Community turns to board on teacher transfers

Community turns to board on teacher transfers

Michele Ellson
Encinal High School

Encinal High School in 2010. File photo.

An Encinal High School teacher and his supporters are battling schools administrators’ decision to transfer him to a different high school, the latest in a string of hotly contested teacher transfers on which the school board has been asked to weigh in.

Brian Rodriguez says he’s a victim of factionalization at the school and anti-union sentiment from administrators, and supporters have billed him as an influential teacher who offers a positive role model for students of color and who pushes his students to excel. But teachers and families who support the district’s decision to transfer him to the Alameda Science and Technology Institute magnet high school have cast him as a bully who marginalizes struggling students and has acted as a road block for instructional changes intended to help the non-white students he claims to champion.

Superintendent Kirsten Vital is set to decide on Rodriguez’s appeal today; if she upholds the transfer, Rodriguez said he will appeal to the school board, whose members have gotten hundreds of pages of letters in support of Rodriguez’s transfer and in opposition. If that happens, the board will consider the case on August 12, district spokeswoman Susan Davis confirmed Thursday.

Rodriguez is one of three Alameda teachers whose proposed transfers have prompted parents and friends to appeal to the school board in recent months. The district’s decision to move history teacher Nancy Ely from her longtime perch at Will C. Wood Middle School drew supporters to the board in April, and in June families at Paden Elementary School asked the board not to move music teacher Lynn Tousey to Amelia Earhart Elementary on Bay Farm Island.

Tousey was moved due to scheduling issue, Davis said, but she said the issue had been resolved and the music teacher would be back on duty at Paden in the fall. Ely, who oversaw the Wood Museum during her time at the school and who started the school’s highly regarded Teen Techs program, was related to the restructuring of Wood into a science, technology, engineering, arts and math school this year, she said.

The district wouldn’t comment specifically on Rodriguez’s case because it is an ongoing personnel issue, and Alameda Education Association president Audrey Hyman also declined to comment on his case. But dozens of letters sent to school board members both in support and opposition of the transfer offer a unique window on the sometimes complicated circumstances surrounding such moves.

Rodriguez is a history teacher and a 19-year veteran at Encinal High who has been honored as both Alameda Unified’s teacher of the year, in 2008, and as one of the National Society of High School Scholars’ Top Ten Educators of the Year, in 2012. An advanced placement teacher, he has conducted boot camps to prepare a wider array of students for the rigors of the college level classes; he also said he was named Encinal’s lead teacher handling professional development for the new Common Core curriculum.

Rodriguez, who cast himself as a “proud Mexican-American guy” and a decorated teacher who stayed at Encinal to help its diverse student body as teachers and administrators came and went, said he had always received positive reviews until he was told he was being transferred.

“Last year, Claes Nobel hung a medal around my neck,” Rodriguez said, referring to the Top Ten Educators honor. “A year later, I have to go hat in hand begging the school board to keep my job.”

He said he was caught by surprise by the allegations that teachers had complained about him. And he’s reaching out to the students and families he said he’s developed “rich relationships” with for support; two Facebook pages have been set up to oppose his transfer.

“None of the complaints were brought to my attention by supervisors, so I was denied the opportunity to respond,” Rodriguez said. “Now I have challenged the allegations as unsubstantiated, discriminatory and in retaliation for union activity.”

In a letter to board members seeking “Justice For Brian Rodriguez,” Debra Mendoza credited Rodriguez with mentoring her struggling son as he tried to make his way in a school environment where he wasn’t a perfect fit. She said Rodriguez provided her son a refuge when he needed time away from other classes and that he attended meetings where her son’s individualized education plan – unique schooling plans for students with learning disabilities – was discussed.

“Without hesitation, I would say that Mr. Rodriguez is the educator that had the most positive impact and influence upon my child both socially and academically,” Mendoza wrote. “Mr. Rodriguez helped my child take ownership of his education, held him to a higher standard, helped him become a critical thinker, and constantly engaged him in his education.”

She and others said that Rodriguez is a good role model and mentor to non-white students.

ASTI is an early college magnet that had an enrollment of 163 students during the 2012-13 school year, a fraction of the 1,055 students Encinal serves, state data show. It has a higher proportion of Asian students than Encinal and a lower proportion of white and African American students, and about equal percentages of Latino students.

Students, too, are singing his praises, citing him as a guiding influence who spurred his often underprivileged students toward excellence by creating a rigorous classroom environment and giving them the tools they needed to move on to top colleges.

Steven Schluchter, a 2002 graduate who’s now an assistant math professor at George Mason University, said Rodriguez’s deep investment in his education helped him vault past the financial hardship of his youth into a doctorate from The George Washington University.

“If it weren't for opportunities at EHS like those afforded by Brian Rodriguez, I, like a great many other EHS students past, present and future, would have had less opportunities when I needed them the most,” Schluchter wrote.

Others said Rodriguez’s passion for education prompted them to pursue careers as teachers.

But some students offered far less glowing reviews of Rodriguez’s performance, saying that while he was a good teacher, he also tore at struggling students’ self-esteem and created an unnecessarily competitive environment in his classroom. And teachers accused him of being a bully who terrorizes colleagues with verbal abuse, threats of legal action and racism complaints, demoralizes students and derails educational initiatives intended to help the students he claims to champion.

One recent graduate, D. Williams, said Rodriguez told him during the first week of his sophomore year that he would never earn a grade higher than a C in Rodriguez’s advanced placement European history class. Williams wrote that he was, in fact, never able to attain a higher grade than that, no matter how hard he worked.

“His class felt more like a contest that I was constantly on the losing side of rather than a safe classroom free of his harsh judgment,” Williams wrote.

Williams praised Rodriguez’s teaching style but questioned claims that the teacher looked out for students of color. He said that for group assignments he often found himself grouped together with the other African American students in his class.

Another graduate, Benjamin Briggance, accused Rodriguez of loading students up on busy work and of grading more substantial assignments based on pre-formed opinions about students instead of the work that was done.

“His extreme use of intimidation and sense of entitlement takes away from the potential he has as an educator,” Briggance wrote. “Students should have the option of a challenging, higher-level history course without an atmosphere of constant negativity and fear.”

A letter signed by 20 staffers – which said Encinal teachers asked principal Kirsten Zazo to move Rodriguez to another school – says moving him would remove “an historic obstacle to collegiality and collaboration” and “provide a sense of relief and hope to those teachers and staff members who have been bullied, verbally attacked and/or threatened by Mr. Rodriguez.”

The letter says prior efforts by administrators and teachers to address the issues have failed. And other teachers said that things would get worse if he were allowed to return to Encinal.

District administrators can transfer teachers for a host of reasons, and the teachers’ contract doesn’t restrict the district’s ability to move teachers for any reason; it only requires administrators to tell teachers why they are being moved, though they do have the opportunity to appeal.

Davis said teachers can be moved for a variety of reasons, including changing enrollment or course selections or changes in the structure of a school like the restructuring of Wood.

“In some cases, too, administrators may decide that a transfer would better serve children or the larger school community of one or both of the sites in question,” she said.

Rodriguez, who said his colleagues’ complaints highlight “stereotypes about Latino males,” said the district has gotten more than 80 letters over the past few weeks asking that the transfer be reconsidered. And he said moving him from Encinal would penalize those students.

“I am determined to continue to serve at Encinal and welcome community support,” Rodriguez said. “Go Jets!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Given the sensitive nature of the disputes laid out in this story and the likelihood that the strong feelings surrounding them will precipitate a higher-than-normal ratio of personal attacks to constructive comments, The Alamedan will not be accepting comments on this story.