A South Phoenix charter school said problems with teachers involving knives on campus, apparent mental illness, and nude photos on a tablet led to its failing grade in the state’s new rating system.
The George Gervin Prep Academy asked the Arizona Board of Education to simply not grade it this year after a series of alarming incidents with teachers.
The A-F letter grades were released last week, resulting in 73 schools that appealed their grades. Most appeals related to data collection or calculation errors.
The appeals were published online Monday by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
But George Gervin Prep Academy’s appeal stands out.
The school acknowledges it had an “unusually daunting school year” resulting in a failing grade, and it cited four teachers in particular, all of whom were in the testing grades, in its appeal.
The incidents involved are alarming and range from attendance issues to inappropriate conduct with students to bringing a knife to the school during AzMERIT testing.
The four teachers represent a sizable portion of the school’s teaching staff. On its website, the school shows just 14 teachers. The school says it serves 200 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
The school’s superintendent, Barbara Hawkins, said the school worked quickly, while balancing human resources issues with personnel, to handle the problematic teachers. She said the school put new programs in place to train and manage teachers since then. For instance, the school now has a pool of substitutes readily available so they can remove teachers as soon as possible, should the need arise, Hawkins said.
She also noted the ongoing teacher shortage the state has seen as a factor. It’s been hard to recruit and retain good teachers, she said, though the four teachers that had problems were all qualified and certified.
The school could have easily taken the failing grade, moved forward and not publicly acknowledged what was happening, Hawkins said, but instead it chose to discuss the issues with education officials in the hopes similar situations won’t happen again.
“Our kids deserve so much more, and they deserve the best,” she said.
Last school year, a fifth-grade math teacher was an ex-Marine dealing with post-traumatic stress symptoms who was also going through a divorce and custody battle.
“He created a hostile environment that lead to him having a knife on campus March 28, 2017, during testing,” the appeal says.
Students said they were afraid and uncomfortable. The teacher began acting erratically after that, not showing up, sharing inappropriate information and bullying kids and staff members. He eventually resigned after several disciplinary steps.
In supporting documents included in the appeal, students’ notes say the teacher played inappropriate movies that included a lot kissing and “also a little booby action” to fifth graders. He also made inappropriate comments to students and had naked photos on his phone and other devices, the students claimed.
“One day when we were using his tablet as a dictionary, we saw pictures of naked people,” one student note says.
One student wrote a list of other students and the various reasons the teacher made fun of them, for reasons like their height, laugh, hair and skin color.
Another teacher who taught 7th and 8th grade English and Language Arts was “immensely affected by the presidential election” and “began to show signs of mental illness.”
The song “Proud to be an American” proved to be triggering for the English teacher when another teacher played it on Veterans Day, the appeal says. He also discussed death and committing suicide, and told students about how he used to be on drugs. He was eventually let go.
A third grade teacher who was considered a mentor and leader to other teachers was going through a divorce and had attendance issues. After the attendance problem was brought up with her, she “became very paranoid and began to show signs of distrust” to other staffers, negatively affecting morale at the school.
Her students obtained zero percent proficiency in math. She was ultimately told her services wouldn’t be needed next year.
A fourth teacher was diagnosed with a bladder disorder and “began to wear an exposed catheter.” He wasn’t operating at full capacity, and his attitude toward students “became very unsettling.” He was asked not to come back at the end of the school year.
The school said in its appeal that it removed its principal the previous school year and has been working to revamp its teachers, academic model and learning environment. The new principal had inherited the staff and was trying to motivate them to succeed, the appeal said, but was ultimately unable to fully turn things around in the seven months she had been in charge so far.
Many of George Gervin Prep Academy’s students are low performers when they arrive at the charter, and the troublesome teachers didn’t effectively increase their performance, the school wrote.
Receiving an F doesn’t accurately represent the school, and it would diminish the confidence of parents and students, the school said.
All staff had to reapply for their jobs for this school year, and the school conducted a national search for teachers, it wrote. The school also increased its base salary and offers additional perks like professional development and performance bonuses. The school has also “strengthened” its board of directors by adding more members, most of whom are educators, it wrote.