They sat silently as the school board held a planning retreat Wednesday evening, but out in the hallway some 46 students, staff and parents from Washburn High School had plenty to say about the ouster of Principal Carol Markham-Cousins
Many wore Miller orange and blue. Some held cutouts displaying the face of Markham-Cousins. Among them was the principal's husband, Rick.
The students, many of them active in the arts, offered powerful endorsements of Markham-Cousins's influence on their schooling.
Senior Aaliyah Gary recalled Markham-Cousins asking students if they needed tutoring help and pushing her not to drop a physics class she was struggling with. "Without that, I wouldn't;t be graduating," she said.
Freshman Kavon Wilborn felt an instant bond with Markham-Cousins. "Her passion and dedication to students is something unusual," she said.
Markham-Cousins was removed by district administrators after a week of protests aimed at keeping the job of Athletic Director Daniel Pratt, who was popular among the school's athletes. After she was accused of using intimidation tactics by a student leader of those protests, the district acted, saying it wanted to calm the school.
But students supporting her said their take on Markham-Cousins deserved a listen before she was replaced. "It happened so abruptly that it strikes a certain level of fear into me," said junior Robert Jackson. He cited himself as an example of a student boosted by exposure to the arts. Markham-Cousins recruited a staff that elevated the school's theater, music and other arts programs. Before her, the school went 17 years without a student play, Dean Marylynn Boone said.
Boone, one staffer willing to speak by name, said the quick removal left students wondering how a leader can be removed in the face of accusations without an investigation. Antoine Duke, a 2011 graduate, said the absence of process in the removal of a principal is notable in a district when process is paramount.
"She was removed and the reasons weren't made clear and that's an injustice," said sub teacher Alissa Paris, who countered the district's rationale for removing the principal by arguing that removing her was more disruptive than her presence. "We were blindsided and we're not happy with it," she said.
The views of those attending weren't universally held at Washburn. Some parents and teachers felt that Markham-Cousins was arbitrary, didn't listen to input and refused to adapt her pedagogical approach to the school's changing demographics.
The board only takes public testimony at certain designated times during its official meetings. But the Washburn advocates had a few minutes to mingle with board members during a bathroom break.
But supporters like parent Cindy Stuart were left feeling shortchanged: "I think it's a travesty they have sent her away and not recognized the good that she's done."
Athletic departments and student activity accounts are headed for some increased scrutiny from the auditor at Minneapolis Public Schools.
A deeper look at spending and financial controls for both areas is due by June 30, the school board's Audit Committee was told Wednesday.
"We are going to look at athletics first," Chief Financial Officer Robert Doty told the panel. "It's a timely thing for us to do for a whole lot of reasons."
The board was given a higher level review of athletic finances last summer by a contracted auditor. That's prompting the deeper look by the same firm.
That means that the matter of athletic finances was under scrutiny before questions were raised recently about procedures used to try to order a Washburn athletic field scoreboard, one example of where district officials say proper purchasing procedures weren't followed.
But the issues go well beyond Washburn, Doty said, and they need to be corrected. "I do believe there's been some mismanagement. I do believe there's been a lot of inconsistency," Doty said.
But when audit Chair Richard Mammen added that he'd heard rumors of kickbacks, Doty said he's found no hints so far of that.
He said that athletic directors at high schools tend to create processes that work for them but don't follow district procedures. Another issue is caused by the co-mingling of district funds and those raised by groups such as booster clubs, he said.
"There are issues that need to be corrected," Doty said.
Afterward, he said the Washburn issues are an example of lack of communication over policy and the purchase effort for the scoreboard wasn't consistent with policy. Doty said tha athletic department review will cover not only finances, but operations, structure, personnel, and processes.
John Washington retired as district athletic director last fall, and the district last week named former Gopher basketball player Trent Tucker as his successor.
The district's auditor said in a review of student activity accounts for last school year that the district hadn't established procedures to assure that all cash collections are recorded, and so limited its audit accordingly.
A veteran Minneapolis and parochial school administrator will see Washburn High School through the end of the school year as principal.
Craig Vana will start Monday, filling the post left open by the district's abrupt decision this week to remove Carol Markham-Cousins as principal in favor of an unspecified role elsewhere in the district.
Vana was a popular and visible principal for five years at Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis, where he has lived for 40 years, His trademark was standing out on the school steps each morning to greet busloads of arriving students. He's also been a principal at Folwell Middle School, and an assistant principal at Southwest High School.
Vana will serve while the district searches for a new Washburn principal in a process that asks staff and parents what they seek in a leader, a protocol that's been developed and used to fill recent vacancies. He said he was asked by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson to take the job. Associate Superintendent Theresa Battle notified Washburn families of the change in letter dated Friday.
Vana's personality is likely to have a calming impact on a school roiled this week by protests. Student concerns over the future of Athletic Director Dan Pratt, whom the district said was being investigated for a "private personnel matter." led to a walkout on Monday. Reaction by Markham-Cousins and other building administrators to another planned protest Tuesday led to a sit-in by perhaps one-quarter of students on Wednesday. The removal of Markham-Cousins was publicly announced Thursday.
Battle's letter said that the change was challenging for Washburn and the district, and asked for cooperation through the end of the school year.
Vana worked in a number of central office positions after Edison, heading secondary schools as an associate superintendent. overseeing teacher and instructional efforts, and working on career and technical education and high school reform. He's been heavily involved in the council that advises Minneapolis on job training, and supported the city's summer employment program. He also spent 17 years as a teacher, administrator and coach in parochial schools, chiefly at St. Charles Borromeo in Northeast.
Vana said his priority for the remaining seven weeks of school will be “just to be as supportive as I can of staff and students to be sure we have a great spring and a culmination with graduation and looking forward to the future.”
Embattled Carol Markham-Cousins is out as principal of Washburn High School, the school district announced Thursday.
The decision by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson was relayed to school board members Wednesday night, and announced Thursday by the district after word leaked out. She'll remain in the district in an unspecified role, spokesman Stan Alleyne said.
Alleyne also confirmed that an investigation involving Markham-Cousins is underway, although state law prohibits disclosure of more specifics this stage.
Former Southwest High School Principal Robert McCauley will run Washburn until an interim principal is named to finish the school year, Alleyne said. A community process will begin later this spring to search for a new principal for the school.
Alleyne read this statement: "Events over this current year have distracted from the learning environment at Washburn. We recognize that Ms. Markham-Cousins has been a passionate advocate for students and families, and she did a particularly great job of leading the turnaround of Washburn. But the administration also recognizes that a change in leadership is necessary now to restore the school’s effective learning.”
Markham-Cousins was hired in 2007 to shape up the Tangletown school in a fresh-start process in which many teachers were replaced. She brought passion for the success of students who might get overlooked, but ran into headwinds from some parents who sought more rigorous classes for advanced students.
But the end came in her sixth year of leading the school when she became the target of student and alumni ire. That arose when the district disclosed that school Athletic Director Dan Pratt, who is popular with many students, was the subject of an investigation for a "private personnel matter."
Although few details of that investigation are known, internal e-mails obtained earlier this week made clear that Markham-Cousins and Pratt differed over issues related to the installation of a new scoreboard.
Students organized on Facebook for a walkout that drew close to 200 students midway through the day on Monday. On Tuesday, a leader of that walkout, star athlete Jamison Whiting, said Markham-Cousins and other administrators used coercive tactics to force him to abort an in-school protest. That prompted an in-school sit-in on Wednesday in hallways near the main office.
Supporters of both Whiting and Pratt turned their fire on Markham-Cousins although Alleyne said the personnel matter involving Pratt was handled by the central administration. One potential reason that the district is investigating Markham-Cousins is the assertion by Whiting that he was told by her that he couldn't leave an administrator's office until he agreed to call off a protest.
Board member Rebecca Gagnon said that the testimony to the board Tuesday by Whiting and others was a matter of concern. “You have to investigate. Kids are dramatic and so are adults," she said.
Added board member Hussein Samatar, “It is shocking to me because we have not been briefed that this decision was coming."
This week’s protests at Washburn High School morphed Wednesday from support of an athletic director to a challenge to the school administration and backing for a star athlete.
Student shortly after noon conducted a large-scale hallway sit-in near the school’s main office and entrance. One organizer, senior Ben Simpson, estimated that one-quarter of the school’s enrollment of 1,195 students took part in the sit-in. Many left for afternoon classes, but students said at least 50 students remained until the 3 p.m dismissal.
The week began with a show of student support via a walkout organized by senior Jamison Whiting, a star athlete, in support of Dan Pratt, the school’s athletic director. The district said he is being investigated for a “private personnel matter,” but that he has not been disciplined. That’s about all the district is permitted to say at this stage under the state data practices law.
Whiting then went before the school board Tuesday night to say that school administrators used intimidating tactics to force him to drop a plan for a short in-school standing protest earlier that day. He said he was told he couldn’t leave an administrator’s office unless he dropped that plan. Others appeared at the board meeting to support Pratt or criticize Markham-Cousins. who is in her sixth year at Washburn..
Students met after the board meeting to plan Wednesday’s sit-in, prompted in part by anger at what they see as strong-arm tactics by Principal Carol Markham-Cousins aimed at Whiting.
Simpson. a soccer team captain, said the protest has taken on larger goals than saving Pratt’s job. He said that Markham-Cousins has lost the confidence of students and said that a number of teachers have confided their support for the stance by students. He said that staff was accommodating of Wednesday’s protest, despite being required to give participating students unexcused absences that kept them from after-school activities.
Markham-Cousins, who has steadfastly refused to comment on the issues, was away from the school for the day for previously planned meetings. The school took no action against the protest, other than to announce that students faced consequences if they posted photos of it on social media sites.
“We aren’t going to let our principal or anyone else take away our First Amendment rights,” Simpson said by phone from the protest. “We just can’t let this slide — threatening a student. Are we 10-year-olds again?”
“We’re just not in support of our principal. As a principal, if you don’t have the support of your student body,” that’s a bad sign, he said.
Two students interviewed after school, Heather Markun-Heard and Victoria Turcios, agreed that Pratt’s character is such that if he’d done something wrong, he’d own up to it. Both noted a contradiction between public support by Markham-Cousins for student protest rights on Monday and the actions Whiting described to cub his Tuesday protest.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib
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