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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Working with Highland Hall - Open Letter to Highland Hall Community

Pete Karaiskos

Open letter to Highland Hall:
The Board of Directors
The College of Teachers
The Administration
The Faculty
The Parent Body

July 4, 2001
Dear Friends,
Highland Hall is a school in a crisis! I have tried unsuccessfully to have faith that things will get better. Recently my faith was, once again, shattered with the recent problems surrounding the employment of Wendy Wilkins. I say "once again" because I have observed a pattern of "faith-shattering" decisions, policies and attitudes for at least two years. What is most distressing to me is that the people exhibiting such poor judgment are the same people who are involved in the education of my children.

Frankly, I am furious at what my children have had to go through regarding their teachers. My son Christopher was misplaced with Mrs. Dimitrova and then, after he was exhibiting some stress, we had him repeat the 2nd grade with Mr. Janczak's class where he thrived. Then we lost Mr. Janczak and he first had Mrs. Leonard, and then ended up with Mrs. Wilkins. Now, he will have yet another teacher to look forward to.

My daughter, [redacted], has been from Miss Atkinson to Mrs. Devries to Mrs. Leonard and it looks like Mrs. Leonard will only be here another year. She, too, will have to adjust to yet another teacher it seems. It was necessary for her to adapt to three different teachers in order for her to complete two grades. At what point can a parent conclude that the school isn't working in the best interest of their children?

Now, none of this would have transpired if not for the senseless firing of Mr. Janczak. I don't think it serves any purpose to stir up old wounds, and I only mention the firing of Mr. Janczak here because it raises the questions of the more relevant issue of trust. I believe we all witnessed a pre-rehearsed school-supported conspiratorial effort to discredit Mr. Janczak in the eyes of the parents of his class. More than a year has gone by and I still don't understand why. The almost unanimous show of support by the parents for their children's teacher counted for nothing. Why not? The light went out of my son's and many of his classmate's eyes when they lost his teacher. How are we parents supposed to trust that the faculty, college, board and administration are working in our children's best interest after this?

I can't understand the hiring of the new 2nd grade teacher - Mrs. DeVries. I can't imagine what could have been going through the mind of the persons who accepted this woman's application, but I can understand that there may not have been very many applicants for the position. Five minutes into the first meeting with Mrs. DeVries, I knew she wasn't qualified to teach at any level, let alone at a Waldorf school and I also knew I didn't want her for my daughter's teacher. I can't imagine the person who would in good conscience make the decision to saddle my child with such an unqualified teacher - theoretically through the eighth grade. I am not going to berate anyone for making a bad decision but I would pose the question - What voice do we as individual parents have when the school selects a teacher that obviously isn't qualified - or wants to remove a teacher who obviously is qualified? What choice do we have but to be united in our voice in order to promote positive change? And in the case where we have united behind a teacher, why wasn't our voice heard?

Concurrent with the hiring of Mrs. DeVries, Mrs. Wilkins was hired. Aside from her
obvious family problems, she was hardly the caliber of teacher she was replacing - that was, again, obvious. Again, maybe there was a shortage of teachers at the time this hiring was going on. Clearly, the school was negligent in researching her background. Clearly, the school may have been less than forthcoming with information about her. It was, apparently, very easy to discover her past history with a few phone calls. The question is - Why weren't these phone calls made? And, if they were made and this information was discovered, why was she hired? And, if she had to be hired, why weren't we, the parents, informed so that we could decide for ourselves whether this teacher was one that we would accept for our children? As a parent affected by the hiring of this inadequate and potentially harmful teacher, I would have preferred to have been informed that NO suitable teacher could be found to take the class. At least that would have been honest on the part of the school and I could have been the one to make the choices affecting my child's education and well-being.

A tremendous trust was broken when the school hired these two teachers. I'm sorry, but I've lost enough faith in this school to consider the possibility that, in light of the fact that a competitive school was being formed by our former teachers, a decision was reached that the issue of filling the teaching spot took precedent over pursuing the questions of incompetence or a potentially dangerous history in the new teacher's background. I can only hope I'm wrong about this.

One might pose another question here. What is it about Highland Hall, a well-established Waldorf School, that doesn't seem to be able to attract the top teachers in the country? When it does attract good teachers, why is it unable to keep them? I believe the problem is internal. I believe there is an undercurrent that is eroding the foundation principles of this school, demoralizing the teachers and isolating the parents. The undercurrent puts what it believes are the needs of the school above the needs of the children. The undercurrent is more concerned about boosting tuition than it is about producing a healthy learning environment. The undercurrent is more concerned with how much money an event will draw than it is about how safe our children will be during the event. And, when something goes wrong, the undercurrent insists that parents only talk directly to the College or Board, and not among themselves.

This undercurrent is something I've noticed - perhaps we've all noticed it. It is quick to discredit a once beloved teacher who chose to move on rather than have their spirit diminished and their ego sucked out of them. The undercurrent expects loyalty - going with the flow. It undermines those that would oppose its force - whether teacher or parent. The undercurrent works beneath the surface, as any good undercurrent should. It doesn't come out and say things in public, it whispers in hallways. It may help us understand why an admired teacher who was fired is actually much better off now because she can be free to pursue her other aspirations. It can instantly comfort us by explaining that a child who was molested on our yard wasn't actually one of our own students, or that a parent who asks for temporary financial help could afford their tuition easily if they would just manage their money better. It swirls around us hoping to envelop us in its flow and to pull us in its direction. It has swept up many of our finest teachers
in its force - teachers who once stood up for their students with dignity, but now bow their heads in shame when parents confront them. Sadly, the light has gone out of their eyes too!

When the undercurrent comes to the surface, it gains momentum through solidarity - as was the case with Mr. Janczak's release. We all saw the undercurrent in action on that evening. They presented a united front - forget whether any of the innuendo tossed around that evening could be substantiated. A few undecided parents who considered leaving the school were immediately separated out and persuaded to stay through some loyalty to the school, or for the sake of their children, or through promises of "things will get better - you'll see". That night the undercurrent got stronger, and things got worse, not better.

Those of us who wrote letters supporting one of our parents who needed tuition assistance felt the instant force of the undercurrent - there was nothing friendly about it - it was strong and fierce with no chance of deviation from its course, it left us no room to take a breath - its purpose was to suck us down and hold us down until we gave in. And, we had to give in didn't we? After all, what choice do we have - the undercurrent holds our children too.

It may be easy for some to label me a troublemaker (no doubt the undercurrent will have a field day with me) simply because I have observed these events and drawn my own conclusions. Now that I have voiced my opinions, I'm sure the undercurrent will discredit me. You, too, may wonder how someone who brings such a negative view be anything but bad for the school. Please believe me when I say that nothing would make me happier than to be completely wrong about everything I have said here. Nothing would make me happier than to have the wonderful, well-balanced school we all expect, instead of the dysfunctional one we've all come to tolerate. I don't mind being labeled a troublemaker, however - better to go against the current of dishonesty than to become part of it. I contend that I am not the one doing harm to Highland Hall.

I believe the undercurrent are good people working within Highland Hall - people that have made their priority what they believe are the needs of the school. Unfortunately this has often proven to be at the cost of the needs of the children. This is not only morally wrong, it is bad business and ultimately detrimental to the school as much as to the children. Although they are well-meaning, I believe these people are doing this school serious harm and it is only by acknowledging what is happening that we can move forward from what are very dark times at Highland Hall.

I would like to challenge these people to acknowledge - if only to themselves - who they are and what they are doing and to please step back or step down. If you don't know whether you are part of the undercurrent, I'll help you discover this for yourself. If you put ANYTHING above the best interests of the children at Highland Hall, you are part of it - so shake yourself off and have a good look. If you are one of the ones who interviewed Mrs. DeVries and didn't notice anything wrong, please step down and let someone else do the interviewing from now on. If you discovered Mrs. Wilkins past history and didn't feel the moral obligation to inform the parents and protect the children of the school, please step aside and let someone else take your place. Whether or not you agreed with the outcome, if you saw nothing wrong with how the meeting of Mr. Janczak's release was conducted,
you are working not for, but in opposition to the good of the school. If you disagree with how things are, but feel pressured to go with the flow - please find a backbone now.

And, if you don't have enough backbone to stand up for what you believe is right, even if it may cause you discomfort among your peers or even cost you your job, please excuse yourselves from teaching our children. We expect, and our children deserve MUCH better!

I don't apologize for being so blunt - I have no time left to waste for my children's sake.

On this Independence Day I think of our forefathers and the suffering they had to endure to stand up for what they believed in, not because it was popular, not because it was easy, but because it was right! It's too late to undo the damage that has been done - and there has been a lot of damage at every level, to our school, to our friends, to our children - but we can avoid more damage by changing direction now. As we each notice the undercurrent that is demoralizing our school, we should be sure to acknowledge it, confront it, and be certain we are not swept unwillingly into its stream. Let's all try to work together to come to terms with what has happened recently and to push for changes so these mistakes (and the decisions that led to them) don't happen again. Let us group together and share our feelings - for in openness and honesty the undercurrent cannot survive. It is my sincere hope to affect a change for a stronger Highland Hall - one in which the requirements of the children take precedent over everything else. This is the
way I envision it and with God's will, the way it will be someday soon.

God bless us all,
Pete Karaiskos