to be," said Jerry Heller, attorney for the Chelsea School's Board of Governors.
Chelsea, which was founded in 1976 by two parents of dyslexic children, specializes in educating students of average to above-average aptitude with learning disabilities that would hobble them in a traditional public school. The school reports that more than 90 percent of its graduates go on to college.
Much of the parents' ire is directed at Smith, who became interim school leader this academic year. He replaced longtime school president Timothy Hall, who left Chelsea last year after a falling-out with the governing board. Heller said he could not comment on specifics.
Parent leaders contend that Smith canceled both the senior class trip and a senior dance out of spite. They also cite his refusal to move the graduation outdoors and say he has ignored students' requests for a graduation speaker, including D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4).
The request from students to hold the June 9 graduation ceremony outdoors was rejected for the potential expense, and in deference to tradition, Heller said, noting that all previous ceremonies but one were held in the school gymnasium.
And Heller said that, although "it is accurate to say that there are certain senior events that have been canceled," no decision has been made on a graduation speaker.
Smith, a 15-year school employee, was passed over for the permanent job of headmaster. The Board of Governors is close to hiring a new headmaster for the 2005-06 academic year, according to Heller.
Teacher evaluations of Smith factored into the decision not to promote him permanently, according to parent leaders. Now, Smith is helping decide the fate of some of those teachers, the parents said. Heller declined to comment about the parents' allegations.
Nancy McTaggart, whose daughter helped organize the picket, said she fears that Chelsea teachers will leave for better-paying jobs and that the school will not be able to hire the necessary staff in time for the fall.
"As we see it, if the vast majority of the good, experienced teachers are gone, then the school is essentially closed, as far as we are concerned," she said. "Because it's really the teachers, more than the building, that make up the school."
Daniel De Vise
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