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Hope for Fremont High

The embattled principal at Fremont High School was forced out this week, ending five months of strife that included teachers petitioning for her ouster and a walkout by 3,000 students upset with campus conditions.

The removal of Guadalupe ”Lupe“ Simpson at the South Central school marked the first time the district ever replaced a principal after a teacher protest, said United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) official Bev Cook. District officials say Simpson, who had been at the school a little more than a year, left the Fremont post at her own request. Her future role with the district is undetermined.

Taking over Monday was Augie Herrera, a self-styled veterano who has headed largely Latino high schools in low-income areas -- Pacoima High School, and Banning High in Wilmington -- over the past 16 years. He most recently was named to lead the new Belmont school, but was available for a new assignment because of the uncertain future of that school, half-built on contaminated land.

Fremont lies just east of the Harbor Freeway at 76th Street, in one of the city’s poorest areas; its student body is 85 percent Latino.

At a Monday afternoon meeting, Herrera, promising a fresh start and an open-door policy, told staffers, ”Our goal is improved student achievement.“ Moving up from its near-cellar spot on test scores, he added later, will require upgrading staff skills. ”We have a disproportionate number of young teachers who are well-intentioned, but need training and need structure,“ he said, explaining that he wanted seasoned instructors to mentor them in grading, lesson planning and classroom management.

Herrera is no stranger to the campus. He was brought in to do some mentoring for three weeks in July, when district officials decided Simpson needed management pointers.

Faculty discontent overflowed last May, when 100 teachers signed a petition calling for Simpson‘s ouster after a graphic and obscene death threat against a woman science teacher was sloppily handled by school authorities.

Teachers said this slipshod treatment of a serious safety threat typified Simpson’s incompetence as an administrator. In a flier passed out at June‘s graduation, teachers listed her ”top 10“ problems, charging that annual advanced-placement exams were a fiasco, with no one assigned to organize them until three days beforehand. Consequently, some students lacked desks at which to work; others were issued defective tape recorders for their foreign-language test. Special-education programs fell into disrepair, faculty critics claimed -- down four teachers and lacking the aides mandated by state codes. Finally, said teachers, inconsistent discipline created a campus where truant students, and non-students, roamed the campus, disrupting classes.

About 25 teachers left Fremont in June, including the school’s award-winning psychologist Steve Rude. These departures triggered student discontent in the summer semester. Hundreds of students were taught by substitutes in an average of two in six courses, which meant missing grades on many midterm report cards. Students were also rankled by new security policies subjecting them to random hallway searches, and by going months, in some cases, without lockers.

If Simpson‘s critics ultimately ”won“ the war, they suffered tremendous losses in the battle. Victims included both the local UTLA chapter’s leaders, who were among those accused of misconduct by members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Several CORE members, including its vice-chairwoman, Dr. Sandra Moore, started visiting classrooms in mid-summer. Moore and associates made plausible claims that Fremont was doing a bad job of educating minority children, especially black male students, who, they said, were often mistakenly assigned to special-education classes. But CORE members didn‘t stop there, alleging that some white teachers who lunched separately in a classroom constituted a ”Klan cell,“ and that other teachers were sexually involved with students.

After the UTLA voted this fall to terminate CORE’s classroom visits, CORE filed a written complaint with the school district alleging improper sexual conduct by chapter leader Matt Taylor, who married a former Fremont student the year after she graduated. On October 18, Taylor was placed on administrative leave pending completion of the inquiry. He said he spends his days ”just reading“ at a district cluster office.

His union successor, social-studies teacher Kary Harger, resigned October 27 after CORE members shouted accusations of racism and pedophilia at her and colleagues in a school parking lot. Harger, an Anglo who is married to an African-American, will transfer to Carson High. ”It was a war zone,“ says Harger, ”and it kept getting worse. I had horrible chest pains, and I‘d wake up at 3:00 in the morning worrying. I needed a change.“ Even her last day was not friction-free -- when Harger put goodbye letters in teachers’ mail slots, Simpson ordered them taken out, Harger said.

In addition to the two union leaders, October‘s toll included English department head Scott Banks and the target of the May death threat, science teacher Lynette Meinecke. Tired of being ”a working part in a broken machine,“ Meinecke has been on stress-related sick leave for over a week, but won’t return to Fremont. She is considering leaving teaching to study biology in graduate school. ”I dumped out my heart and soul, and feel I have nothing left,“ she says. ”I‘m disgusted that the district could let Fremont decay and just stand there.“

Banks, too, condemns the district for letting the crisis ”drag on“ so long, to the point where ”the entire faculty was demoralized and unable to plan for the future.“ He feels bad, he says, about abandoning his post, but was convinced by a friend that ”If you stay and become angry and cynical, you’ll be no good to your students.“ He now works at Los Feliz‘s John Marshall High.

Simpson seemed an unlikely choice for the Fremont job. She was promoted after a rocky reign at Nimitz Middle School. Al Reyes, teachers-union chapter chair at Nimitz, says that Simpson’s lack of ”people skills“ drove 300 teachers out during her 13 years there. Simpson filed some 20 child-abuse charges against teachers with the Huntington Park police department, none of them sustained by investigators. Simpson‘s immediate supervisor, cluster leader Charles Jackson, was unaware of her prior history until briefed by teachers during May’s death-threat crisis. ”I had no evaluations of her performance with Nimitz,“ Jackson said.

Teachers attribute Simpson‘s ascent, and Teflon-like emergence from the Nimitz clashes, to political connections. Simpson was a consistent supporter of school-board member Leticia Quezada, donating $500 in 1989 and $800 in 1990. She also gave $700 in 1993 to current board member Victoria Castro. While contributions from school administrators in board races are common, Simpson’s stood out for their size.

To avoid such drawn-out disasters in the future, says the UTLA‘s Bev Cook, new processes for evaluating and removing principals need to be devised, similar to those now in force in teachers’ contracts, where transfers can be made ”for any reason . . . in the best interest of the educational program of the district.“

Students, some of whom said, ”She‘s nice as a person,“ still cheered the news of Simpson’s ouster when informed at Saturday‘s homecoming dance. Said senior Luis Ortega, a leader of the walkout, ”It would have been better if she left when the trouble started.“


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