Opinion: Thomas Stone Elementary students deserve better

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PGCPS

Thomas S. Stone Elementary School in Mount Rainier.

Earlier this month, Thomas S. Stone Elementary School’s principal, Ashanti Foster, was placed on administrative leave after parents and community leaders objected to a planned White House field trip that would have required students to provide citizenship information.

The Washington Post reported the principal was suspended over the wording of the permission slip. School district officials have since come under fire for taking such a significant step over such a seemingly minor mistake.

But the reality is more complicated. The field trip and permission slip were simply the latest in a long series of management failures. The principal, along with the Prince George’s County Public School System in which she works, failed—repeatedly and for years—to develop an understanding of and respond effectively to the needs and concerns of our school community.

Removing Foster was the right call. The school district’s error was in not removing her sooner or better communicating why it was necessary now. It’s worth examining the history now to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

In June 2016, our principal was leaving after a successful tenure. Prince George’s County school officials held two listening sessions, one with parents and another with teachers and staff, to ask what we wanted in a new principal.

On June 2 that year, a large crowd gathered in the school’s hot, humid cafeteria for the parent’s meeting. We filled out a survey, we spoke up in small and large group discussions, we reported back: Our student body is over 70 percent Hispanic. Many of our parents speak little or no English. We need a principal who speaks Spanish fluently, responds quickly to parents and community members, and is sensitive to the issues that face a large immigrant population. The teachers reported similar priorities.

Eight days later, on June 10, school officials announced that they had hired Foster. Foster, who holds a doctorate in education from Argosy University, met none of the criteria raised and had no experience with a school population like ours. Furthermore, the short window suggested that the process of gathering community input had just been for show.

But even with that inauspicious beginning, Foster had a chance to come into our school knowing her limitations and working to build bridges. Instead, she quickly gained a reputation for ignoring email, avoiding parent meetings, skipping school events, and stonewalling key community leaders. She didn’t seem to understand or want to learn about the needs of the school’s immigrant community. Hurtful missteps followed.

The first day of school this year brought chaos when immigrant parents without photo identification were kept out of the school despite a district-wide policy, implemented effectively at other area schools, permitting parents inside that day. As I wrote at the time, that was just the most visible example of a much bigger problem stemming from both cultural insensitivity and rank mismanagement.

Large parts of the Spanish-speaking community felt like they had no voice with her and when they turned to their elected officials, many of those officials felt they had no voice with her either. Rightly or wrongly, that is the context for why so much of this month’s current fracas played out so publicly.

At the same time, the school was beset by one management failure after another. Teachers complained that long-planned field trips had to be announced with one day’s notice or canceled altogether because the paperwork remained stuck in the principal’s inbox. At least one teacher filed a grievance with the union about working conditions making her sick, including mold growing in classrooms and common areas. Teachers transferred to other PGCPS schools. Some switched professions altogether.

The White House field trip combined many of these problems into one. On April 25, Thomas Stone fourth graders brought home the now-infamous permission slip. It was due back the very next morning or kids couldn’t go. One teacher explained to the parents in her class that the citizenship information was required for all public White House tours and that the trip had just been approved that day, which was why forms were due the next morning. But if you weren’t in that class, you only knew that the school was asking for your child’s citizenship information and (mistakenly) declaring that non-citizens were ineligible to participate.

I don’t blame Thomas Stone teachers for seeing the White House field trip as a great opportunity for their students, many of whom might spend their whole lives just a few miles from it and never get to go unless the school takes them. Whether you voted for Donald Trump or someone else, it’s not his house, it’s ours. The White House belongs to us.

But if I were part of an immigrant family rightly terrified of the Trump administration, that form would have scared me. And the short turn-around time would have meant I had no time to ask any questions, no time to gather information about the safety of my child on the trip, and lots of anger.

If there’s a bright spot to this incident and all of the turmoil it’s unleashed, it’s that we now have an important opportunity for the school district to get things right this time.

We need a principal selection process that really listens to parents and teachers. We need substantive bias and diversity training for all school personnel. And we need district officials who prioritize and reward good management, open communication, and cultural competency. Things didn’t have to happen this way. We have a chance to do better.

-Sarah Christopherson is a resident of Mount Rainier and the parent of two Thomas Stone Elementary students

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