The Community Meets With The Chancellor Over Miner Principal's Firing

EV's Education Corner

Turnout was high at the July 17th evening meeting between the Miner Elementary School community and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson. After participating in a spirited rally outside Miner School, approximately 25 people joined the already crowded meeting. Introductions revealed that the attendees ranged from parents and grandparents of current students, Miner alumni, community members and representatives of the many volunteer groups, which provide tutoring and mentoring to the school's students.

Henderson was accompanied by Jacqueline Gartrell, the Instructional Superintendent in charge of Miner, and Chief of Schools John Davis.

The Community Speaks in Bunch's Support

The occasion for the meeting was the dismissal of popular Miner Principal LaVonne Taliaferro Bunch announced just two days before the end of school year. More than a dozen community members gave impassioned testimonials on Bunch's behalf. They cited her involvement in attracting tutors and mentors, careful tracking of student progress, and the creation of professional collaborations across the public school system.

Principal Bunch was extremely responsive, parents testified. They cited her energy and commitment as one of main reasons they chose Miner for their children.

“Miner is on the rise. It is time to retain strong leadership, not to be training new leadership,” stated David Holmes, Chair of ANC 6A, speaking of Bunch's strong, confident leadership.

Pointing out the announcement came well past the school evaluation, application, and lottery windows, parents complained of being “blindsided.” The sudden change in leadership put Miner farther behind on the road to improvement, a number observed with concern.

Parents and other community members repeatedly questioned whether DCPS leaders had spent enough time at Miner. Had they observed Principal Bunch and studied the multiple special programs that are in place at the school?

Henderson Responds

Acknowledging that the timing and method were less than ideal, Henderson stated multiple times her preference for strong continuity in school leadership. As a parent herself, she understood concerns surrounding any school leadership change.

Henderson discussed the newly revised and comprehensive IMPACT method for evaluating principals in DCPS. They work with their superintendents to set goals at the beginning of the year. Principals are then formally evaluated in January and again in the spring. The process includes written scoring and a meeting with the superintendent. A follow-up meeting occurs after DC-CAS scores become available over the summer.

Principals are graded 25% on Instruction. Then, 15% each on Talent, School Culture, Operations, Family and Community and Personal Leadership. In a manner quite similar to DCPS teacher grading, the principals are scored on a four point scale with four being considered 'highly effective.' According to The IMPACT Principal Guidebook, a principal with an average of three cannot be dismissed, while those with a lower averages risk termination. However, in extenuating circumstances, The Guidebook states, the Chancellor may at her discretion dismiss even a principal deemed highly effective.

Citing legal restrictions, Henderson stated in general terms that certain information received by her office when combined with other information already in hand prompted Bunch's dismissal. At no time did she give the specifics of the case, nor did she discuss Bunch's IMPACT score.

Interim Principal To Be Appointed

Expressing her regrets that the leadership switch was not announced at the usual time; Henderson stated there was no opportunity to convene a community panel and select a permanent new principal. An interim principal will be appointed, A proper principal search and vetting process will be conducted with community input starting in January 2014, Henderson informed the community.

Parents were quite concerned about the potential pool of interim principals. Who would be available at this late date, they asked? Was any possible way in which parents could be involved in the selection process?

Henderson promised to have a candidate identified and in place by early next week at the latest. If there were two candidates available and timing worked out, she would make the candidates available to the parents, and solicit their input.

Parents Continue to Question The Dismissal

Members of the Miner community continued to question Henderson quite aggressively about the reasons behind Bunch's dismissal. Henderson reiterated multiple times that it was not taken lightly. Had DCPS known of the new information earlier, the school system would have taken quicker action. If she were able to tell parents what the information was, Henderson was confident all would actually agree with her decision.

“Don’t give up on the kids,” Henderson urged. “I don’t know any other way to help you understand that when we get information like this we have to make this move,” she stated.

Henderson's statement prompted a flurry of questions. Why were parents not notified if their children were placed in jeopardy? How far would any misdeeds have to go before parents were notified?

While citing a need to check with DCPS attorneys, Henderson stated that in her opinion nothing in the recent information required parental notification. She did not believe that students at Miner had been put in any danger.

Parents continued to push for more information on Bunch's alleged misdeeds. She was restricted from comment by municipal and employment regulations, Henderson repeatedly stated. Bunch knows about some of the reasons, but not all, she added.

PTO representatives speculated on the reasons behind Bunch's dismissal. They suggested test scores, the “zoo” (a collection of animals housed at Miner) and student residency verification might number among the issues.

Miner's Future

Henderson went on to field a series of more practical questions. Current employees will keep their jobs, she stated. Any new principal will be encouraged to continue the various successful Miner collaborations with outsiders. The Miner community will be encouraged to provide significant input into the selection of a permanent principal. Henderson received the bottom-line question. Would she be willing to reconsider her decision?

“Am I moved by what I have heard tonight? Absolutely. Does Principal Bunch have skills? Absolutely. Will families be affected by this? Absolutely,” stated Henderson clearly inspired by the energy in the room.

While cautioning the audience not have “false hope,” Henderson promised to talk to her team, and rethink the decision “for real for real with total faith and good will.”

The audience applauded The Chancellor's statement. They seemed reassured by both her promise of reconsideration of Bunch's dismissal, and her vow to put a strong, experienced principal in place who would continue Miner's success.

“We can’t underestimate the gravity of the situation and don’t take it lightly,” Henderson stated.

E.V. Downey is the principal educational consultant at Downey School Consulting where she consults on public, charter, private, and special needs school choices and issues.  She started consulting after years of teaching kids of all ages and working in private school administration.  A graduate of DC Public Schools, E.V. lives on Capitol Hill with her husband and 2 children.

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