For six years, Ginie Klopp was one of Paideia Academy’s biggest cheerleaders. She was PTO president and volunteered hundreds of hours annually at the Apple Valley charter school.
This fall, though, her two kids are enrolled in public school instead. Paideia has changed, she said, and it was time to go.
They aren’t the only ones to leave. About half the teaching staff — about 20 teachers in all — have recently resigned, many of them longtime employees. A handful of others left throughout last year, Klopp said.
Tensions are running high, and many parents and former teachers say the exodus stems from a deeper problem: a director with an aggressive leadership style who doesn’t treat teachers with respect.
Many longtime parents say they are frustrated by how much the school’s mission and sense of community have changed. Others worry the frequent teacher turnover is affecting academic achievement.
“It doesn’t matter what anybody says, it’s kind of [her] way or no way,” said Mindy Daugherty, a former Paideia gym teacher who remains in touch with teachers there.
Director Marci Levy-Maguire, an East Coast transplant now in her third year at Paideia, makes no apologies for her style. “I knew when I started it would be three years of establishing a new culture,” she said.
High staff turnover isn’t unusual for a charter school, which offers less pay and no tenure, she added. Stability, though, is “certainly something we want. We want to keep teachers.”
Success story or unstable?
To Klopp, the K-8 school with a focus on the classics felt for years like one big family. It was filled with parents devoted to the same educational principles and “happy teachers [making] independent teaching decisions,” she said.
“Through this last year, I’ve watched all of that be written off,” she said.
By many accounts, Paideia is a success story: The school is financially stable and was named a High Quality Charter School by the Minnesota Department of Education last year, according to Beth Topoluk, director of Friends of Education, the school’s authorizer.
But it has also experienced instability, with five different directors over nine years and significant staff and student turnover, said parent Andrea Stone.
“It’s just amazing to me that a school that has been open as short of a time as this one has had so much turmoil,” she said.
Last year, Klopp’s sixth-grade son’s math teacher quit, and two substitutes followed before a new teacher was hired. They basically wrote off a year of math, she said.
The same scenario played out in 2012-13 when a second-grade teacher left, leading to a revolving door of teachers, parent Crystal Kohler recalled.
Kohler removed her kids last fall. “I don’t feel like it’s a safe and good environment for any child to be in,” Kohler said. “We’re not going to go back.”
Once a frequent volunteer, she called Paideia a “really hostile work environment.”
Another issue: The school board won’t stand up to the administration, Klopp and Kohler said.
In the past two years, “the board has dismissed … any parent or teacher who has come to them with concern,” Klopp said. “I didn’t feel that the school board had strong enough leadership to be an oversight board.”
In June 2013, 70 parents showed up at a board meeting to protest the layoffs of five seasoned teachers. They questioned whether the teachers were terminated unfairly and whether the administration gave them any feedback on their performance.
Daugherty was one teacher whose contract wasn’t renewed.
Though the incident angered many and some families left, other teachers and families stayed, hoping things would improve, Daugherty said — but they haven’t.
Under Levy-Maguire, some families might not like the changes that have been made, said Stephanie Abraham, a board member until June. “It’s not for everybody.”
A 50 percent teacher-turnover rate is shocking even for a charter school, said Jill Godtland, a former Paideia teacher and director.
“I do keep in touch with a lot of the teachers and I know that things have not been great,” she said. “My gut instinct is that they left because of the director.”
During Godtland’s five years at Paideia, fewer than 20 percent of teachers left each year, she said.
Judging a charter school’s stability based on enrollment and staff turnover can be difficult, because charters tend to have ups and downs in both areas, said Abraham.
When asked about claims as to the number of teachers leaving, Abraham called the numbers “laughable.” But Levy-Maguire confirmed them, saying they were comparable to both 2012-13 and the previous year, when 16 teachers didn’t return for various reasons.
Issues with the school’s teaching climate “are not a new concern,” Levy-Maguire said. For two years, the school has paid a consulting firm to determine what changes would make the environment more positive, she said.
Paideia is working hard to improve both student achievement and its climate, she said.
Godtland said that charter schools can attract bold personalities who want to make changes, and being at a charter allows them to do so more easily than at a regular public school.
June board minutes show the school had an $180,000 deficit at the year’s end. Though it was the first time there has ever been a deficit, Levy-Maguire chalked it up to enrollment over-projections and new, shorter enrollment periods. But Klopp insisted the deficit was a “straight reflection of enrollment.”
This year, the school’s enrollment is at 354, compared with 382 in August last year. The school does have waiting lists for younger grades.
Erin Adler • 952-746-3283