Jan. 23, 2011
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,”
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