Another charter, another crisis
Parents question Sherwood Montessori’s legal status after a teacher conflict
A group of parents, alleging that a teacher has been verbally abusive in their children’s classroom, are pleading for Chico Unified School District intervention at a new, independent charter school.
Years ago, it would have been a straightforward parent-school rift involving parents protecting what they viewed as their children’s well-being. But in this new era of charters that receive what’s vaguely called “oversight” from public-school districts, this process is laden with landmines.
The dispute between a group of parents and the school’s administration left the little campus of Sherwood Montessori and landed in a CUSD office when a parent contacted the district in early October. Days later, Chico Junior High School Principal John Bohannon, who oversees the district’s chartering process, met with what he said were “four sets of parents” who wanted to discuss the language and tactics used by a teacher in a combined second- and third-grade class.
But because the parents had migrated together from a private Montessori school to Sherwood, it wasn’t long before the discussion wandered in a new direction. The private Montessori Elementary closed last spring and the charter school opened this fall, and soon the group was talking about whether there had been an illegal conversion of a private school to a state-funded charter school.
For the record, Sherwood Montessori denies that the educator in question is verbally abusive. The teacher, who was recruited from out of state, did not return a phone call to this reporter. But Russell Shapiro, Sherwood’s board chairman, responded to complaints that she had “teased” the children by calling them names and saying things perceived by some as demeaning or threatening.
“It wasn’t intentional. She was asked to stop and it stopped,” he said.
As a principal founding member, Shapiro noted that the conversion issue was thoroughly researched, discussed and decided in the school’s favor months ago. Even the lottery system was reviewed with CUSD’s Board of Trustees and passed muster, he said.
State law prohibits conversion of a private school to a charter school, something Sherwood founders were well aware of as they worked on their charter petition. “We were extremely careful from a legal standpoint,” Shapiro said. “Thank God it’s not a conversion. What’s causing grief is that some people were expecting to see the same faces, the same materials, in a new location. The curriculum is different; it’s not a conversion philosophically, either.”
If expectations caused problems, Sherwood Montessori has had its share since opening two months ago at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church on Moss Avenue. Parents say a dozen children have been pulled from the school, though it appears that it may have been only a few who had been directly involved with the teacher.
Eight parents recently contacted this reporter, most wanting to talk about what they said was an unwillingness on the part of the school’s administration to listen or support them in a range of ways. A director, Michelle Yezbick, was hired to run Sherwood, and parents say Shapiro remains very involved.
In an e-mail, Shapiro said that formal complaints have been “investigated at length in two separate closed sessions.” He also said the teacher has been told “not to use language that can be misconstrued as bullying…”
A few parents said they were stunned that their Montessori community had become divided. Two wanted to talk about the conversion question.
One of those parents, Jacqueline Yourch, has two children who attended the private Montessori, then moved to the charter school. Yourch recently transferred her children to a private school.
She said all the children with the exception of a pair moved to the charter, which Shapiro denied. Yourch said all the teachers except one came, too.
Shapiro’s wife, Heather Fisher, was director of Montessori Elementary, a school that prior to closing was losing students, apparently for a variety of reasons, including the $5,200 cost of attending per year. Shapiro said his wife has begun working as an administrative assistant in Sherwood’s office but has refrained from becoming involved in administration to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Sherwood founders worked with Bohannon’s predecessor at Chico Unified, Sara Simmons, who retired in June. Contacted at home, Simmons confirmed that the conversion question was a major concern when the charter petition was under consideration. “The question of conversion came up early and was pervasive throughout all the process,” Simmons said. “Our attorney did not find evidence that this was a conversion school.”
Simmons said Shapiro assured her that “the curriculum would be different and his wife was not going to be employed there.”
Yourch said she didn’t understand that the charter-school founders envisioned the school as something different from Montessori Elementary, which she describes nostalgically as “a lovely place.”
“Our old school was ‘Montessori-lite,’ ” Yourch said, explaining that the charter seems stricter in its application of Montessori methods. “These people all had a vision, and I would not have done it if I had known.”
Bohannon said that when he read the parents’ accusations against the new teacher, he found them “quite troubling.” But, noting wryly that sarcasm can be lost on young children, he said the school is taking appropriate steps by working with the teacher.
Charter-school experts say that chartering school districts walk a fine line between oversight and interference, and are prohibited from intervening in the internal affairs of most independent charter schools. Bohannon said the district can intervene only if the school is violating its charter or the law, or fails to provide education.
Bohannon said that proving now that the school represents an illegal conversion would oblige the district to shut it down. That would be a costly process, especially given that charter-school law is an evolving field.
Most of the parents who were anxious to air their problems with the school on the record were hesitant or opposed to re-opening the conversion question and said they want a successful Montessori in Chico.
One of those parents is Kristin Cobery, the wife of one of four board members who apparently have children in the teacher’s class. Cobery is part of a group that says the teacher’s tactics continue to violate school policy, warranting intervention.
Bohannon said the problem with the teacher is “worth monitoring” to ensure improvement takes place. Beyond that, he was philosophical. “There are going to be issues between schools and parents,” he said. “Many charter schools go through issues the first year that can be fixed. We’re not going to be the dark overlord that closes them down as soon as they have problems.”