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Alafia Elementary parents vent to superintendent about principal

VALRICO — A long, heated meeting last week between Alafia Elementary parents and school administrators left many furious parents even more frustrated than before.

They pointed fingers and yelled at superintendent MaryEllen Elia for two hours, accusing administrators of doing too little too late about principal Ellyn Smith and what has become a divided school.

"This would be politics at its best, shaking hands and kissing babies," parent Tina Ellis said after the meeting. "Nothing was resolved, and it never will be. (Smith) needs to be demoted out of this school."

About 150 parents crowded into the school cafeteria for the session, intended to be an orderly discussion about what the superintendent and her staff are doing to address gripes focused on Smith.

Parents have criticized Smith for months, citing high teacher turnover, low morale, and concerns about student safety and behavior, among other problems. Two weeks ago, a school assessment cited a "very stressful work environment."

Smith, as part of school administration, also got low marks for overall leadership of the school, not treating school employees justly and humanely, and for fostering a negative climate between administrators and teachers.

That sparked stress that spread to parents, the report stated.

The findings about the communications breakdown at Alafia became clear last week when parents pounced on the chance to vent. Those with children in kindergarten through second grade were incensed about the sudden move they say their children made into "filthy" portable classrooms in four days.

The chaotic move, known for months in anticipation of renovations going on at the school, left teachers scrambling to piece together classrooms last week. Some parents helped clean the rooms, which at some point didn't have heat during the cold snap.

Others were also upset about the way behavior issues are handled at the school. They said disruptive students are not dealt with appropriately, and are often left in classrooms where they continue to hurt or distract others.

Parents have bombarded Elia with e-mails, phone calls and even started a blog. More than 270 have signed a petition calling for Smith's removal.

As a result of the report and parent complaints, Elia said that Smith would be mentored by former Alafia principal Grace Ippolito. Alafia, an A-rated school, would become a focus school, a spot reserved for those needing extra help.

Administrators and staff members are also scheduled to attend team-building workshops and other classes meant to foster a better work environment.

"We thought we were (addressing the problems)," Elia said. "But we obviously weren't doing it the way we needed to."

Moms, dads and even a grandparent who came to the meeting still demanded a timeline, dates and accountability.

"You're going to give her a life coach? In the real world, we don't get a life coach. We get fired," said Marcos Santiago, father of a kindergartener.

Elia promised an update at a Dec. 20 meeting and said she would post the full assessment report on the school Web site, along with an investigation of some children's behavior.

Smith attended the meeting but didn't address parents.

After the meeting she said, "I'm excited to move forward with the resources the district is providing to our school to deal with any and all concerns."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or 661-2454.

Alafia Elementary parents vent to superintendent about principal 11/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 7:44pm]
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