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OUSD’s admin shuffle and the Montera shake-up

There’s another layer to the pink slip story: 96 Oakland principals, APs, central office managers and other administrators received notices that they might be moved, demoted or — in a few cases — out of work, according to figures from the Oakland school district.

Ten principals have received a slip, OUSD Spokesman Troy Flint said. (I don’t have the total number of notices sent to administrators in 2009 – I’ve requested that data — but Flint says it’s higher this year because of the district’s budget hole and cuts to special-purpose funding.)

Montera Principal Russom Mesfun in 2007

Montera Middle School might be deeply affected by these changes, if they come to pass. According to its parent-teacher organization, Principal Russom Mesfun and both of his assistant principals learned they might be moved to a different position in OUSD.

petition circulated by the PTO is demanding that the district keep the administrative team in place. Flint said he couldn’t discuss any particular staffing decisions because of confidentiality rules.

Shortly after Mesfun came to Montera in 2007, the students, teachers and parents I interviewed — with one exception – said they were pleased with the new principal. They said he brought order to the school and that he was very visible and involved. He clearly still has strong support among some of Montera’s parents, but I’ve heard complaints about his leadership style and the way he interacts with some of his teachers and parents.

Mesfun has also been haunted by his short stint as a high school principal in Lodi Unified, where he worked before coming to Montera. In September, Lodi settled a lawsuit filed by three of Mesfun’s former teachers at Christa McAuliffe High School. The teachers alleged the principal bullied them, openly questioned their teaching abilities because of their age (40s and 50s) and race (white) and hounded them with inappropriate comments and accusations. One teacher said Mesfun accused her, repeatedly, of “faking” cancer.

Lodi Unified paid $250,000 to the three teachers. I left a message on Mesfun’s cell phone late this afternoon, but I haven’t heard back from him yet. I’ll post his response to his reassignment and the settled lawsuit if and when I do.

NOTE: This is a sensitive subject. Please keep your comments respectful and free of name-calling.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Owen M.

    I’m a parent of a prospective Montera student. We’ve been impressed and happy with everything we’ve heard about Mr. Mesfun from current Montera students and parents. My sense is that he pushes teachers — and others — and can come across as harsh, but that he’s achieved very strong results. Three years ago there was no way I was sending my child to Montera; more recently my wife and I had changed our minds and were excited to stick with our public school. If this change is made, bringing more upheaval to yet another Oakland school, we’ll seek a different option after all.

  • Oakland Teacher

    As a former Montera parent, I know there have been some real concerns voiced by many of the veteran (and well-respected) teachers, so they may be quite relieved at the “possibility”. I am wondering if there is any way Mr Mesfun is being considered for Skyline, where he originally was a VP?

    To Owen (#1), please don’t give up on Montera: No school’s value lies solely in the principal. Montera was a great experience for my kids and they were very successful in high school and life; their Montera experience helped them to become who they are.

    How do we find out which principals have received a pink slip? I am really hoping my principal (unnamed) is one of them!

  • Sue

    I’d miss them if we don’t have the same principal and assistant principals next year, but I wouldn’t dream of moving my middle school child anywhere else for 8th grade.

    The teachers at Montera are wonderful, and that’s not going to change next year no matter who is on the administrative staff. In 6th grade, our boy was really struggling, not very focused, and by the end of each day he was exhausted. In his last period class, English, he barely squeaked through with a ‘D’ for the year. But the teachers last year and this year have stayed in contact with us, let us know when assignments were missed, late, or poorly done.

    So far during 7th grade our boy’s grades have stayed mostly in the ‘B’ range with a few ‘C’s. A couple of times he’s started to slip, and we’ve gotten phone calls from the teachers right away, and we’ve been able to get him back on track.

    What’s really impressive to me is that our son is a quiet and cooperative kid, and it’s really easy for those kids to be ignored when they’re falling behind. The roudy trouble-makers tend to get all the attention. When middle school teachers have 5 classes a day with 30 kids per class, how can they possibly manage to notice a problem beginning unless the kid is in their faces all the time. But somehow, the Montera teachers are noticing my son’s needs when it’s appropriate, and it feels like a terrific partnership with the school and our family.

    I don’t know how much the administrative staff has to do with that collaberative attitude, but it wasn’t there when our older son was at Montera with a different principal. I would like to see the administrative staff stay in place anyway. We’ve had a great run at Montera, and one of the assistant principals became a great ally and resource when our older son was at Montera, and she still is today with younger son. We’re always willing to try to work with any district officials to help our kids, but it’s so much easier when we already know each other and have a friendly working relationship.

  • TheTruthHurts

    . . . and so it goes. Reagan is winning. Less money = less staff = more upheaval = less parents choose OUSD = less money. Rinse & Repeat.

    Not that you didn’t know, but CA is in deep trouble.

  • OakPar

    “As a former Montera parent, I know there have been some real concerns voiced by many of the veteran (and well-respected) teachers, so they may be quite relieved at the ‘possibility’.”

    Those concerns were sent out in a memo from the faculty to the parents, superintendent, district officials, union, and others in October. A little more digging would turn that up and a lot more, including some strong parent opposition to the PTO board’s decision to send out the petition and lack of consultation with the faculty on that point. I think he has been a divisive figure across the board; it’s not all parents for or against, or all faculty for or against, although the support has definitely waned in the last three years.

  • Owen M.

    I appreciate these encouraging thoughts about sticking with Montera — but I read in Sue’s description of her experience that leadership does matter, and that great teachers need a great principal for a school to make real progress.

  • Connie Adachi

    I’m also a current and “veteran” Montera parent. Our daughter is at Skyline now, and has had a different principal for all her years there. Skyline is struggling to keep its good teachers, and there is not a strong sense of community there, which I think has alot to do with the lack of consistent leadership.

    On the plus side, Mr. Mesfun and the two vice principals have provided strong leadership at Montera. Yes, Mr Mesfun has high standards and could smooth out some rough edges, but if you look at the big picture, the school has improved, as has the sense of community. The role of principal is a thankless one – you’re never popular with all your constituencies (parents, OUSD, teachers, students). My experience with Mr. Mesfun has been positive, and his priorities are in the right place. He has improved in many areas which were identified as needing improvement, and is responsive to open dialogue.

  • Former Administrator

    As a former Administrator with OUSD,I have had first hand experience of seeing Mr. Mesfun in action and have observed the changes he has helped to make at Montera Middle School. I certainly agree with Connie Adachi and her opinion about consistent leadership. Mr. Mesfun has certainly provided Montera with consistency, he has provided a vision, set high standards for students and teachers, and developed a sense of teamwork. He has also worked hard to provide a safe and healthy learning environment, that was lacking prior to his arrival.I can honestly say that if my own children were of Middle School age I would send them to Montera without hesitation. OUSD is hungry for outstanding administrators and needs to do more to keep the Mr. Mesfun’s that they have.

  • ex oakland staff

    Mr. Mesfun holds high expectations for teachers and students. I worked with him for a year and I welcomed his insightful constructive criticism of my work. I noted that he was more critical of my teaching than most other administrators I have worked for. I have seen situations at several schools (3 in Oakland and one in San Francisco)in which administrators who tried to push teachers and students out of their comfort zone have encountered difficulties with those who do not want to be moved.
    Administrative stability is extremely critical to school climate. In the OUSD, look at the difference between Tech (long principal tenure) and Skyline (five principals in five years) I currently teach at a private school where the current principal has been involved with the school as a student, teacher or administrator for forty years, with similar tenures existing in other key administrative positions. This consistency helps to create a consistent and supportive climate that allows teachers and students to get on with the work of learning.

  • Sue

    Owen, I don’t think I was completely clear. Like Connie, I have a kid at Skyline, too, who is also a former Montera student. Yes, his four years at Skyline have been less than perfect with four different principals. But… Skyline has *great* teachers (either that, or we’ve been extraordinarily lucky!) and I’ve seen real progress in spite of the lack of administrative continuity.

    If our Montera student wants to attend Skyline in another year (it is our neighborhood high school), we won’t bother looking at other options, because we consider Skyline the best public high school the district. If he wants programs offered at Oakland Tech, my husband and I will make sure he gets that. If he wants something else, we’ll explore all the options and see if we can help him find it. But unless he has a definite strong goal and reason(s) for choosing another school, it’s going to be Skyline.

    My views of the importance of administrative staffing more complicated, I guess. It’s possible for great teachers to make real progress, in spite of a lack of administrative consistency. It’s also possible, and likely that good, long-term administrative staff would help increase and accelerate the progress, and that the right administration can help make good teachers even better. It’s also possible for a weak (or inexperienced) administrator to make it difficult of impossible for teachers to do their best job.

    What matters most in my view is the teachers. They’re the ones in the classroom with the students every single day. And they have the greatest impact on a school’s progress and success. Parents have the second highest impact. Administration is third, but they can greatly help, seriously hinder, or completely obstruct the first two.

    For a great school, first hire the very best teachers. Then get the parents involved and invested in supporting all the students, not just their own child. Finally, get good administration support – or at least don’t let the administration become a problem or an obstacle.

  • Oakland Teacher #731

    Sue:

    Parents have the greatest impact on student academic achievement, way before teachers. After twenty years in OUSD schools, I can completely say that students who come to school well-rested, well-fed, in good health,all of which depends on parents, from homes with parents who model academic behaviors, such as reading, balancing a checkbook, discussing political events, parents who take their kids to museums and educational activities; parents who spend time with their kids, parents who do not assume the teacher is at fault if the student does poorly, parents who model appropriate ethical and moral behavior in hundreds of situations; this is what makes the difference.

    Sure, I (and all teachers) do everything I (we) know how to do, but there is NO QUESTION, kids who come from homes with the above-described things, all provided by parents, do much better, regardless of the teacher, than kids who come from homes without those things.

    Are there exceptions? Doubtless many. But, for the vast majority, the impact of the parents, that’s what sets the foundation for student achievement. Teachers,while critical, are still a distant second. Oh yes, also, the parents’, and particularly the mothers’ educational attainment, has a direct impact on student achievement as well. Parents, FIRST. Teachers, SECOND. Administrators: THIRD.

    (Yes, I know there are many reasons why parents can’t/ don’t provide these things. But whether the key adults in a child’s home are great parents (or foster parents, etc.) or terrible ones, they’re the ones who most greatly influence a kid’s chances, and often that is not only long before the kid comes to school, but sometimes even before they’re born. That’s why FIRST FIVE is SO important).

  • OakPar

    Recommendation letter posts aside, please investigate the faculty concerns including major safety issues, budget concerns, and treatment of students in special education. Administration continuity only makes sense if the system in place is working, and right now we’re getting very little of the story.

  • Sue

    O.T. #731 – I think we’re talking about different things.

    My little (okay, okay, not so little) essay was about what makes a poor, good, or great school. Your topic was what leads to individual student success. I still believe that teachers make or break a *school*. Teachers aren’t the sole reason a school is what it is; they certainly aren’t functioning in a vacuum.

    But I also agree with you that the biggest factor predicting success – or lack of it – for any individual *student* will be the kid’s parents or guardians. And here again, the responsible adults aren’t the only factor; the kid him/herself is at least equally important (thinking of my husband, who’s a successful and well-educated adult, in spite of one parent’s suicide, and the other’s decompensation and slide into alcoholism, causing him to become a ward of the state by the time he was a 10-y-o, and having little formal education beyond 4th grade). And then other influential adults, like teachers, family friends, leaders of groups like scouting/boys and girls’ clubs, etc.

    Now, to finally circle back around to the original topic… A good principal (and other school administrative staff) *can* be another of those “influential adults” and become a mentor to individual students who are in need, but that’s not their primary job. My definition of a good administrator (or manager, since I work as an applications systems engineer for a major financial services company) is someone who removes the obstacles that prevent their workers (teachers in the schools, servers in a restaurant, etc.) from doing the best job possible.

    So, Montera’s a good middle school (maybe the best one in the district) and Mr. Mesfun’s continuing presence there is helping to make it what it is – not the primary reason it’s good, but a strong contributing factor. Skyline’s a good high school because of its teachers, in spite of the continuing turnover of its principals. And my two children (students at Montera and Skyline) are successful because of A) their own efforts and who they are as individuals, B) my husband and I supporting and valuing their educations, C) their teachers (all good, some amazing and great), and D) the administrators (the best ones) who’ve supported A, B, and C – or (the not-so-good ones) who at least have gotten out of the way of what we have working.

  • concerned parent

    Over the last few years most parents who have worked closely with the top administrators realize theis strengths and weaknesses. Please hear out veteran teacher’s who are discouraged by their treatment by Mr. Mesfun. Yes, they are afraid something/someone worse may come down the pike and so have not formally protested the PTO petition and drive. Most involved parents are not happy with the status quo, and would not describe them as the “dream team.” Most find both AVP’s to have been varyingly helpful in issues such as bullying and schedule changing. Most are not aware of the Lodi lawsuit, or the one current lawsuit, one pending Williams complaint, or the lawsuit from yet another teacher that is supposedly being prepared even now. Can OUSD afford the kind of settlement Lodi paid out?

    Montera has many excellent teachers. The ones I have talked to are not enthoused about Mr. Mesfun. Some have feel targeted. Some have felt mistreated. All appear afraid of retaliation.

  • educate the future

    I currently have a seventh grader at Montera. As an teacher in the district, I did not consider placing my children in an Oakland middle school.

    When Mr. Mesfun became principal he brought true reform and changed the culture of Montera. His commitment to equity, his repoire with the students, and the progress that the students made on the state assessment convinced me that it was okay to transfer my child. Her time at Montera has been productive and successful. Mr. Mesfun has personally contacted me to discuss my child. He is aware of her progress and her struggles. The feed back that I have received from other parents is that I am not alone in this experience.

    Yes Mr. Mesfun is abrupt at times, but he does this in the defense of access to quality education. I would ask Dr. Smith to please reconsider moving Mr. Mesfun from Montera. The students deserve a dedicated advocate.

  • Montera teacher

    In my opinion, Mr. Mesfun is not a capable leader on so many fronts that it is hard to even begin. He alienates staff, yells, blows up, needs it ‘right now’, and forgets about it a minute later. He’s been through four secretaries and three counselors in two years; multiple teachers have left due to his bullying, at least ten are leaving in June, and many more would leave if the economy wasn’t so bad! I agree that the fear of an even worse principal is a driving force here.

  • Montera alumnus

    I graduated Montera class of, gee, probably 1983, and all of my elementary and secondary edu was in Oakland. Currently I’m a parent of two at an elementary that feeds into Montera.

    Some above have said, “teachers matter most.”

    Ironically that means one or two bad teachers have the ability crumple up your motivation and throw it in the waste basket, and that a school with nine teachers who happen to be good and one who happens to be bad is like playing Russian roulette with your child’s education and outlook on life. (BTW, the only teacher I ever had anywhere who I really felt deeply hated me because of my family’s religious views was at Montera, and I deeply hated Montera and started .)

    My experience in OSUD then and now is that principals really do have a very significant influence on individual schools. A good one can raise hell and make it better, a bad one can drive it into the ground, and one who is as mediocre as a bad teacher will let the mediocre teachers ruin more lives.

    The parents at my children’s elementary school are pleased with Montera. They have begun to send their children there instead of abandoning OSUD (and sometimes Oakland) after 5th grade. This is a BIG change and it wasn’t an accident. Mr. Mesfun came to our elementary on one occasion to encourage parents to send their children there. If he’s been accused of racism (against white teachers in Lodi), I’m thinking… GOOD!!! that means he has had a taste of what it’s like to be white. More power to him!

  • Union Supporter-But

    In terms of retaliation many, many parents in Oakland would have filed Williams complaints about their elementary and middle school teachers – a Williams complaint states that the teacher is not qualified to teach that particular grade or subject, or that there are not materials to support learning – those of us who went to the district and got the forms were stopped by teachers aids who are paid for by the PTA. We are told to think about how it will look for the school, consider the teacher has a family, just have your child attend summer school, get a tutor, ask for a pull out program. After three consecutive years of teachers not knowing the grade level material themselves and not knowing how to teach grade level material I would love to help set it right for future families. But I am afraid of retaliation – my child is afraid of retaliation, so we barter for a tutor we cannot afford.

    Teachers are not the only people in this school district afraid of retaliation.

  • educate the future

    Teachers do matter but students matter more.

    Leadership is very important to the progress of a school.

    Montera Teacher states tha Mr. Mesfun has been through two secretaries and counselors. The reality is that these persons were moved due to HR reasons and are not a reflection on Mr. Mesfun.As far as teachers leaving some may have needed to go.

    Any time a teacher states in a meeting “These students don’t want to learn”, “you don’t need a dark face to cry”, and “these kids are not like the students we are used to teaching”. Then it is time for them to go.

    The reality is that Mr. Mesfun is good for children, they are the true customers on campus. As a teacher I support good teachers 100% but we can not support practices that harm children. Mr. Mesfun is being protrayed as tyrant, but it is necessary for him to confront practices and attitudes that hinder the progress of students.

  • Sue

    @Union Supporter-But, re: retaliation.

    I’ve been really hesitant to respond to you comments at all – I think I can do it without sounding like Nextset, maybe, and I really hope this comes out positively.

    The solution to preventing or overcoming retaliation is documentation. Put everything in writing, make audio recordings of meetings, and request that all responses are in writing.

    I say this from lo-o-o-ong experience. At this point, my husband and I consider that we’ve burned every bridge at the district-level offices. We are actively *hated* by the Director of Special Programs (Spec. Ed.), and I don’t think either of us could be in the same room with her without throwing-up, or throwing insults and objects at her and storming out of the room.

    But our kids (both our Skyline senior with autism, and our GATE 7th grader at Montera) have *never* been subjected to any negative consequences. There has been no retaliation of of any kind, ever, because the district administrators know that we document everything, and with that ammunition any halfway decent lawyer could have them for lunch.

    And by the way, our kids’ teachers *love* us. They’re doing right by our kids, and they know that we’ve got their backs. If the district attempted anything with them, and it involved one of our boys, same thing, a lawyer would be having a field day. Even when something has happened with other students, sometimes we’ve been able to help the teacher with the situation.

    So, don’t allow yourself to be victimized, document.

  • walton barnaby

    The parents who respond to this thread probably represent the top 10% of the district’s test scores in their daughters and sons.

    I like to think that we’re getting a representative slice in these threads, but wonder. If we’re hearing from the upper half in here, what do the constituents in the lower half think? How pleased are they with both Montera and Skyline. The best public schools in Oakland have significant achievement gaps.

    All great comments in here, though. The lawyering up, Sue, makes me think we live in sad times. Maybe education will improve.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Thank you Sue.

    Walton Barnaby we have some very, very good teachers at our school, a couple of excellent teachers at our school, but for the several teachers that were switched to grades / subjects for which they themselves do not know the content it is horrid for the students.

    When complaining both to the principal and the the teacher, the teacher has retaliated twice. Both time the teacher backed down when confronted directly with witnesses present and changed statements saying “there was a misunderstand” or perhaps “not enough attention was paid.”

    The teacher has been offered training in the deficit area and the principal paid for a substitute and the training, the teacher did not show up because of a “transportation problem.” The teacher has refused summer courses to bring minimum skills up to minimum levels and depends on the school’s “resource specialist” to teacher math concepts that are foreign to the teacher. The teacher uses “smart student work” to grade other students’ work and has marked answers wrong that were correct and left correct wrong answers.

    The union is protecting the teacher, the union stewart makes sure that the teacher does not have to use personal summer time for training and the transportation issue was overlooked as a “one time incident.” We are nearing the school year, so we continue with the tutor and based on the benchmark tests, our student who was “advanced” in all categories has slipped to the bottom of the “proficient” category. Nearly every student in the classes has had their scores slip and I know this for a fact because the teacher could not pull my child’s records without giving me the results of every child because of inferior computer skills.

    It is a very tense and difficult situation. And Sue, you are right, we should have began documenting from the beginning. We only started documenting when the retaliation began happening. I am angry with the teacher, the union stewart and the union. The principal will have the teacher moved next year, but students whose parents have not already begun the process of tutoring will have a rough year next year and the teachers will have to pick up the slack.

  • Sue

    We’ve never had to call in the lawyers. Ever. We’ve spent exactly one hour in an attorney’s office having a consultation – that’s in 14 years of having a special needs child in OUSD classrooms. Our consistent documentation was a preventative measure. That’s how it works best.

    We’ve gotten close to calling that lawyer again a couple of times – a really bad teacher who wouldn’t follow our child’s IEP, but the principal overruled the teacher and our child received the grade that was appropriate to the IEP requirements. When the state took over the district and most/all of the staff in the district’s Department of Special Programs were removed, but (perhaps because Dr. Ward met with our family on his first day in the district) the new state administrator restaffed the department *very* quickly.

    When we documented openly, the district made commitments to do what our child needed, and because of the documentation, they also knew that they had to *keep* their promises, not just tell us whatever we wanted to hear, and then ignore us once we went away.

    Of course, I have spent so much of my own time reading and researching state education law, that sometimes I feel like I should have earned my law degree by now.

  • wally barnaby

    http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_14892680

    Parents should not be intimidated. They should strike when bad teachers are protected, to the determinant of thousands of Oakland kids.

    I am all for job rights, and due process, (and the fact that we need way better principals in our schools–we get what we pay for, incidentally, compared to Cupertino, for instance) but protecting bad teachers WHILE HURTING OUR FUTURE GENERATION is unconscionable.

    @Union Supporter – as a parent, get the other parents riled up, and strike this teacher’s class.

  • Katy Murphy

    What odd timing. I just wrote about parents at another school doing just that.

  • seenitbefore

    I’m a teacher. And for the record, if a teacher is “bad for kids” or does something horrendous…. then yes… they have to go.

    That being said….. I’ve been teaching a l-o-n-g time and I have rarely seen a teacher who just didn’t care about the students or considered themselves “above the rules or standards of professional behavior”.

    I have however, encountered many OUSD principals and administrators who feel quite entitled to use their power and position to intimidate, bully and harass the very people they are supposed to be leading. Mr. Mesfun is among them.

    http://www.lodinews.com/articles/2007/06/20/news/8_accusation_070620.txt

    http://www.lodinews.com/articles/2008/03/23/news/4_suit_080322.txt

  • Sara

    Montera teacher, I was wondering if that 10 figure is true. That would be one-third of the teachers. I know of 5 and a couple of those aren’t voluntary. Do yo know if this is a voluntary thing with all of them or were some pink-slipped?

  • Havehadenough

    As an employee of OUSD and a parent, I have simply had enough! It is no wonder people laugh at the city of Oakland. It is a crying shame what goes on in these schools. Teachers being hit by students and NOTHIMG is done about it. The RACE issue is out of control. I hesitated putting my daughter at Montera, but I have to say if you are stuck in a god forsaken city such as this one, then Montera is the place to be. It IS THE ONLY MIDDLE SCHOOL THAT IS NOT IN PROGRAM IMPROVEMENT!!!!!!

  • concerned parent

    The Lodi lawsuit was settled by Lodi paying $250k to the plaintiffs….where there is smoke there is fire! Something must have been bad enough to settle for that amount of money. And the pending lawsuit in OUSD is also for retaliation and harrassment, based on Mr. Mesfun’s actions at Montera…..

  • Oakland Educator

    So May 15th has come and gone. Does anyone know what OUSD decided regarding these three administrators?