Green Woods Charter looks to improve diversity, special-needs curriculum with new CEO

On March 24, Jean Wallace announced her resignation as CEO of Green Woods Charter School.

In an email, Wallace said that “in twelve years, Green Woods has gone from a simple vision to a comprehensive, successful and respected school program known for excellence.” She lauded the school’s “academic success and fiscal responsibility,” “effective implementation of an EIC curriculum,” and the “many parents who have shared with me your personal stories.”

Wallace did not explain why she was leaving the school, but according to several members of the Green Woods Charter School PTA, it had everything to do with those personal stories.

“She refused to work with us. She refused to work with the teachers. She refused to acknowledge the blips,” said Bonnie Emelius, treasurer of the PTA.

Emelius says that textbooks were taken out of the school in favor of photocopied worksheets and an online data base. Teachers aren’t even given a blueprint to base their lessons around, she adds.

“My second grader is still doing worksheets from the beginning of the year,” said Brian Hackford, vice president of the PTA.

Green Woods’ curriculum is based on the EIC Model, which uses the environment as an integrating context. The model requires that K-8 classroom teachers use science content to integrate math and literacy and other subjects.

However, going outside the classroom for lessons is left up to the discretion of the teachers, says Stephanie Baralecki, chairwoman of PTA membership.

“Some do, but some don’t,” Baralecki said. “Parents are disappointed because we applied to the school with the belief of an environmental science focus.”

Another complaint with the curriculum is the lack of diversity, in subject material as well as teaching staff. A picture of staff on the school’s website shows only white faces. “It’s reflective of a lack of attention and concern for diversity issues,” Baralecki said.

“How do you get other perspectives?” Hackford added.

Every year parents reach out to the administration asking why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or any holiday honoring a cultural heritage is not celebrated.

In an email on February 4, Wallace told her staff to explain to parents that “rather than specific months of study being devoted to a cultural/gender history, such as Black History, Women’s History, Asian Heritage, Hispanic Heritage, Native American Heritage, Polish/American Heritage, etc. our science immersion approach focuses on celebrating all cultures and genders throughout the year as their contributions to the sciences unfold in specific topics.”

Wallace also discussed the appeal of Green Woods as a “choice” for families. “There are many charter schools in Philadelphia that devote their entire year and all aspects of their school program to Afrocentric Studies, Spanish Immersion, Latin Immersion, Multi-Cultural Instruction, Creative and Performing Arts, and more. Parents who prefer these programmatic approaches for their children can and do apply to these charter schools.”

It’s that “take it or leave it” undertone that caused Emily Brady to pull her son Cole out of Green Woods. Cole suffers from anxiety and ADHD and needs occupational therapy. Brady says that Cole was evaluated at Ellwood Elementary School and was given an IEP (Individualized Education Program). When he entered Green Woods, he was re-evaluated in kindergarten and Brady was told he didn’t need an IEP. Brady says she disagreed with the evaluation, and that Cole’s kindergarten teacher accommodated Cole’s needs, anyway.

However, first grade proved more challenging so Brady contacted Steve Masterson, dean of faculty and students, but she says he did not return her calls or emails. So she and her husband went to the school and waited in the lobby, letting the receptionist know that they could wait until Masterson had some free time to discuss their child’s needs.

“We were told that if we stayed, they’d call the police for trespassing and that we’d be banned from campus,” Brady said.

Brady hired Cole’s kindergarten teacher to tutor him, but she says Masterson threatened the kindergarten teacher’s job.

Brady recalled Masterson explaining that the school has 500 students on the waiting list and could fill Cole’s spot immediately if they were to leave.

So Brady moved her family to Haverford even though she still works at Roxborough High School.

“I’m totally anti-charter school now,” Brady said. “I’m tired of trying to fight for basic services. They tell you over and over again that your child doesn’t have a problem or if your child has a serious problem, they tell you they can’t help you and that you need to go to your local school.”

A phone call and email to Masterson have not been returned.

Parents’ concerns

Perhaps the biggest issue that the PTA members voiced was resistance among the administration to let parents volunteer. Hackford says that Wallace and her staff actively blocked communication between teachers and the PTA, which has about $30,000 in its bank account. Hackford says when he offered to purchase textbooks with the money, Wallace said it wasn’t necessary. Teachers were instructed not to share parents’ email addresses with other parents, Hackford says, even for homework questions or birthday party invitations.

“It’s called the Parent-Teacher Association and there were never any teachers allowed at the meetings,” Hackford said.

After years of frustration with the administration, the PTA mobilized an effort to unite the parents and teachers and remove Wallace as CEO. A survey was sent out to parents gauging what they thought about Green Woods.

Hackford says there countless ideas for activities such as museum night, intramural basketball, a science fair.

“We’re an environmental science school, and we don’t even have a science fair,” Hackford quipped.

When he showed Wallace the survey results, Hackford says she replied, “I have no interest in looking at that.”

In the winter of 2015, Hackford says he and PTA President Heather Cowley sat down with the Green Woods Board of Trustees Chairwoman Dawn Prall George to air their grievances. At the board meeting on February 18, about 50 parents attended to also air their grievances.

Baralecki says that usually only two or three parents of the 675-member student body attend the meetings.

At the same meeting, Wallace presented a PTA policy to the board for approval. The policy stated that the “PTA must provide all in-school communication to GWCS to, then, be distributed by GWCS to the GWCS staff. Should employees receive communication directly from the PTA, all communications with the PTA regarding GWCS or GWCS business must be forwarded to the CEO.”

The policy also required that PTA volunteers go through a school liaison concerning the use of school resources.

Wallace said that the policy was created in conjunction with the PTA, who had vetted the document and agreed with its requirements. The board passed it.

Except for one problem: Hackford says the PTA never saw it.

After the meeting, Hackford says he confronted Wallace, who denied making the policy (which has since been overturned).

On March 17, Wallace sent an email to staff attached with a summary report of an initiative the School Leadership Team performed to address parents’ concerns. The team met with parents to discuss various issues at the school and collaborate on solutions, very similar to the survey that the PTA had issued a year prior. The teachers were asked to sign the report, illustrating a collective awareness and agreement to implement its proposed actions, which would be then sent to the board.

However, the teachers refused. “It was a symbolic vote of no confidence,” Emelius said.

Six days later, Wallace resigned. Phone calls to Wallace have not been returned.

Search is on

On April 4, Board Chairwoman Dawn Prall George sent an email to families announcing that Wallace’s resignation had been approved and that a search for a new CEO was underway.

George says that Jen Weikert, secretary of the board, has been asked to lead a committee that will be all inclusive of parents, staff, teachers, and the board to lead the search for a new CEO.

“It is a challenging position to fill, but we’re confident that we’ll find the right professional with the right experience who is a good fit,” George said.

In the meantime, Dr. Leroy Nunery has been chosen as interim CEO.

“He is by far one of the most qualified professionals who is deeply committed to charter school education from an operational standpoint to strategic planning,” George said.

Nunery is the founder and principal of Plus Ultre LLC, a management consultant firm that specializes in K-12 education. He is a former deputy superintendent and deputy CEO of the Philadelphia School District as well as special assistant to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education.

“My business has turned into focusing on transformations and transitions of schools and/or replicating good models,” Nunery said. “I will know I’ve succeeded when the new CEO comes in and is greeted warmly by the parents, there has been input by all the stakeholder groups, and a year after he or she is placed, sits down with me over a cup of coffee and says ‘hey, this was a great decision.'”

Nunery says there is a “myriad of issues” at Green Woods, but those issues are echoed in charter schools throughout Philadelphia. When he entered the field in 2005, there were just about one million kids in charter schools around the country. Nowadays, there are more than 3 million. Nunery says the populations that entered charter schools a decade ago have changed—there are more students with different ethnic backgrounds, more students with special needs, and more students who know English as a second language.

“Green Woods has enormous upside potential,” Nunery said. “How do you maximize that?”

Nunery says the school will refocus its environmental science mission and make sure teachers adhere to it. He also says that the communication between administration and parents will be restored.

“Parental engagement is the one thing that will make a school truly great versus good or not so good,” Nunery said.

As for diversity, Nunery says it’s not as simple as it may seem.

“Green Woods is not alone as a charter school in having a predominantly white or predominantly female staff,” Nunery said. “The selection of teachers of color is a lot harder because they need certain certifications for science and math and technology. Charters also have a harder time across the board in recruiting because they can’t keep up with the same salary rate as the district can.”

As a 60-year-old African American man, Nunery says he can understand the parent’s concerns, but for him, it’s also a positive step toward the future.

“It’s a good thing if people start to recognize in a city like Philadelphia, as diverse as it is and as it’s going to be, they want their kids to be exposed to as many people of all types as possible,” Nunery said.

For parents like Emily Brady, Nunery says her IEP concerns have been echoed ad nauseam at School Reform Commission meetings. Schools need an adequate amount of therapists, psychological support, and behavioral support, Nunery says, and every teacher must understand how an IEP is to be put in place.

“I haven’t seen any school that does it perfectly,” Nunery said. “There is a lot of room for improvement across the board.”

Bridging the gap

The PTA accomplished its mission and the members are hopeful for the future of Green Woods.

“It has the potential to be a great school with dedicated, creative teachers and an exceptional group of parents committed to being involved with their children’s education,” Baralecki said.

“The kids still love going there,” Emelius added.

Although Hackford is pleased with the school’s progress, it’s too little too late. Even though his kids are finishing the school year at Green Woods, the family has moved to Abington Township, where Hackford’s bike shop Keswick Cycle operates from. He says he and his wife grew up in the suburbs and that there are simply more opportunities for their children in suburban schools.

As for Nunery, Hackford believes he’s the right man for the job.

“He and I are firm believers in customer service,” Hackford said. “Two things people care about more than themselves: their kids and their money.”

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