Shoreline nearly rids bilingual teacher

03/15/2012

Bilingual teacher Judy Van Evera will keep her job at West Marin School, Shoreline Unified School District trustees announced Monday at the close of a two-hour special meeting in which co-workers and parents decried the loss a talented instructor from a school with over 50 percent Latino students.

The meeting was allegedly triggered by a complaint that Van Evera, a second-grade teacher in her first year at the school, was a poor fit in the community. Board members listened as teachers and parents declared their support for Van Evera, one of five bilingual educators at the school, before breaking for a closed-door discussion.

During her five-minute address to the board, Van Evera described a fickle and frustrating relationship with West Marin School Principal Anne Harris. It was Harris, she said, who called for the discontinuation of her contract after someone complained that she was neither a “good fit in the community” nor a “warm and fuzzy enough” instructor.

“I was told that someone had a complaint. I was never told who, never spoken to directly from this mysterious complainer, and therefore never got the opportunity to hear exactly what the problem was, clear up the misunderstanding or work toward a resolution in any manner,” Van Evera said. “How can one win in such a situation?”

Harris attended the meeting but did not address trustees, instead sitting quietly by herself and leaving before the board announced its decision. She declined to comment for this story. 

The board would not disclose what caused it to consider terminating Van Evera’s contract, but Trustee Julie Titus said it had nothing to do with budgetary cuts.

After Van Evera’s testimony, seven teachers stood in solidarity while one, Joann Kempf, read from a prepared statement of support: “Events like firing a teacher are unsettling and disruptive to the staff and community, and can undermine the morale and trust within the school… We feel that Judy is part of the positive change that is taking place in our school … [and] an asset to the team as we move forward to close the achievement gap.”

Shoreline’s Latino population is less than half as proficient in math and English as its white counterpart, according to the California Department of Education’s 2011 Adequate Yearly Progress report.

One teacher’s aide recited a letter from the mother of a handicapped child in Van Evera’s class: “[My son is] an educational challenge that Judy has handled without blinking an eye. [Van Evera] works to make sure he is a part of the class. I have never had a problem with her, and have found her to be an excellent teacher.”

Neysa King, whose son is also in Van Evera’s class, attested that the teacher had done wonders with a “boisterous, full-of-energy bunch.” “I don’t know if I would describe working with them as the ‘warm and fuzzy’ need,” she said. “These kids need a lot of good and firm guidance, and I see that with Ms. V.”

King and others noted that Van Evera’s bilingualism is a critical asset to a school in which 54 percent of students come from Spanish-speaking homes. “We should have more [bilingual teachers], not less,” Lazuli Whitt, the parent of a first-grader, said.

“I’ve spoken with several of [Van Evera’s] students while doing research for my son’s next year. They love her. I mean, they think she is strict, but I think that is a good thing,” Whitt added. “So, I’m just trying to understand the motivation here.”

Marisol Salgado, a Latina mother and community family advocate, said her second-grade son—“a very high-energy boy”—was thriving in Van Evera’s class. “He’s doing really, really well and I think that is because of the way she is supporting him,” Salgado said. “I just—I don’t want to be mean—but how can someone say what our community is and whether someone belongs in it or not? As a minority, that really concerns me.”

Trustee Kegan Stedwell said that prior to the meeting she had received several letters from staff and parents relaying messages of support for Van Evera.

“It’s obvious she’s a good teacher, so something else is going on here,” Carlos Porrata, a former board trustee who has helped champion recent efforts to close the achievement gap between white and Latino students, said. “When other teachers stay quiet and just allow the process to go on, then it’s probably a good thing. When you have a bunch of them saying this is a good teacher and what you’re doing is wrong, then it becomes clear that there is something else going on here.

“I’m trying to stay really calm, but, frankly, this is very upsetting and I hope you guys question this decision
seriously.”

After adjourning for over an hour of closed session, trustees returned to announce that “Judy will be back with us for another year.” The room of 20 or so attendees erupted in applause and Van Evera thanked everyone.

“I am honored beyond words that the community spoke of such support for me,” she wrote in an email Wednesday. “It truly touches my heart.”

Yet the announcement left several questions unanswered, such as how the incident would impact staff moral.

Shoreline has dealt with its share of contentious personnel decisions over the years, the most recent concerning the transfer of Dolores Gonzalez, a bilingual librarian and teacher’s aide, to Tomales High in 2010.

Gonzalez’s relocation prompted ardent backlash from many in the community who described her as a conduit between the school administration and Latino families.

That same year, the board cut spending on supplies and sports transportation in order to re-hire three bilingual teachers laid off in the wake of budget cuts. The school now has five accredited bilingual instructors.

But unlike those decisions, which trustees discussed in widely publicized and attended meetings, Van Evera’s fate was decided relatively quietly.

Salgado said she heard about the meeting through a friend only one or two days prior to its taking place, and wondered how many other parents and community members might have shown up to express their support had they known it was happening.