Washburn parents question principal search

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  • August 16, 2013 - 1:15 PM

District and school leadership tried to spin a parent audience Thursday night at Washburn High School toward the future, but parents demanded answers on the school’s recent events.

Ten of the first 11 questions posed from a crowd of about 150 parents zeroed in on the district’s recent failed search for a principal to replace reassigned Carol Markham-Cousins. The district’s choice for the job lasted two days on the job until the district put him on leave after an allegation that he changed student answers on a state test at his former job, a charge he denies.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and the area associate superintendent, Cecilia Saddler, had little to add beyond what’s already been published about the search. Johnson did apologize for “a terrible year” last school year, marked by issues that date back to a doll-hanging incident by a few students. She said she’ll start future searches by looking inside the district before seeking outside candidates like Patrick Exner, who was hired for Washburn principal from a Hopkins charter school. That drew applause.

Johnson said in hindsight she should have forwarded more principal candidates to the school for a site committee to interview. She said some candidates were discounted because their experience was mostly at small private or parochial schools. When a parent pointed out that Exner was hired from a school one-quarter Washburn’s size, Johnson said he served at a school with a “diverse” student body. Ubah Medical Academy’s enrollment is almost entirely Somali. The group was told not to fear competition from another principal search at South High School because schools have different needs.

The district and the school’s remaining leadership tried to assure parents that despite the leadership vacuum, Washburn is well-prepared for the coming year.

Linda Conley, who was elevated from assistant principal to the school’s interim leader until a replacement is found, drew applause from the crowd when she was introduced. Conley told the group that she and Assistant Principal Nilo Guanzon form a tight leadership team, and have done considerable planning already on the school’s improvement plan and for working with student and parent councils. Guanzon said there will be a clear, intentional blueprint for the school’s next principal.

“We are very aware of how Washburn is changing,” he said, in a nod to an increasing number of middle class students directed to the school by boundary changes and coming from families with high academic expectations. “We are very aware of how change is coming. We saw what happens when people go different directions.”

Some of the discontent that led to the ouster of Markham-Cousins came from parents who felt she believed too much in a one-size-fits-all style of grouping students in classes, and that the school lacked sufficient rigorous courses compared to other high schools. Conley said an honors English and an Advanced Placement U.S. history course have been added. Saddler said that school curriculum and teaching are being examined with an eye toward helping students succeed, one question being, “If they need an accelerated track, how do we make that happen?”

There were also splits within the school community between supporters of ousted athletic director Dan Pratt, who was reassigned back to the classroom before leaving the district, and those supporting Markham-Cousins. The post of athletic director still hasn’t been filled.

Some parents expressed frustration that the school keeps making news for the wrong reasons, and wondered how the school image can be changed.

“Sometimes you’ve got to push through it and fight through it,” Johnson said.

{Photo: Supt. Bernadeia Johnson)

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