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July 24, 2014

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Families galvanized by charter school principal’s suspension

Some consider pulling kids, which would cost charter school funding

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Tiffany Brown

Parent Eila Gregory collects signatures Thursday in front of 100 Academy of Excellence charter school. The petition is to reinstate Timothy Goler as principal.

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Parent Kim Beard signs a petition Thursday calling for Timothy Goler to be reinstated as principal of 100 Academy of Excellence.

Beyond the Sun

Wanda Hobbs stood awhile on the sidewalk after dropping off her 9-year-old granddaughter at the 100 Academy of Excellence charter school Wednesday morning, waiting, it seemed, for a sign.

She had just found out that Timothy Goler, the school’s third principal in as many years, had been placed on administrative leave the week before. She had signed a petition to bring Goler back. She wanted to know what was happening to her child’s school, what else she could do to make things right.

“It seemed like such a family,” she said of the few short weeks Goler had been in charge. She and others mentioned how the new principal said good morning to all, shook everybody’s hand. “But now,” Hobbs wondered, “how are you supposed to feel?”

And pointing to her surroundings, a historically black neighborhood with high unemployment and poverty figures, she added, “It’s always too good to be true, especially in this community.”

Hobbs’ family was one of dozens that seemed to be galvanized by the unexplained suspension of Goler on Sept. 2. He had been named principal in July. Before that, he taught a fourth grade class at 100 Academy, and before that, Goler founded a think tank called Policy Bridge in Cleveland that worked on issues of concern to the black community of Ohio. He declined to comment for this story.

When he was suspended, Goler, school staff and parents of 100 Academy students didn’t have the avenue available to families of other public school students — going to the School Board. The board’s purview over charter schools is much more limited. So the suspension instead spurred a petition drive, as well as talk of organizing, and, perhaps most notably, threats of removing children from the school on or before Sept. 18.

That’s the state’s “count day” for charter schools, when the number of students in class translates to money that the state allocates to each school’s budget. If parents follow through on their threat, each student’s absence will cost the school $6,433 for the year.

As of Wednesday, families had pulled about 35 students from the school, leaving enrollment at fewer than 500, according to a school official. If it stays that low on Sept. 18, the student body would be smaller than it was during any of the school’s previous three counts.

On Thursday, Tina Turner’s son remained enrolled in 100 Academy’s fourth grade, but she was considering sending him to a different school. She was at the year’s first meeting of the school’s board, on Aug. 27, one of an estimated 100-plus parents and relatives of students who made for what several who were there say was among the school’s best-attended board meetings.

Turner has had her son in the school since it opened in 2006. “We’ve never had that many parents at a meeting,” she said.

And although estimates of attendance that night vary, the observation is noteworthy, because Turner and others said Goler’s personal invitation spurred their decision to go to the meeting, and they assume his removal four days later was because dozens of parents spoke about the school’s needs. Some said the physical education program should be improved, and others said 100 Academy needed a school nurse, for example.

Turner, the president of the school’s newly formed parent-teacher organization, said that group got a boost at the board meeting after dozens signed up to join.

But Vickie Frazier-Williams, regional vice president of Imagine Schools Inc., the Virginia-based company that runs the 100 Academy, discounted the version of events that Turner and others had of the meeting and subsequent suspension of Goler.

“It’s a fallacy. It’s untrue that he’s on administrative leave because he got a lot of parents to come to the meeting,” she said. She also declined to comment on Goler, saying it was a personnel issue.

Five minutes earlier, a parent had approached Frazier-Williams in the school lobby about removing her child from the school.

There’s a sort of circular irony to these events. After all, three years ago, in the days before the school opened, Frazier-Williams told the Sun the academy was needed in part because “there is a general feeling (in the community) that children of color aren’t getting the best education they could.”

Now members of that same community are rising up against Frazier-Williams for a decision they see as a direct rebuff to their needs and desires.

“She looks like she has something to hide and would prefer that parents not get involved,” said Eila Gregory, who has five children in the academy and stood outside the school this week gathering signatures for the petition to reinstate Goler.

Gregory said she had also gone to the board meeting because of the principal’s personal invitation. “He walked up to us, asked us to get involved. That’s something this community needs,” she said.

Frazier-Williams countered that meeting dates and locations have always been posted in public places, and that she tapped Goler to lead the school in part because “he’s connected to parents.”

Now many of those same parents want to know why they weren’t informed about Goler’s removal until a week had passed, with a note sent home Wednesday afternoon.

“I should’ve been told,” said Ava Johnson, who has had four children at the school since it opened. “It’s not only sad, it’s not well put-together,” she said.

Lamesha Young, who has a son in 100 Academy’s kindergarten, said “there is no spirit, no smiles” in Goler’s absence. “He walked these halls, busted a sweat. He’s fighting for our kids,” she said.

Not all families have been stirred to activism just yet. A group of three parents standing outside the school said they had just found out about the principal. They lamented not getting to know him better, adding that at least they knew Frazier-Williams, who has been in charge since the school opened.

Frazier-Williams said there was “never a decision made not to inform parents.”

The note she sent home Wednesday did not explain why Imagine placed him on administrative leave, calling it a personnel decision.

Still, as Sept. 18 approaches, the charter school that once seemed a promise to a community with its share of troubles faces a turning point.

Families may see the removal of a principal as a rallying cry, and push for more involvement in a school with an unusual triangle of influences: the private corporation that owns it, Imagine Inc.; the nonprofit organization that sends volunteers to its halls, 100 Black Men; and the county school district and state department that help set its academic standards and budget.

Or families may pull so many students out that finances, which have been a problem in the past, become the key factor in determining the school’s immediate future.

“It would be unfortunate if parents dis-enroll,” Frazier-Williams said.

“I want parents to continue to give this school a chance to do right by their children,”

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