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For 27 years, the Children’s Studio School has offered its pupils an unconventional curriculum. Under its “Arts as Education” approach, children ranging in age from 3 to 12 years old are grouped in “studios” instead of being assigned to grade levels. Rather than sitting in rows and plodding through book reports, they’ll build a collage about war and peace or calculate how much the federal government has spent on bombs as compared with food.
Now, officials at the school, which has operated as a public charter since 1997, have an unorthodox structure for parents, too. Last month, the administration sent out special blue fliers in response to an upcoming parents’-group meeting: “THIS IS NOT A CHILDREN’S STUDIO SCHOOL MEETING,” the handbills read. “IT HAS NOT BEEN ORGANIZED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH CHILDREN’S STUDIO SCHOOL.”
The handouts were one salvo in a battle between parents and administrators at the schoola struggle that has spawned competing parent organizations. In May, school brass canceled future meetings of the Studio School’s 2-year-old parent-support group, Parents Anonymous. The members of the defunct group continued to gather anyway, billing themselves as “the independent parents’ group.”
So on June 2, the school unveiled a school-sponsored alternative, the Parents Support Association. In a letter to parents, the group recommended that parents’ concerns “be addressed through the proper school personnel.” Noemy Rivera-Gutierrez, the school’s intake coordinator and a parent of four Studio School pupils, says that she and several other parents decided to form the group “because we saw the division between the school and some parents.”
The renegade parents say they saw the division, too. Parents Anonymous was intended to provide help with parenting, but over time, the members of the Studio School chapter found their weekly meetings returning to a different topic: the school administration. School officials, parents complain, are too inflexible when it comes to implementing their arts-as-education vision. Though the arts-based approach promotes independent thinking, some parents argue, it doesn’t always deliver fundamentals such as reading and math.
In Djenaba Gregory Faal, the former faculty facilitator for their group, the parents say, they found a sympathetic ear. Faal, who oversaw after-school and summer-school programs and provided training for new teachers, “was always full of ideas for the school,” one parent says. “And she was very sociable with the children.”
“I tried to be a parent advocate,” says Faal. “I had a very open ear. I wanted parents to feel ownership, a connection to the school.”
At first, school officials seemed to share parents’ enthusiasm. In the school’s 2001-2002 annual report, administrators singled out Faal for praise.
But in May, school officials fired Faalone day after she filed a racial-discrimination claim with the D.C. Office of Human Rights. D.C. charter-school workers aren’t unionized; under District law, they are “at-will” employees. “Djenaba was a rallying point, not the primary focus of our concerns,” says parent Phillip Rayford. “[Her dismissal] was the final straw.”
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In February, Franklin Wassmer, the Studio School’s principal for the past five years, announced that he would be stepping down at the end of the school year. Faal says that shortly after she expressed interest in applying to be principal, administrators asked her to resign. Then, on May 8, school officials told her they were terminating her because she had violated a request not to discuss her personnel situation with anyone other than authorized school officials.
When parents, incensed by her dismissal, inquired why Faal had been terminated, administrators cited school policy, which forbids discussion of personnel matters. “The school is at a disadvantage,” says Rivera-Gutierrez. “[Faal] can say whatever she wants. She may not be right, but the school can’t respond.”
In mid-June, the disaffected parents gave administrators a petition with 13 signatures on it demanding Faal’s reinstatement. Soon after, the signers say, they began getting calls from school officials.
“They were trying to scare people,” says Francisca Rivera, whose daughter and son attended the Studio School for the past three years. She says that Rivera-Gutierrez suggested that she might be forced to testify on Faal’s behalf in court. (A complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights is the first step toward a civil lawsuit.) Rivera says she refused to take her name off the petition, but she says she knows others who did because they didn’t want trouble with the law.
Interim principal Julie Doar counters that school officials called parents after several of them complained about their names’ appearing on the petition without authorization. The Parents Anonymous group denies using any names without permission.
Rivera-Gutierrez says that Rivera was the one who brought up the issue of court involvement. “We made it very clear to the parents that they can do whatever they want,” she says.
Some “artist-teachers,” on the other hand, say that being critical of the school can cost them their jobs. Their complaints echo those of disenchanted parents. “[The children are] supposed to learn to write while writing poetry,” says one instructor. “I also want them to be able to write paragraphs, expository writing, letter writing, directions, liststhings that aren’t considered artistic.”
Many kids thrive without lectures on topic sentences. But, Rivera says, her daughter could have used the help. In March, tests revealed that the 9-year-old was still reading at a first-grade level. “That was a reality check,” says Rivera. “Their teachers were always saying they’re doing good, and I believed them.” She is sending her daughter to a new school in the fall. “I want her to be able to compete with other students, and I don’t think she’s getting that.”
School officials point out that by objective measures, the school is making the grade. Doar says the school’s overall Stanford Achievement Test scores, which are average, are “holding steady.” And last year, the school became one of the few charter schools to earn Middle States accreditation.
School officials further contend that disgruntled parents are a minority. Their latest annual parent survey found that 83 percent of parents rated the school overall as “between successful and extraordinary,” says Doar. And more than 90 percent of the school’s students are expected to return in September.
Parents critical of the school say they don’t take issue with the institution’s philosophy. They suggest some “minor reforms,” such as hiring full-time math and reading teachers to supplement the curriculum, or giving artist-teachers more training.
“We still want to be united in what we’re doing. We don’t want to be a totally separate organization [from the school]. We’re not trying to disband the school,” says Ayrika Denmon, mother of two Studio School students. “We all love the idea of education through the arts. We’re still waiting to get it.” CP