Officials sorting out disarray at Leverett Elementary School

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By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-26-2024 12:36 PM

LEVERETT — With the interim Leverett Elementary School principal on a leave that began in March after being criticized for a lack of transparency, representatives of the teachers union are seeing the leadership situation as contributing to a “very tumultuous” period for staff, students and families.

At Leverett School Committee meetings in both April and May, concerns were publicly raised about school leadership amid the departure of the sixth grade teacher at the end of March and new plans for sixth grade students by Union 28 Superintendent Jennifer Culkeen that call for dividing the class in two to improve their education for the rest of the school year.

A new interim principal, James Trill, is in place after Annie Foley Ruiz went on leave in late March, but Culkeen, who is retiring at the end of her ninth year in the position, is now on an approved leave as well. Corrina Wcislo, the director of student support services for Union 28, is serving in the acting role until the next permanent superintendent, Shannon White-Cleveland, starts on July 1.

At the May 6 School Committee meeting, Donna Rivers, co-president of the Leverett Education Association and the school’s librarian and technology coordinator, read a statement outlining concerns the union had with Foley Ruiz that led to a meeting on March 12, where the union advocated for areas of improvement, including better communication. Suggestions included face-to-face staff meetings where staff questions are heard and answered; consistent and frequent observation and feedback for the newest staff; and a more collaborative process for decision-making on hiring, class configurations, schedules and other big changes.

Instead, though, the day after that meeting, Foley Ruiz, who has been interim principal since the 2020-2021 school year, began an extended leave, coming even as the changes for the sixth graders were just getting underway.

“It has been a very tumultuous two months for our entire school community, staff, students and families as we navigated through all of the transitions that Annie put into motion, particularly with the sixth grade cohort,” Rivers said. “Not all the details of the transition to a two-classroom model were complete when Annie went on leave and have finally settled in over the past week or so.”

In the April 5 school newsletter, Culkeen announced that the sixth grade teacher, Chad Odwazny, had resigned and that for the rest of the school year the students in that class would be taught by Kristin Avonti and Shelly Robertson Hicks.

Rivers praised Trill for stepping in for Foley Ruiz. Trill was previously the principal of Erving Elementary School for six years, serving for a time under Culkeen, and interim leader at Northfield Elementary School last year.

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“Thankfully we have had Jim Trill on board to be able to help sort through all of this. To say his leadership is a positive change is an enormous understatement,” Rivers said.

Angela Regan, the other union co-president, said Foley Ruiz is on an extended leave even though her leadership was out of compliance with terms of the teachers contract and her performance was poor.

“After Donna and I requested meeting with the superintendent, she came into my classroom and basically cornered me and was yelling at me for going to the superintendent over her head,” Regan said. Regan added that the union wanted to help improve situation, even as members were pushing for a no-confidence vote, but the next day Foley Ruiz stopped coming to work, Regan said.

Emails sent to Foley Ruiz’s school email were not immediately returned.

There are also concerns about a lack of transparency around putting Foley Ruiz on leave, and the union is worried that “all of the mismanagement” over the past year has caused the school and its budget to suffer, Rivers said.

“The LEA must insist that its members be able to participate in this process,” Rivers said. “The LEA is also insistent that whomever is offered the position be given a one-year contract, renewable upon a favorable evaluation that includes feedback from the staff of Leverett School. At this point, there is no official channel for getting feedback from the people who are working directly with our school administrator.”

At the May 6 meeting, Trill acknowledged the challenges, but said he has met with family members, students and others to resolve problems.

School Committee member Anne-Elise Olsen said she appreciates that Trill has been communicative and transparent. “Jim has been keeping the School Committee much more updated on the plan with the sixth grade class, the implementation of different ideas such as the after-school tutoring and the summer program,” Olsen said.

Meanwhile, parent Brieta Goodwin provided a statement that was read at the April meeting, charging a blatant lack of transparency and concern toward caregivers and staff members since October. This included families hiring private tutors due to the “unconscionable” lack of instruction in the sixth grade, Goodwin said.

Before she went on approved leave, Culkeen said at the April meeting that she discussed the action plan for sixth graders with Lindsay Rodriguez, director of curriculum and instruction for the district, offering academic planning and support and a plan for how education and social emotional support would continue for the sixth grade.

In response, School Committee member Tilman Wolf said this appeared to be proactive, but he also asked why it wasn’t done earlier.

Culkeen explained that interventions had occurred, but some couldn’t be revealed or discussed at a public meeting.