Denfeld News

Jan. 23, 2011
Duluth News Tribune

Teacher tension shadows combined Duluth Central High School
By Jana Hollingsworth

When Duluth Denfeld merged with Central High School this school year, there was plenty of good news about how well students took to the change.

Central Principal Lisa Mitchell-Krocak gave a report of school harmony to the School Board in early fall, and there were news stories of students coming together through sports, theater and classes.

But it was revealed at a board meeting last week that many former Denfeld faculty and staff members are unhappy with Central administration and that they feel support is lacking during the Red Plan transition.

“We were focusing so much on the kids that maybe we never thought about how difficult it would be for the faculty,” said Michele Helbacka, an English teacher at Central.

While union representatives had been meeting with staff about issues, the news of discontent came to the School Board through focus group results. University of Minnesota Duluth instructors acting as private education consultants met with groups of 51 Denfeld faculty and staff at Central last fall to gauge the success of a Denfeld intercultural leadership program. Faculty and staff had been trained since 2006 in ways to help them build trust with others and develop better understanding and openness to diversity.

After the program began, Denfeld saw a drop in behavioral issues and a significant narrowing of the achievement gap for students of color, said Shelley Smith, one of the consultants who helped conduct the focus groups. Central staff had been trained to use a different method of relating to students and others — called restorative learning — and some Denfeld faculty felt at odds with it. Some Denfeld teachers also said they hadn’t been given an orientation or mentors when they arrived at Central.

“They were the people coming into someone else’s house, and they never felt like they were particularly welcomed into that house,” Smith said.

In the consultants’ presentation, the School Board learned that some Denfeld staff felt “at odds with the Central administration” and that they “get in trouble when we do something wrong, but nobody tells us what the rules are,” Smith said.

Central teachers and administrators say that the adult conflict has not affected the generally positive experience of the combined student bodies.

“Our students have handled this phenomenally well,” Helbacka said. “They’ve forged new friendships and respect each other.”

But School Board member Mary Cameron, an advocate for the work at Denfeld that has helped close the achievement gap, contends that students can sense problems, and she worries about how the turmoil is affecting them.

“I think a lot needs to be done to fix it,” she said. “I was surprised and irritated (to hear about the conflict), because staff presented a different picture to the board.”

Mitchell-Krocak said when she told the board in the fall about the climate of the school, she was talking about students because that was the focus of her presentation, and she wasn’t aware there were issues among faculty members.

In an interview Thursday, Mitchell-Krocak said she didn’t know there were teachers who felt unwelcome.

Activities were held to familiarize new staff to the school and their new colleagues, she said, before the start of the school year and in early and late fall. They included breakfasts, tours, inservice sessions and weekly meetings. Last spring, teacher exchanges were offered. Mentors weren’t part of the transition because most of the teachers coming from Denfeld were experienced, and she is accustomed to using mentors with new teachers.

“If someone doesn’t feel welcome, it makes me very sad,” she said. “There are people coming from one culture with a set of expectations, and it isn’t what people are used to. My goal is for everybody here to feel welcome. I will work until they do.”

Mitchell-Krocak, in her 11th year as principal and in her 36th year with the district, said staff at Central this year came from several schools because of the “big fill” — the process the district used to place teachers during the transition from three high schools to two.

“It’s like starting over,” she said. “It’s rebuilding the culture and trying to honor everything everybody brings to the table and, at the same time, being open to other ways of doing things.”

It’s not just teachers from Denfeld who have complaints about Central administration, said Frank Wanner, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers and a Central social studies teacher. Teachers from all schools expected that efficiencies gained by combining schools would help reduce class sizes and provide more administrative support.

“When they are carrying a lot, they expect a lot,” Wanner said.

Superintendent Keith Dixon said an increased number of administrators was meant to help during the bridging year, before everyone returns to Denfeld. And though steps were taken to smooth the transition for faculty members, it might not have been enough for some, he said.

“It just shows you how much time it takes,” he said. “There are faculty who are dyed-in-the-wool strong Central Trojans and dyed-in-the-wool Denfeld Hunters. But when it comes to teaching and working with kids, they are very professional.”

The dissatisfaction within faculty ranks is fixable, said board member Tom Kasper, but it won’t happen overnight.

“There is a lack of trust … and trust is something to be built,” he said.

Dixon said Central leaders and union leaders are working on issues within the school, and if things aren’t resolved, district administration will become more involved.

“We’re not going to ignore the situation,” he said. “We’re going to deal with it. Transitions are hard.”

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