Schooling the Mamolas

An elite public high school gets rid of two Sacramento teachers after they criticize school admission policy

Jennifer and Gerry Mamola say they complained about policies at West Campus High School and were later transferred for speaking out.

Jennifer and Gerry Mamola say they complained about policies at West Campus High School and were later transferred for speaking out.

Photo by Anne Stokes

Even their enemies will tell you, Jennifer and Gerry Mamola are great teachers. By all accounts, over the course of 22 years, the couple helped make West Campus High School one of the most sought after schools in Sacramento City Unified School District.

But in recent years, they say the principals at West Campus have become more concerned about high test scores than with providing access to a good education to everyone. The tension between educators that’s been building since federal and state education polices shifted emphasis from inclusion to academic achievement a decade ago has spilled over into a conflict that’s become bitter, and at times, farcical.

“It has robbed students, English learners and students with disabilities of a program that had been working for them for 20 years,” said Jennifer Mamola.

Their willingness to battle administrators on the issue cost them their jobs at the elite public school last summer. Parents and students decried the unusual decision to remove the couple. Students put up a “Save the Mamolas” Web site. Fellow teachers saw the transfer as retaliation for speaking up. However, some colleagues said “good riddance” to the pair of troublemakers.

“Yeah, we’re troublemakers,” said Gerry Mamola. “But only because we starting questioning things that were illegal and improper.”

The Mamolas spent most of their working lives at West Campus. The school, located near the intersection of Fruitridge Road and Stockton Boulevard, started as a magnet program connected to Hiram Johnson High School in 1983. Jennifer started working there in 1986; Gerry joined her in 1990. She taught French and drama. He taught art and also served as activities director for the Associated Student Body.

In 2000, the district dropped the magnet program, and Hiram Johnson West Campus became just West Campus. Today, it bills itself as a college-prep program. Technically, the school is a “comprehensive” high school, no different than any neighborhood high school. But West Campus has been allowed over the years to develop its own admission policy and application process.

For many years, applicants had to write essays, show they had earned at least a 2.0 grade point average and demonstrate they were “good citizens,” that they didn’t skip classes or have behavioral problems. The policies made for a peaceful and productive small high school. “We didn’t have fights,” Jennifer explained of the students.

However, it’s clear that the Mamolas spoke out often against policies they thought were bad for the school. They fought the administration’s decision to purge the school library to make room for computers. They protested employee layoffs. But no West Campus policy angers the couple more than the admission policies.

Over the years, the minimum GPA required to attend West Campus has gradually been ratcheted up. Today, 2.75 is the minimum GPA. Standardized test scores have become an increasingly important part of the admission process. Students must demonstrate they score at least “proficient” in English on California standardized tests. Students who pass the initial screening are then placed in a lottery.

Principal Evelyn Baffico says that students with lower test scores and GPAs can be admitted if they excel in other ways, such as through community service. But according to the numbers, the policies are weeding out certain students.

For example, English-language learners make up nearly 30 percent of all students in the district. As the new policies on standardized tests went into effect, the number of English learners steadily declined—from 5.4 percent of the student population in the 2002-2003 school year, to just 2.5 percent in 2008-2009. Because West Campus is a “comprehensive high school,” technically open to everyone, the Mamolas believe the admissions process is illegal under state education law.

“Those kids were part of the 20-year history of the school,” Jennifer Mamola said. “I put my life into this school. I didn’t build it up for them to come in and start kicking out these kids.”

Call it handpicking students or call it high standards, West Campus’ test scores, and its reputation in the district, have gone up. The cause, according to one teacher who requested anonymity, is obvious: “The reason our test scores are going up is because we are skimming the cream. Realistically, we take only the best kids.”

When SN&R asked if West Campus test scores had anything to do with their admission policies, Baffico became irritated.

“To say that our high test scores have to do with handpicking kids, that’s just insulting,” Baffico said.

Indeed, the percentage of African-American and Hispanic kids has risen steadily. Latino kids make up 27 percent of the students at West Campus, compared to 32 percent districtwide. African-American students are up to almost 8 percent of the population, compared to the district’s 20 percent. “I welcome any student,” Baffico added.

Parent Jean Smart isn’t so sure. Her twin sons applied to West Campus in 2007. One of her sons has a mild learning disability. But he had a 2.73 GPA, several letters of recommendation and documentation of his involvement in the Kiwanis Club. For one of the required essays, he chose to talk about his disability and how he compensates for it in class. “But they told us he didn’t meet the minimum qualifications,” Smart told SN&R.

On the other hand, the boy’s twin brother, with a nearly perfect GPA and no learning disability, was treated quite differently. “They snapped him right up,” said Smart. He declined to attend West Campus, choosing to stick with his brother. Asked why she believed her two sons were treated so differently, Smart says, “The learning disabled need not apply. I think it was just to save their test scores.”

Still, there’s no doubt the high test scores have garnered the school significant recognition. In early 2008, West Campus was recognized by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell for boosting test scores. It was one of 71 schools in the entire country, and one of two in California, to be given the National Distinguished Title I School Recognition Award. In February 2008, The Sacramento Bee profiled the school, noting its accolades. However, Gerry Mamola told the Bee reporter that West Campus’ academic success shouldn’t come “at the cost of those other (less academic kids).”

“They should be able to get in here too,” he said, adding that the school “has been a great place for inner-city kids with diverse backgrounds to be successful.”

Mamola said Baffico was upset about the quote, but any embarrassment he caused the principal was minor compared to what came next.

On May 10, Baffico held a birthday party on campus for her son, who was a sophomore at the school. The party was held in the middle of the student quad during lunch period. A birthday cake and an inflatable bounce house were brought in to make the event all the more festive. Several of her son’s friends were in attendance.

“Eight hundred kids pour out onto the quad and they’re standing there, aghast,” Jennifer Mamola recalled. Students complained to parents that the party was restricted to Baffico’s son and his basketball teammates. Parents complained to Baffico, and to the new interim Sacramento City Unified School District superintendent, Susan Miller.

Baffico later sent a letter to parents in which she apologized for using bad judgment. But she said the party was not private. “By no means would I do anything to exclude students,” she told SN&R.

Gerry Mamola said that the Bee education reporter Kim Minugh contacted him about the bounce-house incident. She was looking for student reaction. Mamola said his students were free to contact the reporter on their own, if they cleared it with their parents. Ultimately, the Bee decided not to run the piece, but Baffico pressed to find the leak. She accused Mamola of pressuring students to talk to the Bee and issued him a written reprimand.

However, one student, Gloria Hernandez, later told the Sacramento school board that it was Baffico who had pressured her. “She was implying that Mr. Mamola has pressured me into speaking with the reporter, when it was entirely of my own free will,” Hernandez said. “She asked me to write a statement. I felt intimidated.”

In the spring of 2008, district officials were already investigating the troubled work environment at West Campus. In August 2008, Superintendent Miller informed both Jennifer and Gerry they were being transferred from West Campus to other schools.

The reaction from parents and students was immediate and intense. They lined up during two consecutive meetings of the Sacramento City Unified School District board of trustees to defend the teachers.

“The Mamolas are being punished with involuntary transfers for articulating their concerns,” said parent Jan Tamayo in a written statement to the board. “How do students, parents and new teachers interpret this? Speak out: face retaliation. … Rather than holding Mrs. Baffico accountable for her behavior, Susan Miller’s only action has been the transfers of not one, but two, beloved teachers, responsible for establishing successful programs at West Campus.”

However, some of the Mamolas’ co-workers voiced approval for the district’s action.

“I thought, thank God, now we’ll have some peace,” Katie Nobida told SN&R. Fellow teacher Mary Ellen Thoene agreed. “I’m tired of them dragging down this school,” she said. Both women were among several West Campus employees who got up to speak against the Mamolas during an August 21 school district board meeting.

The Mamolas believe the board violated district policy by allowing school employees to denigrate the pair in a public board meeting.

District spokeswoman Maria Lopez told SN&R that no violation occurred because none of the teachers mentioned the Mamolas by name. But in fact, SN&R reviewed the video recording of that meeting, and almost all of the teachers and employees who spoke against the Mamolas referred to them by name. For example, Nobida said, “I applaud the decision to remove the Mamolas.” Thoene explained, “The Mamolas have had adversarial relationships with every principal assigned to West Campus.”

When asked again about the policy, Lopez said that other board rules explicitly allow criticism of district employees. Ironically, however, when asked for some explanation of what happened to the Mamolas, Lopez sent the following statement, “Personnel privacy and the attorney-client privilege prevent any discussion of the transfer decision.”

Gerry Mamola was transferred to Luther Burbank High School, where he says he’s now pretty happy. His fellow teachers have been supportive, as well as his new principal, Ted Appel. “Gerry has been a great teacher and a wonderful academic citizen,” he said. “We feel very fortunate that he’s come on.”

Jennifer’s transfer hasn’t gone as smoothly. She was reassigned to another school, but when she got there, she said, there were no classes for her to teach. She eventually took leave of absence, because she says stress is affecting her health. She’s shouldered much of the work of pursuing the couple’s union grievance against the district. They want their transfers rescinded, even though they’re uncertain if they’d return to work for Baffico. Regardless of what happens to them, they want the admission process at West Campus changed.

“It’s not just odious, it’s not just immoral,” said Jennifer. “It’s illegal to have a school that excludes English learners.”

“If it’s a comprehensive high school, then anybody who applies should have an equal chance to get in,” added Gerry.

Whether that comes to pass remains to be seen. Some West Campus teachers say that since the Mamolas were transferred, the environment has only gotten worse for those who speak out.

“The atmosphere of retribution is really strong right now,” said one teacher.