BROOKSVILLE — Denise Rance said she had several reasons for resigning from her job as a second-grade teacher at troubled Moton Elementary School last month, including the need to devote more time to her family's business.
But mostly, Rance said, she left because of the increased demands the school district and the school placed on teachers without adequate support or encouragement.
"It was the complete and utter disrespect shown for educators in Hernando County," said Rance, 50, who has taught in county schools for more than 20 years and was previously a Teacher of the Year candidate from Chocachatti Elementary School. "I was at the point where I felt physically ill every day when I went in, and a lot of my friends felt the same way."
Many of the school's staffers are taking the same step as Rance — leaving Moton or making plans to do so.
Since a previous principal, Mark Griffith, was removed from the school at the end of April, a total of 18 teachers or instructional support staffers — including a staffing specialist and social worker — have submitted resignations, retired, been dismissed or transferred, according to district documents.
Three more teachers are due to transfer at the end of the semester or when the school can find a replacement, according to Rance and another of the school's former principals, Jamie Young, who stays in contact with the teachers there. District spokeswoman Karen Jordan said only that these teachers are still at the school.
Documents show the school has also lost 10 paraprofessionals, most of whom helped teachers in the schools' several classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities or disruptive behavior patterns.
In the 12 months before Griffith's departure, on the other hand, eight teachers left the school, five of them due to retirement.
Rance and Young say the causes of the exodus are a combination of districtwide and even statewide issues — a laser focus on testing and a curriculum too advanced for students' ages — and conditions specific to Moton.
Those include a demanding, thankless atmosphere created by tight district oversight since Griffith's departure, and a lack of staff to adequately handle the school's concentration of high-needs students.
Jordan said staff turnover is common after schools change principals. Cathy Dofka, the district's director of exceptional student support services, said staffing is determined by the high-needs students' education plans, just as it is at schools with similar populations, called "cluster sites."
Recently hired principal Joe Frana said the situation has stabilized since his arrival — partly because of the help provided by the district — and that staffing is adequate.
Regardless, either Rance or Young listed the following conditions with potential to harm students' education: a turnover of all but one member of the second-grade teaching team, a classroom for exceptional students led by a long-term substitute, and a kindergarten class taught by several different teachers or substitutes since the beginning of the school year.
They also said the school was not able to control its most disruptive students.
"They were leaving the rooms and running down the hallways," said Rance, who put in her resignation notice shortly before Frana arrived in late October. "You have to have more staff on hand."
"It's scary," said Young, who was named in the spring as Griffith's replacement but abruptly resigned at the beginning of the current school year because of her contention that the district did not provide enough staffers to handle such students or to improve Moton's academic performance.
Moton was the only Hernando school to receive a D grade from the state last school year, or to be listed as one of the state's 300 lowest-performing schools. It also has a high concentration of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — 83 percent during the last school year.
Frana, who previously worked as a principal and assistant principal in Lake County, acknowledged that turnover has been a problem.
Also, he said, the district has delayed the transfer of at least one teacher, one who runs a classroom for disruptive students. Jordan said there was no freeze on transfers from Moton.
"I don't know if you would call it a freeze," Frana said. "I know we're really trying to have people stay until we fill these spots."
Also, he said, the school still has five openings, including two for exceptional student education teachers, who are notoriously difficult to attract.
"We have a bunch of openings, and unfortunately there have been some jobs where there weren't any applicants," he said.
But he also said the number of departures is misleading. Some of the teachers who left were promoted to better jobs, he said, and others retired.
"I don't think everybody is leaving because they want to leave Moton," he said. "Some of them do, but I don't think there is a huge amount of people looking to run out of Moton."
The district has worked hard to coach staffers to handle poor behavior, he said, and "(the students) are getting it. I really feel as though we're making progress."
Frana also said he has enough staffers to implement these strategies.
Both classes for students who have shown disruptive behavior are staffed with at least one teacher and one paraprofessional, he said. And a class with fewer than 10 intellectually handicapped students has been allocated a teacher and three paraprofessionals, two of whom are assigned to specific high-needs students.
"I feel like the district is providing a lot of support," he said.
But Young said that there is more flexibility in the staffing for exceptional students than Dofka states and that Dofka's department initially recommended three more staffers to help with these students than the district ultimately allocated — a claim to which Jordan did not directly respond.
"The factors related to staff allocations involve more than this overly simplified interpretation by a former employee," she said.
"I couldn't keep those kids safe," Young said. "There's no way. There weren't enough teachers."
Catherine Penza, whose son was in Rance's second-grade class, said his learning has been disrupted by the behavior of other students and the high turnover in staff.
Rance was a good teacher, Penza said, and she has high hopes for Rance's replacement, and for Frana.
But in the month between permanent teachers, she said, "I wondered what was going on because my son was coming home with no homework."
Being zoned for the school is especially painful, she said, because she lives near Chocachatti Elementary, a high-performing magnet school, "while your child is forced to go to a school that's subpar."
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected] Follow @ddewitttimes.