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."