Teachers: Bias, mistrust taint school
Arizona Daily Star
January 28, 2007

At 'failing' Naylor, racial prejudice and reprisals are described to state

By George B. Sánchez

Arizona Daily Star

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 01.28.2007


Discrimination, questionable financial management and poor leadership were among the reasons a Midtown middle school descended into "failing" status, a new state report shows.

Teachers told state investigators that Naylor Middle School officials at one point considered uniforms for Latino students only and on at least one occasion held separate meetings for "white parents" and "Mexican parents," states the Arizona Department of Education report.

Principal Don Calhoun told officials that federal money was missing when he arrived in July. The lack of funds prompted him to cut one staff position to free up money for the school, according to the report.

Tucson Unified School District officials also offered little support, according to the staff comments, and blamed students for their poor academic achievement.

The report on Naylor, 1701 S. Columbus Blvd., was released during a recent meeting with Calhoun, TUSD officials and representatives of the state Department of Education.

Though Calhoun quickly downplayed much of the report in an interview with the Star, the 27-page document, in the words of state investigators, is an objective and verbatim collection of statements from TUSD administrative officials, teachers, staff members and parents.

Allegations also included distrust and division among teachers and staff members, which they said were fostered by the former principal, who was transferred last summer to an assistant principal position at a TUSD high school on the East Side.

A group of eight staff members told two state investigators, "Some staff prejudge students based on their environment: refugees, African-American, and Hispanic students."

In another case, a teacher focus group — 18 people elected by their peers to represent a cross-section of the school and interviewed by state investigators in groups of six — said school officials "wanted to pilot uniforms for the Mexican students only."

Teachers also cited an occasion when "Mexican parents" were treated differently than their counterparts.

"There were two separate parent meetings: one for white parents (Air Force Base parents) and another for the Mexican parents in which they were told the decisions that had already been made."

Naylor's many problems weren't lost on TUSD leaders, who told state investigators: "We need to raise the expectations of students. It is easy to use the low (socioeconomic status) and refugee status of students as reasons to not do more."

The TUSD leadership group interviewed by state officials included TUSD Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer, Director of School Improvement Steve Holmes, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology Integration Lisa Long, Director of Grants Accountability Shelley Duran, Principal Supervisor Dea Salter, and a principal coach, said Tommie Miel, the state Department of Education deputy associate superintendent for state intervention, and Kimberly Allen, director of state intervention for Arizona Learns. Allen is one of the two state officials who visited Naylor on Dec. 13-14.

Neither Pfeuffer nor Duran responded to repeated requests for comment on the report.

In October, Naylor was labeled "failing" under the state's accountability program. Arizona Learns is the state equivalent of the federal accountability system called Adequate Yearly Progress. A school is labeled failing after three straight years as an underperforming school. Upon being labeled "failing," it faces state intervention, which could mean staff reconfiguration or curriculum adjustments.

Naylor had been designated underperforming for two years and had been under local review for a year. TUSD already had begun to take corrective action, which included installing Calhoun as the new principal.

Though the report praised Calhoun for his leadership and his plans to improve academic and social conditions at the school, it had harsh words for former principal Alice McBride, who's now assistant principal at Sabino High School, 5000 N. Bowes Road.

The teacher focus group told state investigators: "We haven't had good leadership in the school. Former principal, prior to last year's principal, created discrimination, cliques."

They explained: "If you spoke up, previous principal engaged in retaliation. Teachers would have write-ups. She had people tattling and spying for her."

When asked about teacher comments, Calhoun said he hadn't heard of any teacher retaliation. "Things like that normally don't happen," he said.

McBride didn't learn of the allegations until she was contacted by the Star on Thursday.

"I can't fathom where that allegation has come from," she said. "It's certainly untrue."

She said it broke her heart to hear the criticism.

McBride became principal at Naylor in 2002. She was transferred to Sabino in May.

Many of Naylor's students come from low-income families and therefore receive Title 1 federal funding. The funds must be used to help students failing or at risk of failing. Calhoun told state investigators that McBride spent that money before he arrived, according to the report.

"Regarding budget, Title One money was spent before I arrived," he said, according to the report. "There was $326K in budget and I was left with $195 dollars to use. I had to relieve a staff member to help recoup some of the money ($17K). Of the $326K, the majority was spent on teacher salaries. About 25% of the staff are Title One funded."

When asked about this statement, Calhoun said he later was told the Title 1 funds had been spent properly. McBride said the use of federal funds must follow strict protocol set by TUSD's Office of Grants Accountability. She referred questions to Shelley Duran, who did not return repeated requests for a comment.

"We haven't done any investigation," Miel said when asked about the federal money.

When asked about separate meetings for parents of different ethnicities, Calhoun said he was unaware of any such meeting. TUSD spokeswoman Chyrl Hill Lander said it might have been a meeting at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and not related to TUSD.

Calhoun downplayed many of the other findings in the report, too. He said the teacher comments come from one of 44 people and shouldn't be read as representative of the entire staff. He also said the teacher surveys should be paid attention to only if they were supported by more than 75 percent of the respondents, which would invalidate more than half of the findings based on the teacher surveys.

State officials would not comment on Calhoun's explanation but they said they sought input from as many people as possible, including parents. A town hall meeting was held at the school on Dec. 13. No more than 20 parents attended.

"Nothing in that report is based on our opinion. It is verbatim 'what we heard you say,'" Allen said. "It is important that our approach be objective as possible."

It's too early to speculate what sort of intervention the state might take against TUSD and Naylor, Miel said.

"At this point, it's not an evaluation. It's a report about what we heard them say about themselves while we visited their site," she said.

The report will be reviewed by up to one dozen educators from across the state, Miel said, and they'll determine appropriate intervention. A resolution may be presented to TUSD officials as early as March 1. Once an agreement is reached, the resolution will be taken to the Arizona State Board of Education for approval.

The Naylor report also cited a general feeling of a lack of district support for the school.

Staff told state investigators they felt there's "no strong leadership that has advocated for our school." Staff described Naylor as "known as the poor school" and "has always been the neglected child of TUSD and (we) have had to struggle for the 'bones' they throw our way."

Investigators found a lack of trust and respect between Naylor teachers, too.

The teachers' survey found that fewer than half of the respondents said they "respected their colleagues as members of a professional community." Eighty-one percent said there was not a high level of trust and respect among teachers and staff. By Calhoun's explanation, that was one of 20 survey results that should be taken seriously.

During their two-day visit, state officials reported finding teachers with low expectations of their students.

"Assignments did not require high-order thinking skills beyond describing and explaining," the report stated.

"Most of the work was not rigorous work. High-order thinking activities were rarely observed. Few instances were noted where teachers were heard using academic vocabulary. There was at least one instance when there was a clear opportunity to use appropriate math vocabulary, the teacher chose not to."

Such problems were clear at an administrative level.

District leaders, according to the report, noted there was an "overall sense of low expectations of students from teachers and low expectation of student behavior. There is a culture of mediocrity at this school."

A teacher survey reflected the same. Fewer than 60 percent of teachers said their colleagues believed all their students were capable of achievement.

Low expectations were not lost on the students, according to notes from the visit.

"A student indicated that they needed more challenging and up-to-date books in the school, so that when they got to high school, they could say that they had already read the books. He was speaking of classroom books, not library books."

The day after Calhoun met with state officials and informed Naylor staff of the report, a few parents were willing to talk about the school.

"I don't think it is failing," said Christa Yazzie, whose child is enrolled in sixth grade at Naylor. "It's an all right school."

Yazzie said she's aware of the state label and remembers it being mentioned at a school breakfast for Honor Roll students, but added that school officials have not informed her as to how they were labeled "failing" or what sort of progress has been made since then.

She noted that when the announcement first was made, she and her husband wondered about parental involvement, or any lack thereof.

"It's easy to blame the school, but the parents have to be involved, too," she said.

Naylor doesn't deserve to be titled a failing school, said Juan Sardina, whose grandson is in eighth grade at Naylor.

"Most of the teachers try harder than the public knows," he said, explaining that he and his wife receive notes on their grandson's academic progress. "They're trying to help."

He was unaware of what steps the school has taken to counter poor test results.

Sardina said this is his grandson's first year in TUSD.

"We debated sending him here," he said. "We heard about the problems, but so far it's been pretty good."

Despite all the problems the report uncovered, state investigators seemed pleased with Naylor's students.

"Students behaved in a traditional quiet manner," the report states. "Very few students misbehaved in any way."

It added: "Most students appeared to be engaged, there was order, nothing inappropriate."

On StarNet: Find the online version of this story and read the state's detailed report on Naylor Middle School at at azstarnet.com/education

● Contact reporter George B. Sánchez at 573-4195 or at gsanchez@azstarnet.com.