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Parents take beef with Alafia principal to School Board

Ellyn Smith, principal of Alafia Elementary, said she is aware of the complaints.

Ellyn Smith, principal of Alafia Elementary, said she is aware of the complaints.

VALRICO — A group of parents at Alafia Elementary, long considered one of the best schools in Hillsborough County, are on a mission.

They want to get rid of the school's principal.

About a dozen Alafia parents, wearing blue T-shirts with the school name and an alligator mascot, brought their concerns about principal Ellyn Smith directly to the School Board on Tuesday.

About half signed up to speak during the public comment section of the board meeting. They blamed the leader of the A-rated school for creating a hostile environment for parents and teachers, saying she had failed to ensure the safety of their children.

"Alafia Elementary is a broken school, and it must be repaired and mended to keep our A-rating," parent Michelle Salerno said.

Smith was not at the board meeting but said Wednesday that she was aware of the complaints. She pointed out that Alafia is one of two elementary schools in the county that have been rated "A" ever since the state started issuing letter grades, and that Alafia's standardized test scores are traditionally high.

The school has 659 parents and is in a desirable Bloomingdale neighborhood.

But Salerno, other parents and, they say, former teachers at Alafia have a laundry list of complaints against Smith, including:

• School safety. Salerno said in a phone interview before Tuesday's meeting that her daughter, in first grade at the time, disappeared from the lunch room for 30 minutes. She was found in a bathroom at the front of the school, which Salerno says is accessible to anyone in the parking lot.

• Discipline. Parent Amy Dreyer has repeatedly complained about a disruptive child in her son's kindergarten class. Dreyer said Smith has done nothing about the problem, and that as an experienced administrator she should be able to immediately alleviate parent concerns.

Smith has been an educator for more than 30 years and previously was principal for seven years at Seffner Elementary.

"This is not her first rodeo," Dreyer said.

• Teacher turnover. Parent Beverly Harbord said 32 teachers have left Alafia since Smith took over in 2005.

• Failure to encourage parental involvement. Dreyer said parents are not notified of meetings or other events at the school.

The parents said they have repeatedly taken their concerns to Smith and the school district to no avail.

Smith said a new fence that will address safety concerns is being installed around the school's perimeter as part of renovations set to start in November.

As for communication, she said there's always room for improvement.

Board chairwoman Jennifer Faliero said she has never seen such a large group of parents complain publicly about their school leader. She asked superintendent MaryEllen Elia to work with the parents and look into the situation.

"The superintendent needs to get involved, and she needs to find out if there is just cause to these things that they are saying," Faliero said, adding that if true, the charges could be cause for dismissal. "I just don't see that kind of unified concern from east Hillsborough unless they truly believe something is wrong."

Parents said the superintendent's involvement would be a positive step, but they want to see action.

"This is our kid's one opportunity. This is their formative years," said Shelley Clements, a parent who did not speak publicly.

Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, would not discuss specific complaints about any teacher or administrator.

Lyons said the union has a grievance process that allows teachers to file complaints about principals, but that it's up to the district to decide whether a person is doing his or her job properly.

While parents have several different issues with Smith, many of their complaints boil down to poor communication and perhaps personality conflicts.

Smith's leadership style is harsh and uncooperative, they said, and that trickles down.

"I feel that at any school the principal is the leader and others follow by example," Salerno said.

Smith, for her part, is aware she's on the hot seat.

"Nobody wants to know that they aren't wanted, wherever they work," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be reached at 813-661-2439 or jwesner@sptimes.com.

Parents take beef with Alafia principal to School Board 10/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 7:34pm]
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