Hyde Park: The battle for Canter Middle School

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Interim Principal Carolyn Epps

photo by John Booz

Interim Principal Carolyn Epps

The idea of a middle school to serve all of Hyde Park had been kicking around the community for decades. In 1999, principals of three K-8 schools in Hyde Park—Harte, Murray and Ray—got serious about it and quickly brought on board the principal of a middle school in nearby Kenwood.

With limited resources, the K-8 schools could not address the unique social and emotional needs of children in 7th and 8th grades, their principals agreed. For example, they could not provide advisory periods or a variety of clubs and sports teams.

“I really felt we shortchanged them,” says Virginia Vaske, the former Murray principal who is now an area instructional officer.

Besides, moving the older students out would free up space at Ray and Harte, which had grown crowded, and allow Murray to expand its enrollment in the lower grades.

James Johnson, the principal of Wirth Middle School (renamed Canter in 2000), also supported the concept. Since Wirth drew students from only one area school, the K-5 Shoesmith, he had to recruit from outside the area to fill his seats. If Harte, Murray and Ray also fed into Wirth, he wouldn’t need to recruit.

During 1999-2000 school year, the four principals met at local restaurants to hash out a plan. But that cooperation didn’t last long. Within a year, Johnson and his staff were so angry at what they viewed as a takeover of their middle school, that they tried to derail the plan. Amid much turmoil, the plan went forward, and the new Canter Middle School got off to a shaky start last September. At this point, some parents are optimistic, some are apprehensive, and some are trying to pull out.

Formal planning for the school got underway at an October 2000 community forum, where participants agreed to form a steering committee made up of four representatives from each school. Committee members then organized forums to share information and solicit ideas at their own schools.

In the fall of 2001, the steering committee presented a tentative curriculum with a “global village” focus. It included interdisciplinary projects with themes such as “World Citizenship” and “Environmental Interdependence,” as well as courses in Spanish, French and Japanese.

Cooperation disintegrates

Every local school council (LSC) approved it, except for Canter’s. By then, it had sunk in that the proponents meant to close Canter and reopen it as a new school. Under that scenario, teachers would have to reapply for their jobs.

Parents and administrators at Murray and Ray, in particular, took for granted that Canter would start over with a new curriculum and a new faculty. Both schools boast high test scores and accelerated programs-for example, they begin foreign language classes in kindergarten. In contrast, the test scores at Canter, which enrolls more low-income students, were below grade level.

“They had a lot of kids that were not from the Hyde Park neighborhood and a program that wasn’t the next logical step for Ray, Murray and Harte,” says Vaske.

But the idea of rebuilding Canter from scratch, and possibly losing long-time teachers in the process, offended many in the tightly knit Canter community. Principal Johnson had been a teacher or administrator at Canter for nearly 30 years. Many teachers had taught at there 10 years or more.

“We weren’t a perfect school, but we were a good school, and it was a wonderful place to work,” says former Canter teacher Stephanie Gates.

Canter’s school librarian, Gretta Chamberlain, says her opposition formed at a community forum at her school. “Some of us would be rehired, and some of us wouldn’t,” she recalls hearing. “We were not the ones they wanted to teach their children.”

To Johnson, the whole planning process smacked of arrogance. “The people on the south end of the community wanted to dictate who the teachers were, what the curriculum was. You can’t take over a building like you’re the Vietcong.”

In Vaske’s view, the Canter contingent was “pretty entrenched in keeping Canter as Canter and accepting new kids rather than reopening it as a new school.”

When the steering committee presented a finished curriculum, Canter teachers insisted that a similar curriculum already was in place, with student advisories, units with international themes and units that spanned subject areas, such as science and social studies.

To global village proponents, what already was in place was beside the point. Their approach was to design a school and then find a place for it, not to consider whether the Canter program was good enough, says Vaske.

However, before the School Board could require Canter teachers to reapply, it needed evidence that the global village proposal was substantially different.

The Office of Accountability visited the school in the fall of 2001 and concluded that while Canter had many strengths, including a “family-like atmosphere,” it lacked some elements of a middle school, such as a staff development plan centering on the social and emotional needs of that age group.

That was good enough for the School Board, which approved the new global village curriculum in January 2002. But by that time, the controversy had set off a chain of events that ultimately would destabilize the program.

Musical chairs

Principal Johnson had planned to retire in Summer 2002. But the global village proponents so angered him, he says, that he decided to retire early to let the current LSC pick a successor rather than leave it to an LSC elected later by the larger community.

Johnson called it quits in January 2001, and the School Board appointed Ora Elder, Canter’s assistant principal, as the interim principal. It asked the LSC not to select a permanent principal because of the school’s pending overhaul.

Indignant, the LSC solicited resumes. One of the applicants was Theresa Speegle, a young administrator in the board’s middle school office who had been program coordinator at a nationally recognized middle school. The steering committee had drawn on her expertise, and she had become their choice for Canter’s new principal. “She was obviously very knowledgeable about middle schools,” says Vaske.

Speegle made it into the top five of 30 applicants, Chamberlain recalls, but she was the only one who had not completed the School Board’s training requirements for a principal appointment. However, Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney let the council know the board was willing to appoint Speegle as acting principal pending her completion of the requirements by summer 2001.

The LSC wound up rejecting Speegle but for other reasons, according to Chamberlain, who said members felt under attack and wanted to choose a leader they trusted. So the council promoted Ora Elder from interim to contract principal.

In fall 2001, the board tapped Speegle to coordinate the planning of the new Canter curriculum. She made the rounds of the feeder elementary schools, explaining her vision and winning the support of many. ” I thought, she’s a real dynamic go-getter kind of person,” recalls Betsy Budney, a Murray parent.

Shortly after the School Board approved the curriculum in January 2002, central office asked the LSC to postpone the regular LSC election from spring until the fall. That way, parents of students coming from Murray, Ray and Harte could vote.

The LSC agreed at first but then changed its mind. The School Board then went to court to halt the spring election, but a judge sided with the council. In May, the Canter community elected a council staunchly opposed to the pending changes at their school.

Dashed expectations

Determined to support the new program, the School Board cleared the way for Speegle by offering Ora Elder the interim principalship at Smyth elementary, effective July 1. Elder accepted, and the board then appointed Speegle as Canter’s interim principal. But with that late start date, she would have only two months to hire a staff.

As it turned out, only a handful of Canter’s staff reapplied, according to several sources. The departed teachers who spoke with CATALYST said they wanted to return but felt they had to secure positions sooner than mid-summer. “Why would we wait until the last minute?” asks teacher Stephanie Gates, who landed at Carnegie elementary.

When Speegle was done hiring, only five of some 20 Canter teachers remained. Over all, the faculty had less teaching experience, with a third having a year or less, according to board data.

There were staffing anomalies as well. Speegle filled two teaching positions with day-to-day substitutes. She also assigned several new teachers to classes with a disproportionate number of special education students and then put those classes together on the third floor.

“That was an accident waiting to happen,” one new Canter teacher remarks. Indeed, parents complained about disruptive classrooms.

When the new Canter opened in September, some parents of incoming students remained anxious; others were excited.

Dissatisfaction quickly set in.

Some parents accustomed to the renovated facilities at Ray and Murray were angry that Canter had no library and an undersized gym and cafeteria.

The global village curriculum fell short of expectations, too. Murray and Ray students found themselves repeating old foreign language lessons alongside Harte and Shoesmith graduates who had had no more than two years of foreign language.

Some complained that the program failed to challenge their children. “I don’t need my kids to be in a highly competitive environment, but I don’t want the expectations to be so low that they don’t have to work for any grades,” says Betsy Budney, whose twin daughters attended Murray.

The transition also was troubling to long-time Canter parents, who felt the loss of former teachers, according to one new teacher who asked not to be identified. That resentment had an impact on their children, she says. Fights broke out between the 8th-graders remaining from the old Canter and the incoming 7th-graders. “There was a lot of displaced hostility,” the teacher says.

Adding to the disarray, Speegle became ill and was frequently absent. The Hyde Park Herald later reported that she had had an appendectomy early in the school year. In November, the Canter LSC announced that Speegle had taken an indefinite leave of absence for health reasons.

Some parents saw the departure of the charismatic Speegle as another blow to the faltering school. “A lot of confidence we had in the program was confidence in her as a person,” says Robert Quashie, Ray LSC chair.

At the start of December, Speegle stepped into an administrative position in the School Board’s mentoring program for new teachers. “I’m really quite happy there,” she says. She declined to answer further questions.

By then, the board had assigned Carolyn Epps, the assistant principal at Harte, as Canter’s interim principal. Epps moved to restore order. She replaced the day-to-day substitutes with certified teachers and requested extra special education staff.

By January, parents’ feelings varied widely. Parents of 7th-graders on the more smoothly running first floor expressed the most confidence. “My children have been pleased with the level of engagement and enthusiasm on the teaching staff,” says Ken Sawyer, whose twin daughters attended Murray.

But others were distraught and spread the word. “Our parents are not happy, and as a mother of a 6th-grader, I’m not happy,” says Megon Hill-Washington, vice chair of Murray’s LSC, who had rallied support for the global village proposal.

In February, Murray’s LSC petitioned the School Board to stop sending Murray students to Canter for two years, pending full implementation of the program. The council also presented a list of 22 expectations, including a more advanced curriculum, a new gym and a new library stocked with foreign language books. Board members pleaded for patience and asked for 30 days to begin addressing the parents’ concerns.

If the board has not made adequate progress by March, Murray parents intend to petition once again for a moratorium, says Hill-Washington. “We’re not going away.”

So far, the Ray council has heard rumblings of parent discontent but no groundswell of opposition. But if Murray succeeds in withdrawing, that would cost Canter not only highly motivated students, but also energetic parents, Quashie notes. In that case, Ray might choose to pull out, too, he says.

Harte’s LSC intends to stand by Canter, according to chair Tamara Reed. With their well-regarded assistant principal now at Canter’s helm, Harte parents are confident, she says. At Shoesmith’s February LSC meeting, representatives seemed only vaguely aware of the controversy, except for one who knew parents from Murray and Ray.

Meanwhile, Epps has visited the Ray and Murray LSCs to reassure parents that the global village will be going full force by September. “The more high-level students we have, the more our curriculum can be geared to address the needs of those students,” she stressed to the Ray council in February.

Three Canter LSC members who opposed the school’s transition have dropped out and been replaced with supporters, according to Canter community representative Tony Wilkins. A principal selection process is underway, and Epps is among six finalists, he reports.

In retrospect, Vaske thinks they should have waited to have all the pieces in place before opening Canter. “I think it was rushed,” she says.

Julie Woestehoff of the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education, who advised the former Canter LSC, says the process could have gone more smoothly if proponents had worked harder to get buy-in from the existing Canter faculty. “If your approach is to bully the current school and force out anybody who disagrees with the change, then you don’t have a very good beginning.”

Canter teacher Sherri Bivens sees a team spirit growing at the new Canter and the momentum to make the needed improvements. But she worries that the rough start could have a long-term impact on the school’s reputation. “We have to prove ourselves, and they don’t give you a lot of time,” she says. “Hyde park is not the place you make mistakes, especially with their children.”