Washburn High School Principal Carol Markham-Cousins was ousted from her job after a rocky year in which she butted heads with her athletic director, drew student-led protests and weathered controversy surrounding the hanging of a dark-skinned doll.
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson informed school board members of her unusual midyear decision Wednesday night, and the district announced it Thursday afternoon after word leaked out. Markham-Cousins will remain with the district in an undetermined role, spokesman Stan Alleyne said.
“Events over this current year have distracted from the learning environment at Washburn,” the district said in a statement.
Markham-Cousins gained allies and enemies when she revamped the school in a 2008 “fresh start,” interviewing staffers to decide who stayed and who left. She brought a fierce dedication to the needs of the school’s lower-performing students, many of them poor and minority. But her insistence on equity in class offerings ran into resistance from white middle-class parents who constituted a growing share of the school when boundaries changed. She lost her post after several days of protest by students concerned about the fate of the school’s athletic director.
Alleyne also confirmed that an investigation involving Markham-Cousins is underway, although state law prohibits disclosure of more specifics at this stage. The Star Tribune was unable to reach her for comment.
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.
Scoreboard at issue
In its statement, the district praised Markham-Cousins for being a passionate advocate for students and families, saying 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,” it said.
One distracting event this year was in January, when a handful of students hung a dark-skinned doll in a stairway. Those outraged by that incident blamed Markham-Cousins for not informing the larger school community about it for several days that fell over a three-day weekend in which she broke a wrist.
Her ouster came after she drew student and alumni ire last week 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 make clear that Markham-Cousins and Pratt differed over issues related to the installation of a new scoreboard.
Students organized on Facebook for a pro-Pratt walkout Monday afternoon that drew close to 200 students. Some students and parents were incensed when a security alert was imposed in advance of the walkout. 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 a protest in school that day. That prompted an in-school sit-in Wednesday in hallways near the main office.
Supporters of Whiting and Pratt turned their fire on Markham-Cousins, although Alleyne said the personnel matter involving Pratt was handled by the central administration.
Rebecca Gagnon, a Minneapolis school member, said that the testimony to the board Tuesday by Whiting and others was a matter of concern. Whiting said Markham-Cousins told him that he couldn’t leave an administrator’s office until he called off the planned Tuesday protest.
“You have to investigate. Kids are dramatic, and so are adults,” she said. Board Member Hussein Samatar said he found the decision shocking “because we have not been briefed that this decision was coming.”
Improvements under her
Former school board member Chris Stewart said the school has grown much more orderly under Markham-Cousins. “Washburn is a different school than when she got there, which I feel is a tribute to her leadership skills and her understanding of what it takes to turn a school around academically,” he said.
The school’s test scores have risen dramatically in her tenure. In reading, for example, proficiency has grown from a scant one-third of students tested to two-thirds. But it’s hard to determine how much of that is due to Markham-Cousins because the school demographics have changed markedly toward student groups more likely to score higher on tests. Boosters also tout the school’s athletic prowess and theater productions.
Teri Bentson, a parent whose son led Wednesday’s protest, spoke before the board Tuesday to ask for an investigation of the school’s administration. “I think it’s a great decision,” she said of Markham-Cousins’ reassignment. She said she’s hopeful that Pratt will remain and that Washburn will become a stellar school. “I’m so proud of all of them,” she said of students who protested this week.