By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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So last fall, when her daughter was entering first grade, Pace requested that she be assigned to Pishney's class. Her daughter was already a strong reader and writer; Pace just wanted her to have the same wonderful experience that her son had benefited from a few years earlier.
But this year was different. "It's a very divided class, unfortunately," Pace says. "I don't know what's wicked in the state of Denmark, but we do have parents that run the school behind the scenes."
At the end of the 2008-09 school year, Bromwell lost another principal, Jonathan Wolfer, in the wake of a scandal dubbed "Boundarygate." The flap started, Wolfer says, when "a large portion of families" complained to him that other parents were using work addresses or grandparents' addresses in order to get their children into Bromwell, and classrooms were becoming crowded as a result. The complaining families called it a matter of fairness. Other parents called it a "witch hunt."
Wolfer was replaced by Cohn, who had spent the previous decade as principal of Munroe Elementary in west Denver, a school where 92 percent of the kids are poor, 96 percent are minorities, and test scores are low. Cohn applied for the Bromwell job because she wanted something completely different. "With Bromwell, I was attracted to the parental involvement and the challenge of how to take a high-achieving school and make it even higher," she says.
Eleven of Bromwell's 25 teachers were up for formal evaluations this past year, and Pishney was one of them. (Until the new state law kicks in, tenured teachers will continue to be evaluated every three years, while non-tenured teachers are evaluated every year.) Pishney had never failed an evaluation. "When I was there, I thought Mary was doing well," says Thompson, the now-retired principal who'd hired her, declining to say more because of personnel confidentiality issues. But Pishney has a letter that Thompson gave her in 2005, describing a comment made by a visiting DPS assistant superintendent. "She remarked that your class was the finest first-grade classroom that she had visited in her career," he wrote.
Wolfer won't go into detail, either, but confirms that Pishney passed her evaluations. "Her review allowed her to receive tenure," he says.
Still, Pishney was a little nervous about this next evaluation. "I told my principal at the beginning of the year that I'm on formal this year and I'm kind of an over-achiever and that I would do anything she wanted me to, and if she saw something she wanted done differently — because every principal has a little different take on it — to just let me know," Pishney says. "I never heard."
In October, the first "parent letters of concern" hit Cohn's desk, from parents complaining about Pishney's math lessons. "There isn't enough math being taught," one e-mail said. Another parent worried that her gifted children, including one in Pishney's class, weren't being challenged. Yet another blasted the entire first-grade curriculum and both first-grade teachers: "Any changes in first grade are long overdue and would be welcomed."
"The curriculum isn't advanced enough," says Carolyn Joy-Fortino, whose child was not in Pishney's class. "I think there are many great things about Bromwell and there's progress at all grades. But in first grade, there isn't."
"I have tremendous respect for Mary," says another parent, whose two children have had Pishney. "She's a very sweet, nice woman and she's really good with the kids. She's very grandmotherly. She bakes cookies. She's like your old-fashioned first-grade teacher. But what I saw my first year is that she covers up a lot of what she's not doing in the classroom with her personality. She rides by on her personality. The principals before now didn't mind. She snookered all of them."
Right away, "I could tell she wasn't doing enough math," this parent says.
"The poetry memorization was great. That was Mary's strongest suit," another parent says. "What I was alarmed to discover...was how some of the other pieces were lacking." The math piece was weak, and "there didn't seem to be any clear idea of the levels the kids were at: which ones needed more help, which ones needed more challenge."
Parents also criticized Pishney's "Super Star Student of the Week" awards as a waste of time. They said she made the kids do too much paperwork, showed too many films and spent too much time on her computer during class. When Cohn mentioned these parental complaints to Pishney, she responded both in her weekly newsletters to students' homes and in a three-page memo to the principal, explaining that the awards are "highly motivational" and that she uses her computer to answer parent e-mails and type vocabulary sheets for her students.
As for math, Pishney says she recognized that the beginning of the curriculum, which teaches how to count, is too easy for her gifted students, especially since many of them were taught first-grade math concepts in kindergarten. "The kids at Bromwell are very enriched," she says. "I mean, when they say they've been to Paris, it's not Texas — it's France." But parents need to understand that this curriculum is a district-wide program that teachers are required to follow. "I am tied to the curriculum," Pishney says. "So I would try to do things like extensions that would broaden that out: a little base-ten work ahead of time and maybe charting problems with the use of a ruler so they get greater dexterity. Anything to kind of take it away from being drab."