By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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What does Los Angeles Unified School District do when a principal loses control of a campus? The answer: full-time tutoring for the besieged leader.
In June, when most of the teachers petitioned to replace John C. Fremont High School principal Guadalupe “Lupe” Simpson, the district sent in Belmont High’s principal, Augie Herrera, for three weeks of coaching and hand-holding. And this week, after nearly 3,000 Fremont students walked out last Friday to protest chaotic conditions, the district sent in another principal, Ron Oswald of Grant High School, in a mentoring role.
What has to happen, teachers at the South-Central campus are asking each other, before the principal is removed? Simpson was promoted to the top job at Fremont in 1998 despite a stormy decade as principal of Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park. Neither friction with teachers nor criticism from community leaders holds back her career. During her problems at Nimitz, union members speculated that her involvement in school-board campaigns has been her protective cloak and charm. Simpson was a consistent supporter of school-board member Leticia Quezada, donating $500 in 1989 and $800 in 1990 to her ‘91 election drive. Simpson gave $700 to the coffers of current board member Victoria Castro.
The district’s extended patience with Simpson has frustrated some teachers who have fled Fremont for other jobs. Students say the result is that many classes are taught by substitutes, and grades go unreported. They have gone without a career counselor all semester, and the library has been closed for weeks. In the current semester, which began July 5, most midterm report cards had two of six grades missing, says senior Jesus Najera, one of the leaders of last week‘s walkout. Most students have substitute teachers in at least two of their six courses.
Impatient with the leadership of first-year principal Simpson, more than 25 faculty left in June, including the school’s award-winning psychologist, Steve Rude.
Mishandling of an obscene and violent death threat against a woman science teacher last spring prompted the exodus for many of the Fremont employees. More than 100 staffers signed a petition seeking Simpson‘s ouster. The neatly folded note threatening teacher Lynette Meinecke was found by a custodian in her classroom on a Friday, but no one told Meinecke until the end of the school day the following Monday. According to Meinecke and others, assistant principal Walter Flores was too busy for two days with pressing disciplinary problems -- including an off-campus expulsion hearing -- to make any progress investigating the matter. Six days after the note was found, a fed-up Meinecke discovered, on calling the local police station, that LAPD detectives -- who are supposed to be notified of all serious campus crime -- had not heard of the incident. (This was the second threat Meinecke had received during the school year; the first one, less graphic, was not brought to the LAPD’s attention, nor was its author identified.)
Teachers say this slipshod treatment of a potentially dangerous student typifies a lax administration attitude that produces an unsafe campus. In mid-June, school police confirm, a recent transfer student assaulted a teacher. Student-on-student violence is also chronic, though Flores says no incidents this year have been grave enough to require paramedics. Although a school-safety committee on each campus is mandated by district regulations, there was none in existence in June.
The school-safety issue is just one facet of Simpson‘s incompetence, teachers say. In a flier listing her “top 10” problems, they charge that the principal’s neglect made May‘s annual Advanced Placement exams a fiasco, with no one assigned to organize them until three days beforehand. Consequently, some students were without desks at which to work; others were supplied defective tape recorders when taking their foreign-language test. Special-education programs have also suffered, faculty critics claim -- down four teachers and lacking aides mandated by state codes. Finally, say teachers, a lack of consistent discipline policies under Simpson’s administration has created a campus where truant students (and non-students) roam where they please, causing distraction and disruption to those who are in class.
Simpson‘s defenders argue that the school’s difficulties predate her and that she deserves a chance to turn the school around. Fremont‘s test scores put it on the district’s list of 100 problem schools before Simpson took over in the fall of 1998. Ruth Wade, who took her son out of Fremont before Simpson‘s arrival, believes the root of the school’s troubles is too many young, wet-behind-the-ears teachers, not the principal. “I think Simpson is more concerned with kids learning,” says Wade. “She‘s made parents welcome. You can go in and check on what’s happening in the classroom.”
However, Simpson backers are not numerous at Nimitz Middle School, where she was posted as principal from the mid-‘80s until a year ago. Al Reyes, teachers-union chapter chairman at Nimitz, says that Simpson’s deviousness and lack of “people skills” drove 300 teachers out during her 13-year reign there. She brought in “rookies without credentials” to replace them, Reyes charges. Simpson also filed more than 20 child-abuse charges against teachers with the Huntington Park Police Department, but none of them were sustained by investigators. One accused instructor, Marty Price, soon transferred to another school, where he was named “Teacher of the Year.” Melodie Dove of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, who monitored Simpson‘s actions at Nimitz, warned Fremont teachers a year ago about her record, but once her promotion was announced, they could only hope for a fresh start, says Fremont’s union chapter chairwoman, Kary Harger.
Simpson has declined public comment on problems at the school.
Simpson‘s immediate supervisor, cluster leader Charles Jackson, acknowledged in June that he first learned of Simpson’s history at Nimitz from teachers during May‘s death-threat crisis. “I had no evaluations of her performance with Nimitz,” Jackson admitted. “If these kinds of issues had come up all year,” he explained, he might have had a reason to look at them.
Jackson’s decision to keep Simpson on, he said, rested on both her short time at Fremont and his sense of the “pulse of the community.”
One of Jackson‘s sources for gauging the pulse, he said, was Shirley Garrett, a Title 1 employee at Fremont who has two foster children there and blames the school’s shortcomings largely on teachers who, she says, out of laziness or racist indifference, make little effort to see that their students gain any skills.
Fremont‘s image is expected to come under attack from yet another direction this week when a lawsuit is filed by the Congress of Racial Equality, says Dr. Sandra Moore, CORE vice chair. The lawsuit will demand that the school be put into receivership for consistent failure to educate minority children. Moore, who visited classrooms every Friday over the summer months, shares Garrett’s view that Simpson is not the villain, and considers many teachers “racists,” by negligence if not by intent. Simpson is not the focus of the suit.
Students entered the debate over Simpson‘s tenure last week, when 80 percent of them walked out, complaining of too much policing and not enough teaching.
Students were rankled by new security policies subjecting them to random searches if found outside classrooms after the tardy bell between periods. “They put us against the wall, look in our backpacks, throw stuff on the floor and then you have to pick it up,” says Najera. “I don’t think lateness is ‘probable cause’ for a search,” he adds, “especially when you have to walk all the way across campus in the few minutes between classes.” Students are also upset that they have gone for months, in some cases, without lockers, which have been withheld until their parents fill out complex paperwork.
The students won two quick victories. Jackson, his supervisor Rene Jackson and crime-prevention Officer Ed Woodruff met with nine student leaders Monday -- the first school day after the walkout -- and agreed to simplify locker distribution and to an immediate cutback in student searches (which will now be done only with probable cause). On the recruitment of permanent teachers to replace the substitutes, there was only a promise that this was “a priority.” Simpson was not present at this meeting, but students expect to meet with her later this week.
Union leaders have no reason to expect the kinds of easy concessions their students won. They hope, says Harger, that LAUSD administrators -- or the school board -- move this month to make permanent changes in Fremont‘s leadership. Otherwise, they say, the United Teachers of Los Angeles may need to file action with the board to force Simpson’s removal.