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What is Going on Here?

For seven years Toni Hicks, one of four African-American teachers at Ridgeview Elementary, had truly enjoyed teaching third grade. This year, however, parents begin requesting that their child be transferred out of her class. Although she tries to rectify the situation and address their complaints, the exodus from her class continues with no support from the administration.

  

It was the beginning of a new school year, and Toni Hicks was looking forward to a successful year with her third graders. She had begun her teaching career at Ridgeview eight years ago as one of four African-American teachers in the school. This year, however, there was only one other African-American teacher on the faculty. Throughout her professional career, Toni had been considered a committed and effective teacher by the administration and her peers. She had received excellent annual evaluations for all of the past seven years.

Ridgeview Elementary was located in an affluent, predominately white neighborhood. Charlotte Fletcher, a white, middle-aged principal, was hired two years ago to replace Mary Long, who had retired. Parental involvement had always been valued at Ridgeview, but after Ms. Fletcher entered the picture, talk among staff members suggested that parents ran the school.

Toni Hicks’ class was composed of students from the surrounding area as well as students bused from Lincoln Park, an economically disadvantaged, predominately African-American neighborhood. Most of the students in Toni’s class had average or above-average academic skills. Although none of the students were currently receiving special education services, three were being assessed to determine if services were needed. All three of these students were from Lincoln Park.

Thomas, an African-American student, had difficulty staying focused and in his seat. Directions often had to repeated several times before he could comply. He was rarely able to initiate a task on his own and often distracted his classmates during independent work with humming, singing, and fidgeting. Although he was the best athlete in the class, Thomas had problems with decoding words and reading comprehension.

Eric, also African-American, was often defiant and verbally provoked other students. He was easily frustrated; from time to time he tore up his work papers and threw them on Toni’s desk.  He had difficulty with reading comprehension and math application skills but had already demonstrated considerable talent for drawing and painting in the first few weeks of class. Toni was excited that the incorporation of art activities into her lesson plans was gradually beginning to pique Eric’s interest in his classwork.

Maria, one of Ridgeview’s bilingual students, was very quiet and withdrawn. Mrs. Velas, the teacher of bilingual students, reported that Maria spoke both English and Spanish at home. Toni worried about her though because she seemed lost during most classroom discussions and rarely spoke at all. Maria was a very attractive child although she often looked disheveled. Because she daydreamed, she rarely finished her work on time. In spite of working with Mrs. Velas for 30 minutes everyday, Maria remained below grade level in every subject. Toni tried to draw her out by engaging her in conversation whenever possible. She recently learned that Maria was the oldest of five children and often had to care for her younger siblings while her mother worked.

Toni enjoyed all of her students but felt a special affinity for these three. She was happy to have them in her class and took steps to ensure that they experienced success in academic as well as social areas.

During the annual open house, held the fourth week of school, Toni shared with her students’ parents the curriculum for the third grade, samples of student work, and a video of a typical school day. Open house seemed to be a success, and Toni looked forward to the rest of the year.

The next week Toni received a memo in her box from the principal, requesting a meeting as soon as possible. Toni wondered what could be so pressing as she walked to Ms. Fletcher’s office.

"Come in, Ms. Hicks. I asked you to meet with me because two parents, Mrs. Banks and Mrs. George, have some concerns about your classroom," Ms. Fletcher said as she handed Toni two pieces of paper with remarks made by each of the parents.

As Toni read the first page she felt her heart sink. "Teacher blows a whistle. Students have extra free time. Students are walking and talking during math lesson. Children are dancing during morning announcements. Students are not allowed to write in cursive. Students reading during free time. Reading Rainbow on for 30 minutes during reading. Spelling test on Monday; no reinforcement for the rest of the week." As Toni moved on to the second page her stomach churned. "Curriculum is not stimulating enough. Cursive writing is not allowed in class. No structured reading lesson. Too many distractions. TV on Reading Rainbow. No Social Studies instructions." Toni couldn’t believe what she was reading. She thought these parents were happy with what was happening in the classroom.

"This really is a shock. I see Mrs. Banks and Mrs. George every day when they drop off their children in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. Mrs. Banks is my homeroom parent; she has not said anything to me about this," Toni explained.

"Well, clearly there are some concerns that need to be addressed," continued Ms. Fletcher.

"Yes, I assure you I will meet with each parent as soon as possible to discuss their concerns," Toni replied.

Within the week, Toni met with each parent. She reassured each of them that the curriculum she taught met the county guidelines and that the students were held accountable for their behavior. She also told each parent that her child was making excellent progress and meeting all county grade level expectations thus far and documented this with work samples (see appendix for details of her responses). It seemed to Toni that both Mrs. Banks’ and Mrs. George’s concerns had been addressed and that they were satisfied. She was shocked and disheartened when Ms. Fletcher told her later that week that both parents were still unsatisfied. Further, they each wanted their child reassigned to another classroom.

"Ms. Fletcher, I really don’t know what to say," Toni remarked dejectedly. "Both Mrs. Banks and Mrs. George seemed satisfied with their children's progress after our conversation. Is there something they are not telling me?"

"I can only report to you what they have told me," Mrs. Fletcher responded.

Without further discussion, she authorized the transfers.

Although Toni was troubled by the way the situation was handled, she was relieved that it was behind her and thought she could move on. But to her dismay, another parent asked that her child be transferred out of her classroom. "What is going on?" she thought to herself.

Toni met again with Ms. Fletcher and the assistant principal, Margaret Hall, the following day.

"I’m afraid this is very serious, Toni. Danny Caldwell’s family is now expressing concern about what is happening in your classroom," Ms. Fletcher revealed as she gestured for Toni to sit on the couch across from her desk. "Mrs. Caldwell brought in one of Danny’s assignments that has been graded incorrectly," Ms. Fletcher continued, handing Toni a sheet of paper that she recognized as one of this week's graded spelling tests. "Also, one of the parents reported that you yelled at them during a conference," the principal added with a grim expression on her face.

Toni could see that she had miscalculated Danny’s grade for the assignment and acknowledged that she had made a mistake. She then assured Ms. Fletcher and Ms. Hall that she would never yell at a parent and offered to show her the video of the typical school day in her class as well as enrichment materials she used with her students.

"Margaret, you have visited Toni’s classroom a number of times recently," Ms. Fletcher said as she turned to the assistant principal. Ms. Hall had been silent up until this point, looking rather uncomfortable as she sat alongside Toni on the couch. "What is your opinion on this situation?"

"There is really nothing unusual happening in Ms. Hicks' classroom," Ms. Hall responded as she glanced assuringly at Toni. "As far as I can see, all standard operating procedures are being followed," she added, shaking her head sympathetically.

"I’ll certainly call Mrs. Caldwell as soon as possible to apologize for the mistake," Toni offered as she struggled to regain her composure. "Danny Caldwell is making excellent progress so far this year; he’s one of my brightest students. I just can’t understand why his parents would question the quality of his education."

"Toni, don’t take this too personally," Ms. Fletcher advised as Toni stood to leave. "Parents often request to have their children transferred from one classroom to another. It’s usually just the family’s preference for a particular teaching style. Some of the parents just might not be comfortable with yours. Due to the fact that several parents have expressed concern however, I would recommend that you review your classroom procedures and teaching methods."

"Thank you, Ms. Fletcher, I certainly will," replied Toni in a weak and shaky voice that betrayed her emotions.

After much consideration, Toni called Mrs. Caldwell that evening, assuring her of Danny’s progress and expressing regret for the grading error. "I am really sorry that I made that mistake on Danny’s spelling test. I was trying to get all the tests graded while the children were in Music because I wanted them corrected that afternoon. I guess I was just in too much of a hurry," Toni explained sincerely. "Danny is one of my best students, and I am very pleased with his work so far this year. He has excellent work habits," she added sensing the discomfort in Mrs. Caldwell’s reply.

"Yes, Mrs. Hicks, my son is a good worker and we really want to keep it that way," Danny’s mother said hesitantly. Mrs. Caldwell then began to express concerns about some of Toni’s students with special needs. After a few minutes Mr. Caldwell took the phone.

"My wife is trying to be tactful about this, but I am going to say it right out," he said emphatically. "We want Danny in another class. You have too many problem children in your class!"

"What do you mean, problem children?" Toni responded.

"I’ll be blunt Ms. Hicks, our son says that you pay all your attention to those three kids that sit by your desk. He says that you constantly re-explain things to them over and over," Mr. Caldwell began. "My wife and I have also observed that you are entirely too lenient with those children and allow them to behave in ways that we do not believe are acceptable. We feel these children are taking up too much of your time and that your curriculum is geared more towards them than the rest of the class," Mr. Caldwell asserted.

Toni asked Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell if they would be willing to meet with her and the principal, hoping that with the principal present, the issues could be better addressed. The Caldwells reluctantly agreed and the meeting was set tenatively for the following day.

Toni considered the prospects of a face-to-face meeting with Ms. Fletcher and the Caldwells as she hung up the phone. Needless to say, she did not welcome such an intense encounter but knew it was important that these issues be brought out into the open. As she contemplated her dilemma, her mind returned to Mr. Caldwell’s comment about "those children."

"The parents seem to think that I am not meeting the needs of all the students in the class," Toni reflected as she drove home that afternoon. "Am I being too lenient and giving too much of my attention to the children with special needs?   Is my curriculum geared too low for the rest of the class?"

 

Appendix A

Mrs. Banks’ Concerns  -  Toni’s Response in Italics

1. Teacher blows a whistle.                    

This occurred on a Friday, when the students returned from recess to quiet them down.

2. Students have extra free time.                  

There are a few times each week when students are allowed to structure their own
activities learning.

3. Students are walking and talking during math lesson.          

Students are moving around the room to get math materials, do group work, or talk during guided discussions.

4. Children are dancing during morning announcements.
                                       .
They are enjoying the music and are happy to be in school.

5. Students are not allowed to write in cursive.

Cursive writing is practiced.

6. Students reading during free time.       

Reading during free time is good practice.

7. Reading Rainbow on TV for 30 min. during reading.                                        

All third-grade classes view this program on Fridays.

8. Spelling test on Monday. No reinforcement for the rest of the week.                                

Mon. - pretest, pattern power activity
Tues. - Meaning Mastery exercise and writing activity
Wed. - Word building activity and dictionary skills exercise
Thurs.- Proofreading practice and review
Fri.    - Test and dictation   
                                                               

9. Reading Center is the only center.       

Centers include Writing, Educational Games,Computers, Math, and Listening.

Appendix B

Mrs. George’s Concerns - Toni’s Response in Italics

1. Curriculum is not stimulating enough.                 

The county adopted third-grade curriculum is  followed.
Projects are assigned to enrich the curriculum.

2. Cursive writing is not allowed in class.                  

Both printing and cursive writing are practiced.                    

3. No structured reading lesson.                             

Reading instruction includes comprehension skill instruction, reading strategies
instruction, cooperative learning activities, and paired reading.

4. Some students cause too many distractions.     

Behavior management system used.                                                                                   
Steps in the system:                                                                                  
    (1) Student receives a warning.                                                                                   
    (2) Student is removed from the activity.                                                                                   
    (3) Teacher has an individual conference with the student and the student loses privileges.  
    (4) Parent is called.

5. Reading Rainbow on TV.                                    

All third-grade classes view this program on Fridays.

6. No Social Studies instruction.                              

Direct instruction corresponding to each chapter is given along with practice skills sheets and assigned chapter projects.

 

Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

  1. What are all the possible reasons the parents might have had for requesting a classroom
    transfer for their children? Are any of these reasons justifiable?
  2. How did Toni respond to the parents’ concerns?
  3. Do you think Toni understood the parents’ concerns and addressed them adequately?
  4. Do you think Toni was meeting the needs of all the children in her class?
  5. What motivations could the principal have had for granting the tranfers so readily?
  6. What do you do when parents and/or administrators don’t agree with your teaching
    style or methods?

CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Importance and benefits of communication and collaboration which promotes interaction with students, parents, and school and community personnel.

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Other Areas:

Diversity and dynamics of families, schools, and communities as related to effective instruction for individuals with exceptional learning needs.

 

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