‘They are overwhelmed. They’re drowning’: Jefferson Twp. schools facing deep problems

Tiny Jefferson Twp. Schools has had an unstable first two months of the school year, as new principals were hired days before school started and some departed teachers were not replaced, leaving families frustrated with educational quality.

Jefferson’s school board fired the district’s two principals in late May despite some community opposition. When school started Aug. 8 under replacements hired days earlier, the remaining teachers scrambled to cover assignments and students did not have class schedules.

Thomas Jennings, new principal of the roughly 145-student grade 7-12 high school, said Tuesday the school is still trying to hire another three teachers, struggling to find subs, and sometimes has teachers either covering two classes of 18 or 19 students at once or overseeing classes they’re not certified to teach.

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“The biggest frustration is understaffing, especially at the junior high / high school,” teachers’ union President Brittney Fries said. “They are overwhelmed. They’re drowning. They feel like there is no help as they’re covering too many kids, and they’re not getting an education.”

Parent Tennille Keeton cited her seventh-grade daughter’s experience Monday as an example.

Keeton said her daughter’s first- and second-period English teachers had been out for close to a week for different reasons, so an athletic staffer monitored those classrooms Monday, as well as her third-period gym class. She said the fourth- and fifth-period math classes, as well as a seventh-period science class, were handled by a special education teacher who was filling in for the regular teacher, who was placed on leave. Keeton said her daughter’s sixth-grade social studies class was the only core class taught Monday by the assigned teacher.

“It’s almost the end of the first quarter, and that’s the only class she’s gotten a progress report in,” Keeton said.

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Longtime Superintendent Richard Gates said in addition to the new principals, the district lost its longtime coordinator for EMIS (the state’s education management information system) and wasn’t able to fill that role until after the school year started. He repeatedly said Tuesday student schedules have been “a work in progress.”

“I’m an optimistic person. I’d say be patient,” Gates said when asked for a message to concerned families. “We have areas we need to improve, and we acknowledge that. I can’t promise we’re going to be the absolute answer to every parent’s dreams. But we’re working toward that progress.”

Fries and Keeton both made some claims Gates and Jennings disputed. Keeton said in the first month of the school year, her daughter and dozens of other students often spent half of their school day essentially in a study hall because of a lack of teachers, with district athletic director William Mitchell overseeing the cafeteria/gym where students were gathered. Fries confirmed high school teachers told her the same.

Jennings acknowledged some students spent as much as two periods per day not being taught because of vacancies, but he claimed it was never half of the school day.

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“When we put them in the digital library, they can work on the computer. All we need is somebody to make sure that they’re working, and if they have questions, they can ask them,” Jennings said. “So they’re still getting their core courses, even though a true instructor may not be dealing with that at that time. … They may be in there for a period, or possibly even two, but it’s never been over that.”

Fries said seventh- and eighth-graders received no math or science instruction the first month of the school year.

Jennings said, “I don’t believe that to be true,” saying classrooms of 18 or 19 students were doubled up so students were still taught, and adding, “we’ve had kids say things that aren’t necessarily true.”

Gates said there was one certified math teacher at the high school from the first day of the school year. He acknowledged the special education teacher/phys ed teacher currently covering some math classes is not certified in math.

Keeton said the high school atmosphere is bad with students roaming hallways without adult supervision. She said her daughter is a strong student, but the family is frustrated.

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“This is just not how a school should be operating,” Keeton said Monday. “We’re 6-8 weeks in, and my daughter has not brought home a single homework assignment.”

Jefferson’s 2017-18 state report card, released last month, gave the district an overall “D” with an “F” in achievement on tests and a “D” in student progress. The performance index on tests rebounded to 2016 levels after a dip in 2017, ahead of only Northridge, Trotwood and Dayton.

Both of Jefferson’s principals are new to the role — Jennings had been director of Webster Street Academy, a licensed mental health program, and Blairwood Elementary Principal Monica Woods had been a high school teacher last year.

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Fries said Blairwood, where she teachers fourth grade, had disorganization and understaffing similar to the high school at the beginning of the year, but has improved with some recent hires. She said student technology roll-out is still lagging after being a strong point last year.

Fries said teachers have gotten little training in the more than four years she’s been there and received no training on the “professional development” days listed on the school calendar this August. Gates said he wanted to wait until more positions were filled before holding that training.

“At the elementary school our biggest disappointment is that we felt like we were making so much progress (last year), and we were so excited for this year, and it’s gone to waste,” she said. “Progress that individual students made behaviorally and academically has gone backward because there’s been so much transition and chaos.”

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