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District removes Washington teacher

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Tuesday December 18, 2001

After months of parent complaints, school officials reassigned a first grade teacher at Washington Communications and Technology Magnet School to another job in the district Friday afternoon, according to several people familiar with the move. 

Rita Kimball, principal at Washington, said the teacher, whose name the Daily Planet decided not to release, will not be working at her school any longer. Kimball said she did not know where the teacher will work, or what type of job the instructor will hold. 

Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the local teacher’s union, would not comment on the instructor’s new placement, and school district officials did not return calls from the Daily Planet requesting information on the transfer. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence could not be reached before the Daily Planet’s deadline, but according to Kimball, the superintendent’s office engineered the transfer. 

Parents happy about the reassignment had argued that the instructor lacked control of the classroom, allowed students to wander out of class, left a child unattended in class on at least one occasion, and failed to teach the students properly. 

“We are pleased, and for us, it’s a big sigh of relief that we no longer have to fight this battle,” said Judy Greenspan, parent of a first grader in the teacher’s class. “We look forward to them getting a competent teacher in the classroom after the holidays.” 

Still, parents said they did not win the reassignment until they threatened to pull their kids out of the classroom on Monday, and broadly publicize their concerns.  

Parents said the district should have acted much sooner to remove a teacher who has been the subject of complaints for years. 

“Mrs. Kimball, she knew about the situation,” said Shawn Cooks, whose daughter had the instructor two years ago for kindergarten, and was assigned to the teacher again this year, for first grade.  

Kimball offered no comment on the extent of parental complaints in previous years, citing the teacher’s right to privacy. But, she said she understood the parents’ concerns.  

“I think it’s just really hard for parents when they feel like things aren’t turning out right for their children,” Kimball said. However, she suggested that a teacher’s rights as an employee must be respected.  

“We need to make things happen for children,” Kimball said, “but we’re also bound by rules and laws and due process for human beings.” 

The most recent teachers’ contract, ratified in the spring, stipulates that an instructor can only be fired after receiving an unsatisfactory review at the end of a school year, and then taking another year to improve.  

Greenspan said the district should have given the teacher an unsatisfactory review in previous years, setting the stage for removal. “I think the problem is the result of the district’s failure to evaluate a bad teacher,” said Greenspan.  

Pamela Springer, whose son moved from the instructor’s class to another first grade class in early October, called for a complete change in the rules, allowing for swifter removal. “The process has to change to protect kids,” she said.  

Parents have been volunteering in the classroom, meeting with school officials, writing letters, and filing official complaints since school opened, charging that their children were in danger in the classroom. 

“We had real concerns for the safety of our children,” said Joseph Wakelee-Lynch, who was able to transfer his daughter to Berkeley Arts Magnet at Whittier three weeks into the school year. 

Wakelee-Lynch said he watched a child wander out of the classroom unnoticed during the first week of school, and filed an official complaint with the district based on the incident. 

Another parent, Tara Burton, said she approached the school on Nov. 5 and found one student standing by himself, upset, on a wooden ramp near the class, and another, Cooks’ daughter, sitting alone in the classroom, just as the fire alarm sounded. 

“Leaving a kid in a classroom unattended, during a fire alarm at that, was the last straw,” Burton said. 

Parents also complained that the instructor did not provide any structure in the classroom, and could not control the students. They said this lack of discipline effected their children’s ability to learn. 

“In that kind of environment, my daughter has a hard time learning,” said Wakelee-Lynch. “She needed more stability.” 

Springer said her son began acting out because of the lack of discipline in the classroom. 

“I can’t tell you how exhausting it was for me to come home to a kid who has learned that he can act out and be disruptive,” Springer said. 

Parents said their children lost the desire to learn under the previous instructor, and argued that it is essential to get a talented, new teacher in the classroom as soon as possible.  

“It’s important to get a competent teacher now, and repair the damage that has been done,” Greenspan said.