Even before winning the Gates grant, DPS was trying to change that. Two years ago, the district restructured its human resources department, which Boasberg says used to be a "paperwork shop," to focus more on helping principals recruit and evaluate teachers. Now every school has a human resources partner who acts as "an expert and very skilled and thoughtful advisor for the principal to help coach and support the principal in dealing with employee performance matters," he says. Each HR partner is responsible for fifteen to twenty schools.

The district plans to have a new teacher-evaluation system in place by 2011. It's working with stakeholders, including the teachers' union, to come up with a more nuanced system that will provide richer feedback for teachers and could include observations from their peers, says Spalten, DPS's chief human resources officer. A major factor in those evaluations will be whether a teacher's students are learning, and if they're not, a principal can put a teacher on remediation. Under the current system, a principal has thirty to ninety days to evaluate whether the teacher follows the remediation plan and improves; if the teacher doesn't improve, the principal can recommend the teacher for dismissal. But the teacher can also challenge that recommendation and request a hearing in front of a judge. The judge then makes another recommendation, which is sent to the school board. The boardmembers have the final say.

Of the seventy teachers on remediation this year, 24 went forward with the plan — but so far, only three of those have satisfactorily completed it. Another fifteen teachers resigned or retired rather than go through the process. Seven are fighting the designation in court; six are in the process of being fired. While they weighed their options, 27 of the teachers went on some sort of voluntary leave.

Mary Pishney is known as Miss P to all her students — and their parents.
Mark Manger
Mary Pishney is known as Miss P to all her students — and their parents.
Bromwell principal Jody Cohn gave Mary Pishney her first negative evaluation.
Mark Manger
Bromwell principal Jody Cohn gave Mary Pishney her first negative evaluation.

Miss P was one of those.

While some Bromwell parents complained to Cohn about Pishney, others, including Rhonda Platten, have written loving letters of support.

"My opinion is she was fabulous," says Platten, whose son was in Pishney's most recent class. "My son was at kindergarten level when he came into first grade. Now he is at average first-grade level. It only took her two months to catch him up."

Platten and her family moved to the Bromwell neighborhood because they'd heard good things about the school — though they'd also heard a few warnings. "I had heard before I moved here that there was a strong parent group," Platten says. "I just blew that off, like 'Yeah, whatever.' My point is I wanted to be part of a community."

But when she heard that a handful of parents had complained to the principal about Pishney's boring math program and her poetry memorization, Platten grew frustrated. "It just breaks my heart that this person who has worked so hard for it and who loves education — this is her life — that these people are like, 'Next!'" she says. "It just makes me sick to see a lot of really good teachers go down the tubes."

A dozen parents contacted for this story did not return calls or refused to talk. (Several Bromwell teachers also declined interviews.) Even parents who did agree to speak admit they're afraid their comments may cause the school staff to "single out" their children or other Bromwell parents to ostracize them. "We have a lot more years at this school," says the parent of one first-grader. "We don't want to create problems for our daughter."

Jennifer Lindberg isn't afraid to speak, though. After hearing wonderful things about Pishney, she requested that her son be in her class this past year. "I asked the parents ahead of us a couple grades who they recommended for each grade level," she says. "It was hands down, they all said, 'You want Miss P.'"

Lindberg's son had struggled in kindergarten at Bromwell. "It was really intense. I actually referred to it as a pressure cooker," she says. As a result, her son hated school — but Pishney turned that around.

"From day one, I'd say, 'How's school?' He'd say, 'Oh, it's great!'" Lindberg remembers. "He'd talk about this bird she had, Sweet Pea. He'd say, 'Miss P is going to bring Sweet Pea!' You would have thought it was Santa Claus. She had such a connection with him."

Lindberg witnessed that connection firsthand when she volunteered in Pishney's class. "She was always very friendly," Lindberg says, "but I could just tell she was more interested in the kids than in talking to the adults."

And the adults were beginning to talk about Pishney. In January, Lindberg heard rumors that some parents had complained about the teacher; another parent asked her to write a letter of support. Pishney "looked horrible," she remembers. "The stress was immense. I'd say, 'Please let me know if there's anything I can do to help.' She'd say, 'Thank you, but I'm okay.' Then we saw her one afternoon at the grocery store, and she said her doctor told her she needed to take a break. She didn't come back."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help