The Hartford Board of Education will meet behind closed doors during tonight’s meeting to discuss Capital Prep Principal Steve Perry. Rather than attend to his duties as a Hartford public school principal, Perry has missed 20 percent of the school days this year as he gallivants around the country giving speeches for hire. If he were a student he’d be classified as a truant.
When Perry manages to make it to school he spends an inordinate amount of his time blasting out Tweets from his Twitter Account. Among his Tweets last year was one that included a threat against his political opponents that would have gotten a student, teacher or another school administrator arrested, suspended or fired.
Meanwhile, recent news coverage reveals that despite being a full-time, year-round Hartford Board of Education employee, pulling down a hefty six-figure income, Perry has formed a charter school management company and has submitted a proposal to open a charter school in Bridgeport.
Perry’s Bridgeport proposal now goes before Governor Malloy’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor. Late last year Pryor and his senior staff played a key role in the failed attempt to convince the Hartford Board of Education to turn Capital Prep Magnet School and another Hartford elementary school over to Perry’s private company along with $15 million a year in state funds.
Underlying the whole situation is Perry’s domineering management style which has been described as nothing short of a model of how bullying destroys a workplace.
So far this year, Steve Perry has lost seven teachers.
Perry’s scorched earth management style, including using his Twitter account to bully teachers, has persuaded a number of former teachers to come forward to shares heitr experience at Capital Prep.
Here is one of the most powerful and disturbing exposés to date:
“If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a nonworking cat.” Douglas Adams
To understand something, it can help to hear the journey it took to get to the point of the problem. For those of you that have a moment, I’ve prepared a personal history of my experience and qualifications. If you just want the gist of what is happening at Capital Prep, skip over and head to the next section.
Teaching is a family vocation and one I was not looking to pursue. I was more interested in business management and didn’t think of teaching as a viable career; low pay, long hours, high demands and little if any recognition. Just the satisfaction of working with students, which didn’t pay bills. After several years in the business world, however, I wasn’t feeling any satisfaction, just plenty of frustration.
There was a Masters/Certification program that stood out from others that I had casually looked at. It was a Constructivist program, a theory of learning that relies on the learner’s participation more than the teachers.
It is best summed up:
A traditional classroom would teach a student to bake bread by providing them with directions, pre-measured ingredients and an oven. The completed loaf of bread would be compared to a bread rubric and given a score.
Constructivists would provide the oven and a discussion of ingredients and then allow the students to create a loaf of bread. There would be a number of failures, some successes, and a lot of evidence to discuss. The group would determine what ingredients had what effect on the baking and, together, create multiple recipes for different loaves of bread.
As a high school dropout (I completed only my freshman year) this style of education appealed to me. If I had it in any school I attended I would have been more engaged. I made it a point to utilize it in any way that I could.
My student teaching assignment was in a semi-private school in New Haven that offered full scholarships to disadvantaged children. My mentor teacher wrote a stunning letter of recommendation (Letter of recommendation here) and I moved on to teach my first year in Bridgeport. I was overwhelmed by the needs of the kids. Urban education is not for the neophyte. With good recommendations and references I moved to Branford and began teaching there. I received several commendations including one for creating a tech team and program for the middle school (Letter of recommendation here).
But teaching at that point was still a low paying job. I was earning extra money working in the summer teaching adults computer skills. I was asked to do this for staff and to assist them with working computers and software into their lesson plans.
A software vendor who was in the school training staff on the same day I was teaching a group noticed how effective I was doing and approached me with an offer. On her recommendation I took a job with a software company to do the same for them throughout the United States. The money was nearly double what I was making as a teacher and the travel and incentives were just amazing.
After a year I began to miss the classroom and the impact I had on children. Not wanting to return to teaching and the low pay I decided to go to law school with the intent on becoming an advocate for children. While in law school DCF hired me as a social worker.
I worked as a DCF social worker until after I passed the bar exam. As with education, juvenile law attorneys are not well paid. This seems to be a theme in Connecticut for professionals that work with our most precious resource.
I took a position with a civil rights organization as a trainer, working with staff, attorneys and the public and then moved to a position with the Connecticut Bar Association, coordinating CLE training and assisting attorneys with their presentations. I also helped design a program with Charter Oak College for paralegals, taught college courses in two different bachelors programs, and wrote curriculum for educational companies.
When the state began paying enough to support a professional, I opened a law firm and transitioned from representing children through Lawyers for Children America pro bono to a full time contract with the state.
For four years I represented parents and children who were caught up in the child protection system. I helped clients fill out Section 8 forms, apply for benefits, contact distant relatives, drove them to appointments and, most importantly, fought for their rights to be a family.
The state eliminated the department that was paying juvenile attorneys and, ½ way through my MBA, I began to work with corporate clients and ended up working full time with a for-profit education company doing their compliance work.
It was while working for the company that I came back into contact with schools and students and realized how much I missed the environment. I reached out to UConn Neag school of education and talked to them about their various programs. I reached out to two Superintendents of schools to ask about the program and talk to them about career paths in school leadership. I applied for the UCAPP program and was fortunate enough to be accepted as one of 12 in the group. I took summer classes while working full time and had to write a letter to the UConn graduate program explaining how I was going to juggle two graduate programs. To me it was worth it – I wanted to be back in education.
In addition to personal motivation, it was the culmination of 20 years of experience along with a Masters in Education, a JD and an MBA. A Sixth Year would be the prefect preparatory cap.
While I was completing my summer courses, the company for which I was working suffered some financial issues and had to do some layoffs. I received a glowing letter of recommendation (letter here) and had a decision to make. I could continue the year on unemployment and some side work while I was in the program and hope that I might be able to get an administration job after a year (the program is two years). I could go back to practicing law, but it would mean developing a firm that could provide an income that I would then need to close it in order to take a leadership position. With this in mind I started to apply for teaching positions.
I was hired as a creative writing teacher at Capital Prep to teach Pre-K to 7th grade. I was excited about the social justice theme. I had worked for a civil rights organization, had just closed a law firm that focused on social and constitutional rights, and felt it was particularly appropriate given the urban climate. In addition the chance to work in creative writing without having to deal with common core objectives (or so I was told) gave me the chance to give students a creative outlet for writing.
I am only certified for K-6th so I would be teaching two grades for which I am not certified. This is not unusual at CP and is something that the union is well aware of. As I came to find, the union is well aware of what is going on in the school but cannot step forward to do anything unless a teacher files a grievance. But, given Perry’s union philosophy, that could pretty much end a teaching career.
You see, once a teacher is fired, they have to admit that on every application they submit to any system going forward. A school system is highly unlikely to take a chance on a teacher who was terminated, especially when they are getting 300 applications for every open position. They are looking for reasons to turn people down and “terminated mid-year” is a pretty easy one.
Non-tenured teachers live with the stress that at any moment, a school leader can end their job and, unless the teacher decides that they never want to teach again, there is little they can do to fight it. So they accept the opportunity to resign and go on their way. Perry is well aware of this and exercises total control of the building and teachers through bullying and intimidation.
More odd than the nightmarish hostile work environment is the lack of basic materials in the school. I requested the language arts curriculum, specifically the writing curriculum, so that I could align the creative writing lesson plans to the current writing assignments. It doesn’t exist. Despite the fact that the lower school has been around for several years, the teachers for the most part are new and at no point were they brought together to create a uniform curriculum for any of the subject areas.
That’s not all that the school was missing. They were directed to create a PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) program and, after starting it, were asked to provide basic documents and plans. When they could not (despite being in existence for over 7 years) they were removed from the program until such time that they could develop these basic documents. This was inexcusable, but not the only discrepancy that existed either in required paperwork or plans.
The best example of how little academics means in the school is that they have no budget for books in the library – they had donated books, but they were stacked into the shape of a Christmas tree seven feet high because the children could not check the books out. And it was a good thing – I found a copy of 50 Shades of Grey among the titles – but they had brand new football uniforms and equipment for the football team.
If I was isolated in the school without contacts I might have thought that this was just the way Hartford schools are run.
But as part of my Sixth Year program I was interning with the former Assistant Superintendent for Hartford Magnet Schools and Perry’s former boss. I was also running into ex-Hartford leadership employees, such as Desi Nesmith, former Principal at SAND school and administrator of the year and Dr. Howard Thiery, Superintendent of Schools for District 17 and a former Hartford Principal. These three professionals, as well as other contacts, gave me a clearer idea of what was happening in Hartford and, by reflection, specifically Capital Prep.
I began to notice that I was being singled out for treatment by administration at Capital Prep. In speaking to other teachers, I found out that many of the issues I was encountering, such as observations, videotaping of me during duties, denying me the opportunity for professional development, and other issues were mine alone. Multiple times I was told by other professionals that I was being singled out, targeted, and on a few occasions that it was because of my race and gender.
That wasn’t difficult to believe. When I was hired there were two male elementary teachers. One left (not an unusual occurrence at Capital Prep given that the school purportedly has the highest turnover rate in Hartford, if not the state) and was replaced by a female teacher. That meant that of the 16 classroom teachers on staff, only one was male. And he is an assistant football coach, so by reputation untouchable.
Football is everything at Capital Prep. To the point where players can get away with bullying, intimidation, and horseplay beyond what one could accept. The school is rife with stories, told in disbelieving tones, by teachers who witness events but don’t know what to do about it. One player at the end of the 12-13 school year actually set off fireworks near some kindergarten children. He was not disciplined and was back in school for the following year.
But it is not just the teachers who are bullied and intimidated. Teachers are encouraged to run students up and down stairs if they misbehave, or run them out on the field to exhaustion. I did not witness this, but overheard teachers telling other teachers about doing it and was offered it as a suggestion for dealing with behavior problems. Flabbergasted, I asked what they would do if a student, in their shiny and slippery dress shoes, turned an ankle or slipped and fell down a flight of stairs. This was met with stony silence.
Administrators have put students in the hall outside their offices holding books out at shoulder height to embarrass and humiliate them while causing pain from the weight. These sorts of punishments are not seen as unusual and are overlooked by staff as if it is not an unusual occurrence.
I struggled with the harsh punishment and discipline tone of the school. I mentioned it to other school leadership who seemed to be more bewildered than anything else, wondering why they would engage in this type of punishment when the focus was supposed to be on positive student behaviors. But at no point did anyone react as if it was especially troubling or illegal that it was happening. It seems that urban schools have a different standard. If any of what I saw were to occur in a suburban school or community there would be an investigation. In Hartford, it’s just seen as business as usual.
The continuous unacceptable negative treatment targeted at me culminated in an evaluation that was specifically designed to fail me. The overall average score I received on the evaluation indicated educational malpractice. In the words of a SEED trainer “To get that score, you would have to call a kid “stupid” to their face in class in response to a question. The score is that bad.”
In their zealous pursuit to demean and belittle me had they just scored me on the low average I would not have given a second thought about it. I was out of the elementary classroom for a while, I was responsible for 9 grades of material, I was dealing with student ages that I had some, but not a lot of, experience with. I agreed that I had room to grow and was actively working with teachers at other schools (remember, the bulk of teachers at CP are new) to grow my skills. But scoring me at a level of educational malpractice just revealed what administration was really up to.
Because of the evaluation score I had no choice but to withdraw from the UCAPP sixth year program. It not only meant the end of my career as a teacher, but as an administrator as well. This was especially distressing since I had planned to pursue my career in the area where I was most passionate – urban education.
But that wasn’t my greatest concern. The information I was slowly gathering on what the children were exposed to within the school was incomplete. I filed a DCF-136 form as a mandated reporter due to the stories I was hearing about the risk that children are put in from bullying and physical discipline, as well as the needless pain of the corporal punishment I had witnessed. I then filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint with the Hartford BOE alleging discriminatory practices and hostile work environment. I was told I would hear from the BoE investigator. Four days later, after no word from the BoE, I filed a formal complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
I sent an email to the HR person at Capital Prep who would be responsible for an EEO complaint. The email exchange is (emails here and here). Three hours later, Perry sent an email to the BoE requesting that I be terminated. (email here) A packet supporting the termination was not prepared until the following Tuesday. I followed up my CHRO complaint with complaints of retaliation to CHRO and the Attorney General’s office.
After a few weeks Hartford contacted me to offer the traditional “resign or be fired choice.” I refused to resign, hoping that it was a bluff and that they were really not going to retaliate against someone filing something as serious as a 136 or a CHRO complaint. At that point I did not know that they had already planned on terminating me on October 25 but had post-dated the termination letter.
Since that point I have had to file complaints with the Department of Labor (they did not send a final paycheck), the Attorney General’s office (retaliation for firing after filing a DCF 136 form), CHRO (retaliation for filing a CHRO complaint), and FOIA (refusal to turn over documents on FOI request). The Hartford Board of Education seems to have taken a hostile position against me despite the fact that I am the victim of discrimination. Without investigation, Hartford Corporate Counsel has refused efforts on my part to reach out to talk with them about the situation.
So it is not just Perry – it is Hartford who knowingly gives him permission to behave as he does. Perry is not the problem – to root it out would require following the path up through administration to the top. But that is not going to happen.
It is clear to me now some of the many ways that we fail our urban children. What’s soul saddening is that the people who can actually do something about it stand silently by while profiteers mine them for all they are worth out of self-interest.
You can find this blog post at: http://itsenoughto.blogspot.com/2014/02/what-happened-at-capital-prep.html