BREAKING: Students protest principal's ouster
BREAKING: Students protest principal's ouster
Updated at 4:16 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, with new information in bold.
Dozens of Nea Community Learning Center students walked out of classes Tuesday to protest the removal of the school’s leader Friday, eight weeks before the end of the school year.
The governing board for the entity that oversees Nea, Community Learning Center Schools, Inc., voted early Friday to place Nea’s lead facilitator, Maafi Gueye, on paid administrative leave. Community Learning Center’s chief operating officer, Lina Miura, was also placed on leave.
A decision concerning Gueye’s fate is expected Thursday, Community Learning Center’s executive director, Patti Wilczek, confirmed Tuesday. Wilczek said that Annalisa Moore, who has run Nea's K-5, has agreed to provide administrative support and site leadership along with a point person at each school site while the matter is resolved, she said Wednesday.
"This is an interim position until our Board votes on Thursday to either reinstate or dismiss," Moore wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.
"The school is being run as if Maafi were out sick. Everybody is jumping in and pitching in," Wilczek said over the din of students who were still protesting the board's decision early Tuesday afternoon. Wilczek is also on campus, she said, "so there's no void in leadership."
Gueye wasn't available to comment Tuesday.
Students, who said Gueye was removed from the Nea campus “like a criminal” in the middle of the school day Friday while they were in class, said they’re frustrated about the way the matter was handled and that they didn’t have a say in the decision – something they said shouldn’t happen at a school that was set up to run more democratically.
“This is a democratic school, and they refuse to let us vote on anything,” one of the student protestors said as others chanted “We want Maafi!” while stationed at the corner of Webster Street and Lincoln Avenue.
Students said the school is up in the air following Gueye’s apparent ouster, and that several major end-of-year activities are on hold.
“The facilitators don’t have anywhere to look at this moment. They’re lost,” Nea sophomore Camila Ramos said, referring to the school’s teachers.
Students said they wanted to know why the Community Learning Center Schools board voted to place Gueye on leave. In an e-mail to families sent Sunday and forwarded to The Alamedan, board members said they’re prohibited from revealing their reasons for putting Gueye and Miura on leave. Personnel matters are typically not discussed publicly by governing groups like the Community Learning Center Schools board.
The e-mail says the decision was “not taken lightly” and also, that it is “not reversible.” It also said that elements of the decision “have been under long-term Board consideration.”
The board voted 7-1 to place Gueye and Miura on leave, minutes from the meeting where the decision was made show; students cheered the one board member who opposed the leave decision when she showed up at Tuesday’s protest. Paul Bentz, who served as executive director of the nonprofit until Wilczek was hired at the end of last year, abstained from the votes, meeting minutes show.
Both Miura and Gueye had filed complaints against Wilczek with the board, meeting minutes show, Miura's regarding a review and Gueye, a performance plan. The board's e-mail to families said complaints against Wilczek had been investigated and found to be without merit, though it wasn't clear if the complaints they referred to were the ones lodged by Miura and Gueye.
"Following the results of multiple investigations by a legally sanctioned third-party investigation firm, complaints against Patti were determined to be unsubstantiated. From the Board’s perspective, her performance has remained thoroughly professional under very difficult circumstances," the board's e-mail said. It said Wilczek had "been subjected to far-reaching attacks by certain vocal members of our community" that constituted bullying and urged families and school staff "to work with her, not against her."
Students, who referred to Gueye as “MaMaafi,” characterized her as someone who was deeply engaged in their lives and who took an active interest in both their learning and their personal welfare.
“When somebody did something wrong, she helped that person,” one seventh grade student who joined the walkout Tuesday said. “She’s been the best principal I ever had.”
But Gueye had also clashed with families and teachers, prompting loud complaints from some who have left the K-12 charter school.
Gueye’s ouster comes in the midst of what should have been a triumphant moment for the school: Its grade school and middle and high school, which have been on separate campuses for the past several years, are due to be reunited on the campus that once housed Woodstock Elementary School.
But scenarios floated by Wilczek that introduced the possibility of merging Nea with its older, more established sister school, the Alameda Community Learning Center, prompted an outcry from families who are deeply invested in the individual culture of their respective schools. Wilczek and Community Learning Center’s board took the merger scenario off the table, parents said, but the board’s decision to place Gueye on leave has sparked fears that it may still be under consideration.
Under a proposed lease deal, school district leaders are seeking an increase in the percentage of Alameda-based students the charter schools educate. All told, about 76 percent of the two charter schools’ 863 students live on the Island. About 86 percent of Alameda Community Learning Center's middle and high school students live in Alameda, compared to 56 percent of middle and high school students attending Nea.
State law requires charter schools to educate students from anywhere in California. But in recent years, the school district - which has worked to expand its own middle school offerings - has only offered space to house Alameda students, documents associated with charters’ negotiations for space show. The proposed lease agreement allows the district to consider reducing the amount of space the schools get if their combined on-Island enrollment isn't 85 percent or more by the 2016-17 school year.
The turmoil has also sparked questions about Nea’s representation on the board and also, the way its members are selected; Wilczek confirmed the board is a "self-sustaining" board that interviews and selects new members. The board also recently decided to remove staff members on an interim basis, meeting minutes show; the decision to allow staff to serve on the board is being researched, she said.
Wilczek said she doesn't think the board gives Nea short shrift.
"I know that concern has been expressed. I don't share that concern," Wilczek said. "I think they're able to make decisions based on best practices, rather than alliances to one school or another."
And she denied claims that she has been inattentive to Nea and its needs, though she said there are "lots of forces" competing for her time an attention.
"I'm rock solidly here now," Wilczek said. "I'm supporting the facilitators and parents through this time of challenge."
Despite the turmoil, Wilczek said she's "really excited" about the schools' future and that their pending move will help the schools thrive.
"Despite some challenges right now, we will land on the other side of this stronger," she said.