Shady Grove parents express concerns

Published 9:29 am Friday, January 19, 2018

Parents attending the Jan. 9 school board meeting who spoke out about a stressful working environment, dangerous situations, and issues with the administration at Shady Grove Elementary were outnumbered by others who shared their positive experiences at the school.

The packed board room at Central Davie seemed equally divided, with parents on one side, and staff and administration, Principal Mary Margaret Sullivan and Assistant Principal Raymonda Shelton, on the other side. After the agenda was amended, moving the public address portion up to accommodate the board’s attorney, Joel Clampitt, a parent, began by telling the board of “dire concerns,” especially with the departure of two tenured teachers within days of each other last fall.

“Knowing these teachers, it is very out of character for both of them to leave their students so abruptly…third grade is the most pivotal year in terms of their academic curriculum…up until the holiday break, our children did not have a licensed certified instructor for 51 days, which is just about the entire second quarter,” he said.

During that time, Clampitt said, the children were not given grades, no work was sent home and there was no communication regarding curriculum, yet the children underwent benchmark testing just as the others who were being instructed by “tenured” teachers. When Sullivan and Shelton were questioned about the results, he said, answers varied.

The two teachers Clampitt mentioned were Tara Sink and Elizabeth Hill. Sink has been with the school system less than four years. Hill began with Davie Schools in 2004 and was Shady Grove’s teacher of the year in 2009-10. Hill is in another position in the school system, and according to Assistant Superintendent Jeff Wallace, Sink is suspended with pay. Wallace did not say why.

Sullivan’s start date was July 1, 2015. She had been principal of Asheville Middle School for several years and was Principal of the Year in 2011-12 but in April, 2012, parents at the school asked for an emergency school board meeting to address concerns that included “poor school-parent communication and failure of administration to deal with classrooms identified as poor learning environments,” saying the school had developed a “poor reputation,” according to a letter from Parents for Asheville Middle School.

Lynn McDaniel told the board some teachers were afraid to voice concerns for fear of retaliation, DPI protocols were not being followed regarding classroom management, protocols were not followed when some students were physically attacked by other students, there was routinely only one teacher assistant in charge of 200 students in the cafeteria, and on several occasions, classrooms were left unattended by an adult.

While Superintendent Dr. Darrin Hartness had, in October, taken “full responsibility for the lack of communication starting in October, we have yet to see any progress towards improvement,” she said. “He often references everything as being rumor or miscommunication, which is ironic since there is no communication on his part.”

One of the main areas of concern is Sullivan, who, McDaniel said, led a middle school in Asheville that was known to be a “divided, toxic environment, bully leadership style, retaliation, and a ‘dictatorship’ mentality…History seems to be repeating itself. It is also a great concern, given Mrs. Sullivan’s history, as to how she was vetted to become the principal at Shady Grove.”

McDaniel said according to her research, only one person, the superintendent of the Asheville school system, was used as a reference and that no one who worked with or was under Sullivan’s supervision was used.

Anna Childress asked the board for an analysis of the benchmark scores of all five third-grade classes, comparing scores of the two classrooms left “teacherless” with scores of the other three “stable” classes, and Scott Dowd expressed concern that his daughter’s third grade teacher has had to assist with the other two classrooms.

Kathy Bokeno, lead school nurse and a self-described “lover of Shady Grove,” who has been involved in various roles with the school since 1987, said the school has “caring administrators and caring teachers,” and that Sullivan and Hartness were doing “awesome” jobs.

Janice McBride, Chae Mitchell, Christy Sherman and Katarina Forsberg all spoke glowingly of a caring atmosphere at the school. Sullivan sat with Sherman’s autistic son for hours when he was emotionally unable to go into his classroom, Sherman said.

“Never once have I feared for his safety or his ability to learn and grow,” she told the board.

Mitchell also talked about her son and his issues with anxiety, saying Sullivan sat down with her to help figure out what was best for her son.

“The administration has been so helpful to us. I have always experienced great communication with the staff and with Mrs. Sullivan,” she said.

Forsberg, a counselor at the school and parent of two students there, talked about the warmth shown her by assistant principal Shelton, saying most parents and children there feel supported.

“I love Shady Grove or my children wouldn’t be going there,” she said.

Speakers were reminded the board would hear concerns but wouldn’t respond during the meeting. Childress asked the board to remember their constituents are their stakeholders and implored them to hold accountable “this poor example of leadership.” She said parents are taking their children out of the school system that is failing them and pursuing other options.

“We have been insulted, patronized, and given misinformation regarding our children’s education and also their safety within the school. If these situations are not rectified, many more tenured, well-respected teachers will leave at the expense of our children, and we will be in the same predicament year after year.

“The Davie County Board of Education as well as administration should be creating an atmosphere and a reputation to retain and attract teachers. Instead, Davie County Schools are receiving negative press and a sullied reputation amongst teachers as well as potential home buyers considering moving to Davie County.”

In a follow-up email, Hartness said: “We sincerely appreciate and value the information we receive from parents. Shady Grove Elementary is an excellent school with a fantastic staff and a track record of success. While successful, we must always examine ways to make students’ and parents’ experiences even better, and we are using the issues raised by parents in our efforts of continuous improvement. Over the past few weeks, I have heard some valid concerns about communication and other statements that were false or investigated and found to be false.”

He said parents with concerns, seeking clarification on statements made at the meeting, or those who want to give feedback are welcome to schedule a time to meet with him.