3 St. Paul Heights teachers file complaint alleging age and gender bias
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, March 26, 2012 –
Three educators at St. Paul’s Heights Community School say in a complaint to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that they were singled out because of their age and gender.
The two teachers and a media specialist at the East Side school allege their principal frequently stopped to observe them and critique their performance. The three – Leslie Greaves Radloff, Carla Renz and Beverly Hanson – are on extended medical leave.
“They are all female, and they are all 50 years old or older,” said Phillip Trobaugh, their attorney. “They are all experienced, highly educated, highly regarded professionals.”
Jeff Lalla, the St. Paul Public Schools counsel, said the district could not comment on the complaint because it involves personnel matters.
The teachers’ complaint comes as St. Paul principals are spending more time than ever observing teachers in classrooms. District leaders consider a principal’s role in guiding instruction as a key piece of St. Paul’s three-year plan to raise achievement.
On Lalla’s advice, Heights Principal Jayne Ropella declined to be interviewed.
Heights Community School also is at the center of a litigation threat by parents alleging a sixth-grade teacher there discriminated against their children, who are black, and the school ignored their complaints. That teacher, Tim Olmsted, resigned last week.
Since 2009, employees and families made 53 human rights complaints against the 37,000-student district, including 37 with
the state Human Rights Department, Lalla said. By his estimate, about 90 percent were dismissed.
PAY SCALE AN ISSUE?
The three teachers, who filed the complaint earlier this month, say they became the focus of scrutiny a few weeks after the start of the school year – and Ropella’s arrival.
The principal frequently showed up and left handwritten notes on their desks, often after only a few minutes of observation, they said.
They say they felt the criticism – based on what they deemed cursory impressions – was not constructive. They also allege the school was trying to force them out because they are at or near the top of the educator pay scale.
“She wasn’t really trying to help us become better teachers,” said Hanson, a third-grade teacher, referring to Ropella. “By the second month of school, everybody was terrified.”
Hanson offers test results from last spring, when her students scored well above targets in math, as well recommendations from former supervisors to counter a scathing evaluation she received last fall. Ropella rated her “below standard” in 15 out of 26 areas, giving her low marks for her interactions with students and her lesson’s rigor.
Radloff, the media specialist, was placed on a formal improvement plan and filed a complaint against Ropella in January. The district still is investigating.
That is the only formal complaint ever filed against Ropella, a 15-year veteran of St. Paul Schools, the district said.
In 2001, Ropella left Dayton’s Bluff Elementary amid friction between herself, her staff and families. And parents at Eastern Heights Elementary signed a petition opposing Ropella before she became principal at the school.
By the mid-2000s, however, the district was touting a spike in test scores at Eastern Heights as a success story, and Ropella won state recognition for her leadership.
Trobaugh, the teachers’ attorney, said a complaint by one employee is easier to dismiss. But, “We have three individuals with very similar stories to tell,” he said. “All three have never had any prior discipline or performance issues.”
The exception is a 2008 four-day suspension without pay for Hanson for her handling of two incidents when students acted out in her classroom.
The Department of Human Rights can take up to a year to investigate complaints, a spokesman said. Complaints are not public documents, and Trobaugh did not provide a copy.
The teachers, meanwhile, all are on medical leave for stress-related reasons, Trobaugh said.
St. Paul administrators, meanwhile, say more frequent principal classroom observations are a districtwide reality: Last year, principals at the district’s roughly 70 schools completed more than 7,000 classroom visits. This year, observations count toward new principal evaluations, and school leaders are on track to surpass last year’s numbers.
“We want principals in classrooms providing teachers with feedback and support,” said Andrew Collins, the district’s assistant superintendent for elementary schools.
At the elementary level, principals are expected to complete at least five observations a year for each teacher. At the secondary level, the district wants principals to spend two full days each week visiting classrooms.
In an effort to make instruction more consistent across the district, the principals are to make sure teachers are staying on track with paced curriculums. They watch for the building blocks of effective instruction that district leaders have rallied around, such as ensuring students can articulate the goal of each lesson. They are trained to observe and offer written feedback in as little as three minutes.
Most teachers welcome the feedback, said Willie Jett, the assistant superintendent for high schools.
Mary Cathryn Ricker, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, would not say if the union has fielded complaints from other teachers about the more frequent observations.
This year, the union negotiated to extend its peer assistance program for new teachers to tenured educators, including those who face a formal improvement plan.
“The goal is that people feel like they have avenues of support and not just documentation,” she said. “A teacher doesn’t have to wait until someone else accuses them of struggling.”
Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.