Cheatham at forum (copy)

Madison School District superintendent Jennifer Cheatham 

Michael P. King

Editor's note: This article has been edited to make it more clear that Pamela Ferrill remains in her position as instructional resource teacher.

Madison School District superintendent Jennifer Cheatham concedes that administrators made mistakes in acting to remove a respected African-American teacher from a leadership position at a struggling southwest side elementary school.

And she’s working to rebuild trust with staff at Falk Elementary School in the aftermath, Cheatham says. “We’re working hard at creating a more collaborative and trusting structure” between school staff and central administration, she said Friday.

A plan to remove instructional resource teacher Pamela Ferrill from her leadership post and put her back into a classroom, at the same time the search was on to replace the departing principal of Falk Elementary, left teachers feeling “dejected, disrespected and distrustful,” Ferrill told school board members March 31.

Cheatham said that after visiting the school and talking with staff earlier this month, she and her assistant superintendents agreed that to preserve stability during the transition to a new principal, Ferrill will remain in her leadership position, now and in the fall.

Ferrill and other Falk School teachers turned to school board members to express their anger and distrust, not only at unanticipated staff changes, but also at the lack of recognition for what they say are noteworthy improvements in student achievement this school year.

Falk, where 78 percent of students are low-income, was rated as “meets few expectations” on its state report card this year. Some 40 percent of students there are African-American.

Ferrill, the only African-American in the school district to hold the instructional resource teacher position, told school board members that she agreed to be pictured in a school district ad recruiting African-American teachers that appeared in UMOJA magazine, but that recent events had her feeling conflicted about it.

Kira Fobbs, a Falk 5th grade teacher and member of the Madison Teachers Inc. board of directors, said that while “inverting the power pyramid” has been touted as core value of Cheatham’s administration, in reality district administrators superseded the principal’s authority in preparing to reassign Ferrill and other school staff members.

“This unnecessary debacle has diminished staff morale, distracted attention from student learning and been detrimental to the relationship between central administration and Falk School,” Fobbs told school board members.

Fobbs mentioned a comment by a human resources consultant hired by the school board that the school district has an image problem with prospective teachers of color and might attract more of them if the people already on staff said positive things about working for the district.

“The district needs to give staff a reason to say positive things,” Fobbs told board members.

Cheatham on Friday called the level of mistrust expressed by teachers at that school board meeting “alarming.”

"This is a time we need to pay special attention to Falk, and we lost sight of it for a minute. We’re looking at mending that relationship. If Falk is not successful, the district is not successful,” Cheatham said.

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While removing an African-American teacher from a leadership position would seem to contradict the district’s stated goal of attracting and retaining teachers and principals of color, Cheatham said that was not the intention.

“I have regard for Pamela, and appreciate the work she has done at Falk. It is a major priority to recruit and retain not only high quality staff members, but also diverse staff members,” Cheatham said. The intent in reassigning Ferrill was to give the new principal flexibility in selecting school leaders, she said.

Retiring school board member Marj Passman, a former teacher and often an advocate for them, speculated that someone in central administration “just plain blew it.” She praised Cheatham’s handling of the resulting fallout.

Ferrill did not respond to an interview request.

Cheatham said she was struck by complaints from Falk staff that the district administration has not done a sufficient job of recognizing the strides that they and the students have made.

Falk teacher Jocelyn Meyer told board members that the school ranked first in the district in student growth this year, that 58 percent of students showed improvement on the winter math test and that Falk 5th graders scored in the top percentile on a national poll that measures engagement, an important indicator of success.

“I think they’re right,” Cheatham said. “We have to do a better job of celebrating positive work.”