Written by William Bryant Rozier
Parents, grandparents, teachers, students, and concerned citizens filled the conference room at the Fort Wayne Urban League on June 21, 2018 during a scheduled board meeting for charter school Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy. The assembled were present to discuss multiple charges of misconduct and negligence levied against Thurgood Marshall’s first year principal, Harold Stevens.
Thurgood Marshall, with a student capacity of approximately 225 pupils (93 students are enrolled for the 2018-19 school year), is predominantly occupied by African-American students; the common refrain at the meeting, and a punchline at times, said by multiple attendees, described Thurgood Marshall as “99.9% Black.”
The tenor of the complaints expressed doubt whether Principal Stevens, who is Anglo American, can properly lead a school majorly filled with African-American students and teachers.
Board members from Thurgood Marshall and the Urban League, representatives from American Quality Schools (AQS) Corporation, the Illinois-based charter management group that oversees Thurgood Marshall, and Principal Stevens, who was hired by AQS, were also present.
Rules for the meeting were given at the outset: Each person was allotted five minutes to address concerns that were to be directed solely to the board and not to a specific individual. Statements were only given; questions could not be asked. However, due to the emotions raised by most of the statements, the five-minute mark was regularly eclipsed and questions were routinely asked.
Thurgood Marshall first grade teacher, Sheila Shipp, the first to speak, came to offer support for the principal, who complimented the school’s stronger relationships across the board. “We get to see the stuff parents don’t see. We are doing our best,” Shipp said.
However, Shipp served as the evening’s lone voice of support, as the remaining attendees spoke words of concern and complaint. So lopsided was the ratio (11-1 in opposition) that John Dortch, Thurgood Marshall volunteer and Fort Wayne Ink Spot publisher, directly implored Dr. Michael Bakalis, AQS founder, for a swift and immediate resolution.
Teacher Lucretia Lindsey, third year at the academy, defined Principal Stevens’ leadership style as one of control. “It’s power,” Lindsey said. She talked about how her “experiences have been rocky,” at the school.
Lindsey relayed the story of how Principal Stevens once admonished her while standing, by her estimation, too close to her person.
The parents on hand, some of whom brought their children, related feelings of being bullied and shared remembrances of seemingly aggressive behavior towards students, including the pulling of collars, all coming from a sometimes aloof principal, as described by the attendees. Racist motivations were explicitly charged.
Two teachers previously fired by Stevens, Eric Veazy and Adrian Curry, also spoke. Veazy, at Thurgood for five to six months before his termination, blamed the school board for the stressed-filled culture described by the testimonies. Curry, who was let go after one year, testified about raising his student’s test scores in math and language arts without receiving a promised bonus.
No resolution was provided at the June 21 meeting, as attendees were left without, standing and speaking over each over, until the board meeting was properly called.
Closure could come on July 12, 2018, during a closed session meeting at the Urban League, including a subcommittee of the school board, AQS members and its legal counsel, and Principal Stevens. FWIS will provide an update on this story in our next issue.
According to Dr. Bakalis, AQS will refute the claims addressed on June 21, with evidence they’ve accrued but could not present at the previous meeting. Bakalis, who is Stevens’ employer, stressed that the situation is “not a question of taking sides,” but about sorting through the copious amounts of information to make the correct recommendation.
After all of the testimonies and evidence have been sifted through, according to Bakalis, resolution could come in the form of termination for Stevens, probation with possible sensitivity training, or a status-quo stay.
“Some [of the testimony] was clearly racially motivated towards [Principal Stevens],” Bakalis said. “Racism is a two-way street.”
AQS will be presenting, among other artifacts of refutation, letters of support from both teachers and parents at the closed-session meeting.
Dr. Bakalis’ interview was conducted via a phone call.