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Pinellas teacher's 33-year career: fired, rehired, transferred, investigated

Caetlin Labrant, left, and her mother, Laura, are among the dozens of students and parents who have objected to Dunedin High English teacher Maria Raysses-Whipple.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Caetlin Labrant, left, and her mother, Laura, are among the dozens of students and parents who have objected to Dunedin High English teacher Maria Raysses-Whipple.

The parents complained, and complained, and complained again. It didn't matter if their kids were black or white, at-risk or honor roll. Year after year, they said similar things about Maria Raysses-Whipple and what she was doing in her classroom: botching grades. Putting down students. Making them hate school.

They told one principal after another: Move my kid.

"My daughter came home every day in tears," said Laura Labrant, who had her 14-year-old transferred out of Whipple's English class at Dunedin High last fall.

Labrant said Whipple, 60, often put her daughter in the back of the class even though she had a school-approved education plan that required her to sit in front. "This woman blatantly ignored it," she said.

At Dunedin, Whipple began the 2009-10 school year with at least 130 students. She ended with fewer than 50.

In 33 years as a Pinellas County teacher, her performance has been repeatedly scrutinized and admonished. School officials terminated Whipple from her first teaching contract in 1978; nudged her out of an elementary school in 1984; pushed her out of a high school in 1997. In October, they began investigating her for undisclosed reasons.

Yet until she went on medical leave on Jan. 24, she was still teaching (at $60,798 a year) and, at least through last fall, still drawing a barrage of complaints.

Her response: She's "an old-school gal." No nonsense, high standards. If she racks up more complaints than other teachers, she said, it's because "teachers of today capitulate to the children, to the students, to the parents and to the whole system."

Some might see Whipple as proof that state lawmakers were right to eliminate teacher tenure. Others will see an anomaly that shouldn't be used to justify the erosion of job security for thousands of good teachers.

Either way, her case offers a rare view: multiple snapshots of a classroom where a teacher is given chance after chance. And, in the eyes of many parents, just keeps failing.

• • •

The assignment on day one: make a poster about yourself.

Lisa Dillon said Whipple's instructions in freshman English specified about 30 requirements. Her son, Chris, worked for hours last fall, using a stack of photos and following directions to a T. He was so proud, the poster still hangs on his bedroom door.

But Whipple gave him an F, Dillon said. A red flag went up.

Because Chris is a candidate for a Doorways Scholarship from the Pinellas Education Foundation, the F was far more than a bad grade. Doorways scholars must maintain a C in all classes or risk losing $11,600 in tuition money.

Dillon said she and her husband scheduled three meetings with Whipple. The first time, the teacher didn't show, she said. The second time, she called the night before and said she was sick.

In the meantime, report cards arrived. Whipple's class: F.

Dillon said she looked up her son's grades on the school district's computer system. Half of the grades in Whipple's class were logged in multiple times, she said. "It made no sense."

According to Dillon, when she and her husband finally met with Whipple and an assistant principal, the teacher told them she didn't know how to use the computer system and said Chris' grade was wrong. She told the parents she'd fix it, then asked a stunner: What grade did they want?

"We told her we want the grade he earned," Dillon said.

• • •

Whipple began working at Dunedin High in 2008, after the district moved her from a nonclassroom job she held for 11 years.

Her reputation preceded her.

Her personnel file includes more than 40 written complaints from parents, more than 20 from students. Again and again, similar charges surface: low grades with little or no explanation. Tests and papers that weren't returned in a timely manner. Long waits before she called parents back. Insults when she did.

One mother wrote that Whipple took three weeks to respond to a meeting request. Then the teacher suggested her son might be having problems because "1.) He doesn't like dominating women. 2.) Maybe he wants attention because he's not getting enough. 3.) Maybe his father was too dominating. 4.) Problems at home — like a bad marriage."

Over and over, parents said Whipple made their kids dread class.

"He is afraid to ask questions because he feels he will get hollered at … so he just sits and looks out of the window," one wrote.

In written complaints, one student said Whipple told him he wasn't pronouncing his name correctly. One said she made fun of how he held his paper. One said she wouldn't sign his progress reports: "I bring them to her at the beginning of class she tells to wait till the end of class. I bring it at the end she says I should have brought them at the beginning."

Three students said she told them they were going nowhere in life. Two said she called them "lowlifes."

One said when he asked Whipple about a D on his progress report, she told him it was "because of my 'style' and she didn't like it."

Administrators documented problem after problem, issued warning after warning.

Whipple was transferred from her first district job, teaching emotionally disturbed students, two months after she started, then terminated two months after that. She landed work as a substitute, then was hired in 1980 as a full-time teacher at Palm Harbor Elementary.

It didn't go well. In 1984, a legal agreement between the district and the teachers union routed her out of elementary education and down a new path as a high school teacher. Problems continued. In 1997, she agreed to a five-day suspension without pay and to leave her teaching job at East Lake High.

Along the way, colleagues criticized her, too. A school psychologist wrote that Whipple's behavior in many instances "could be classified as emotionally abusive." A school social worker said her students have been "subjected to the most insidious kind of child abuse." Both said Whipple shouldn't be teaching.

Dunedin High principal Reuben Hepburn declined to comment.

Paul Summa, Dunedin's principal until he retired last summer, said parents began calling within two weeks of Whipple's arrival. He moved many students at the parents' request. He moved even more in wholesale course swaps that lessened Whipple's teaching load but increased the burden on her peers.

In November 2009, he e-mailed district officials for help, saying parent protests were coming in daily. One asked for a transfer in big, handwritten letters: "Please," she pleaded, "for the sake of my child's future."

• • •

Some parents and school officials said Whipple knows her subject well. Here and there, her file contains praise.

"Her goals may be high, but by the time the students are half way to the goal, they are 'top notch' students," parents who were Palm Harbor ministers wrote about her in 1983.

"I sincerely thank you, for your stern mannerism, strict teachings and hard lessons," a student wrote in 1994.

A lengthy 1984 memo from the district personnel director to the superintendent says a school official received 20 letters in support of Whipple. It does not indicate who sent the letters, and they were not in her file.

The teachers union backed her repeatedly.

Whipple is a "strict teacher with high expectations," Jade Moore, the union's longtime director until his death in 2008, told school officials in 1984. Moore said he "would like my child to be in her class."

The St. Petersburg Times asked Whipple by phone on March 11 to respond to specific complaints.

Whipple said she was tired and had multiple health issues. She said she could talk more at 1 p.m. on March 18.

No one answered a call at that time. No one answered several subsequent calls. There was no way to leave a message.

During the March 11 interview, Whipple was asked in general about the parents' complaints.

"When I was in school, we were the children of immigrants, we were always told, 'Whatever your teacher says, goes. We support our teachers 100 percent,' " she said. Now parents "have their own perspective and point of view and they expect that to be the prevailing ethic."

• • •

The district says it put Whipple back into a classroom because of budget cuts.

"As in all cases of displaced employees and/or reduction in force, the district makes every effort to identify alternative placement based on qualifications," Harriet Konstantinidis, the human resources director who handled Whipple's placement, wrote in an e-mail.

Whipple was an experienced English teacher, she wrote. Based on vacancies, Dunedin was appropriate.

Asked why Whipple would be returned to teaching given past problems, Konstantinidis wrote that she was "not made aware" of any performance issues Whipple had as a resource teacher — her title after she left East Lake High. Asked if she was aware of Whipple's problems as a classroom teacher, Konstantinidis did not respond.

Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union, said she can't judge whether Whipple should be teaching. "I'm not the one that makes those decisions," she said. "I'm not the employer."

Whipple said she'll be out the rest of the school year. She said she'll start to evaluate this summer whether she can come back in the fall.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Response to complaints

Maria Raysses-Whipple's file shows she often objected to bad writeups. She refused to sign an evaluation. She refused to sign a reprimand. In a couple of cases, she blamed the criticism on philosophical differences with supervisors.

A 1993 letter she sent to the district sums up her take on teaching. She sent it to the office that investigates employee conduct after an "alleged ambush attack" on her by district officials. Here is an excerpt:

"We, the American public education system, are second only to the family, in the transmission of the ideals, knowledge, and ethics of Western civilization itself. More often than not, we, the teachers, administrators, and schools, are the last and only bastion for the preservation of all we hold dear and enlightened about our civilization. If we do not hold firm to our beliefs and principles, we, the public schools, have abdicated our own moral responsibilities and we have become part of the pollution and not the solution. And our beloved American Dream, the pride of our forefathers and mothers, will become a hollow relic for our children. The social ramifications of reduced expectations for our children will, I believe, cause further class polarization and resulting disenfranchisement and poverty of the undereducated and underskilled."

Pinellas teacher's 33-year career: fired, rehired, transferred, investigated 03/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 28, 2011 10:18pm]

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