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17 months of angst: How John Hopkins Middle survived its principal

As John Hopkins Middle fell into disarray, many waved flags for help. But Pinellas County district leaders kept principal Dallas Jackson in place going into the 2018-19 school year.
Students exit St. Petersburg’s John Hopkins Middle School in December, shortly after the Pinellas County school district took the unusual step of removing the school’s principal in the middle of the academic year. Principal Dallas Jackson, who drew complaints from teachers, parents and fellow administrators, was replaced by Carlmon Jones. District officials had been aware of the problems well before the school year started.
Students exit St. Petersburg’s John Hopkins Middle School in December, shortly after the Pinellas County school district took the unusual step of removing the school’s principal in the middle of the academic year. Principal Dallas Jackson, who drew complaints from teachers, parents and fellow administrators, was replaced by Carlmon Jones. District officials had been aware of the problems well before the school year started. [ DIRK SHADD | TIMES ]
Published Feb. 1, 2019
Updated Dec. 11, 2019

By the time Dallas Jackson started his second year as principal of John Hopkins Middle School in August, his bosses had been warned repeatedly that he wasn't fit for the job.

The red flags went back months, according to interviews, emails and memos obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. Together they show that complaints about the principal reached top leaders in the Pinellas County School district long before they removed him in December.

The concerns came from multiple teachers, parents and two assistant principals who sent a letter to Jackson's direct supervisor in May. The letter detailed a "hostile work environment" they said had spanned a year.

As the leader of the struggling St. Petersburg school with some 760 students, Jackson had lashed out at staff, struggled to communicate with parents and failed to follow directives from his superiors, the records show.

Meanwhile, student performance plummeted, violent incidents on campus nearly doubled and teachers opted to leave as a severe rift between Jackson and his fellow administrators widened.

In one email, a parent compared the environment at John Hopkins to a "juvenile detention facility" and begged district leaders for a different school assignment. Teachers convened at one point to discuss problems, producing a document that described busted-down classroom doors, injuries from students, fear and general disarray. "Students rule the school," one notation said.

Jackson screamed at teachers and students, according to interviews with former employees at John Hopkins. And he pitted people against each other, "using students to retaliate against staff," one teacher said.

In interviews with the Times, Jackson said the school district didn't make the most significant complaints known to him. And, he asserted, the trouble at John Hopkins was the result, not of his actions, but a combination of unfortunate circumstances that were out of his control. He added he had the "best of intentions."

"As a principal, you get compliments and you get complaints," he said. "I worked hard to try to remedy them."

Many at the school waved flags for help, but district officials kept Jackson at the helm for 17 months before replacing him. He got a lower-paying job at district headquarters.

His salary as principal was $109,130. He now leads the school district's teacher recruitment efforts, making $104,130 a year.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Students failed, teachers left, parents complained. Now John Hopkins Middle has a new principal.

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego and area superintendent Robert Poth declined to be interviewed for this story. Poth served as Jackson's boss while he was principal and fielded the bulk of complaints against him.

Instead, the two released statements through school district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf.

"District leaders met with Dr. Jackson prior to the start of the 2018-19 school year to address concerns received by my office and the superintendent's office," Poth's statement said. "We believed Dr. Jackson had a plan in place to address the issues. Ultimately it was determined a change in leadership was appropriate."

Said Grego: "Pinellas County Schools makes leadership changes when it is determined it benefits the students and school community. These are extremely difficult decisions that are impacted by a number of factors."

Both leaders stated the school is in good hands under new principal Carlmon Jones.

But some say the change took too long. As time passed and complaints about Jackson piled up, it felt like the school district wasn't listening, said Betty Jo Soto, a former John Hopkins teacher who provided a seven-page document from December 2017 that detailed the staff's concerns.

"Nothing was ever resolved, but the district knew," Soto said. "The district knew."

• • •

Teachers and others at John Hopkins took issue with Jackson soon after he was hired to lead the school in the summer of 2017, according to a three-page letter sent to Poth in May by assistant principals Jeffrey Mills and Elizabeth Chiles.

It details 23 incidents involving Jackson from May 2017 to April 2018.

READ THE LETTER: Two assistant principals raise concerns about John Hopkins principal Dallas Jackson

In one of his first acts as principal, Jackson publicly fired a third assistant principal, Anthony Francois, before the school year started. He also told the clerical staff that cameras were trained on their offices and "he would terminate anyone he saw not performing their duties," the letter said.

When school started in August 2017, Jackson relocated the magnet program office without communicating with Mills, the magnet coordinator. He also removed Mills from overseeing reading and English instruction without explanation, the letter said, and refused to meet with Ayesha Garner, coordinator of the school's International Baccalaureate program.

Garner left two months later, "due to health concerns from her doctor about the hostile work environment being created by Dr. Jackson," according to the letter.

Also in his first month as principal, Jackson got into a screaming match with the district's middle school education director Dywayne Hinds in front of Mills and Chiles, the letter said. Afterward, he told the assistant principals they "were not to have any meeting with district staff for any reason."

Hinds later communicated concerns to Poth about Jackson's ability to keep accurate student records, according to emails. Hinds declined to be interviewed for this story.

Chiles also declined to comment. She resigned in August when Jackson started his second year as principal.

Mills is still an assistant principal at John Hopkins. Multiple calls to his phone number in the school district directory were not returned.

Jackson told the Times he was unaware of the letter from Mills and Chiles because Poth never shared it with him.

"For whatever reason he made the decision to not provide it," Jackson said. "I certainly would have taken the content and really dissected it and talked to him and really tried to work through it."

The letter says a second public argument between Hinds and Jackson erupted at a meeting in October 2017, about the same time Jackson reprimanded then-assistant principal Ebony Potts for reporting him to the district.

She "provided information to the district regarding the possibility of a hostile work environment situation," the letter said. Then she resigned a month later, after only four months in the district, personnel records show.

Also in October 2017, Mills visited a doctor for concerns about high blood pressure, the letter said. The doctor "advised him to make significant lifestyle changes including exiting his current position due to the stress that was being caused by his immediate supervisor, Dr. Jackson."

The letter also said Jackson had not been attending functions having to do with the school's magnet programs, and that Poth directed him to start doing so. But Jackson ignored his boss, according to emails, still failing to fully connect with members of the school's magnet boosters board by the summer of 2018.

"The lack of support of Dr. Jackson with the magnet program is disgusting," a parent who serves on the board wrote in an email to Mills and Poth in August. "The parents and the future parents of your school see the dysfunction and are frightened for the future of their children there. … It's important for our voices (to be) heard, and when we do request meetings with Dr. Jackson, he is either late, reschedules, or doesn't seem to care."

The parent's name was blacked-out in the records provided to the Times, a routine school district practice designed to avoid identifying students.

The district had held a review of John Hopkins' magnet program in December 2017, during which Mills and Chiles shared concerns about Jackson with Hinds and members of the executive leadership team, including Poth and deputy superintendent William Corbett, the letter said.

The same month, Poth met with John Hopkins teachers, who shared 170 "areas of concern" about Jackson and the culture of the school under his leadership, according to documents provided by Soto, the former teacher.

"The whole meeting was basically around what (Jackson) was doing in the school and our complaints," Soto said in an interview. "We compiled a list and we typed it up and all the teachers were given a copy. We were told not to show Dr. Jackson."

Jackson told the Times that while he was aware of the meeting and what came of it, he never knew the teachers' comments had been compiled in a document.

READ THE TEACHERS' COMMENTS: Teachers from sixth, seventh and eighth grades at John Hopkins detail concerns about their principal.

The issues mentioned in the documents range from overfilled classrooms and grade inflation by administration, to low morale and teachers being injured by students. The school did not feel safe under Jackson, teachers said, and student behavior was so out of control that they couldn't get through lessons.

"As soon as (Jackson) became the principal there, there were problems," Pinellas teachers union president Mike Gandolfo told the Times, adding that he had "multiple informal conversations" with district staff, including Poth, to address teachers' concerns.

At the meeting in December 2017, teachers referenced poor communication and lack of support by Jackson and his team more than 25 times, according to the documents, which identify teachers by grade level only. One eighth-grade instructor stated, "We need a new principal."

"Principal has yelled and disrespected teachers in front of students," a seventh-grade teacher said. Another added: "Administration talks down to teachers and speaks to us disrespectfully."

A teacher from eighth grade said Jackson and other administrators would "argue with each other about processes in the middle of meetings when they were supposed to be explaining the process to staff." Others noted that students had little respect for the principal and his team, and that Jackson rarely communicated important matters to staff.

Teachers at the meeting also raised alarm to Poth about Jackson's discipline plan, which they described as non-existent, records show. A detailed list of teacher "feedback" included more than 40 statements related to the lack of consequences for unruly students and the principal not processing the discipline referrals submitted by teachers.

"No disciplining plan ever established," one teacher said. Another added that even students who hit teachers weren't reprimanded. Over time, they said, kids at John Hopkins began to realize just how much they could get away with.

"I saw the piles of (unprocessed) referrals myself," former John Hopkins dance teacher Kim Fiordimondo told the Times. "If I had a student that I sent down to the office … Dr. Jackson basically just said they could go back to class. It kind of felt like we were undermined."

John Hopkins reported 1,332 referrals to the district in the 2017-18 school year, Jackson's first as principal, according to school district spokesperson Lisa Wolf. That's fewer than half those processed the year before.

"When you wrote (students) up, they would just curse you out and say 'Nothing is going to happen to me,'" Fiordimondo added. "Things had never been as chaotic and dangerous."

Jackson, however, told the Times he did not stop processing referrals, and always referred to the district's student code of conduct when it came to discipline. Meanwhile, police response to John Hopkins for incidents like assault, battery, theft and drug possession nearly doubled the year he became principal, according to St. Petersburg police.

Still, Jackson said placing blame for behavior problems fully on him is "unfair because historically in the school, there were concerns about safety … about the dynamics between students and teachers."

Students arrive at John Hopkins from low-performing elementary schools, he said in a letter to the Times, and there was an influx in enrollment when he took over.

At the same time, he said, some of John Hopkins' more experienced teachers were leaving for other schools as he arrived. Such transfers are routine for schools that have received a C grade more than one year in a row, and therefore fall onto the district's list of "turnaround" schools.

"As the leader of the school I (was) ultimately responsible for the success or lack thereof, however this was a difficult assignment that I accepted without hesitation," Jackson said in the letter. "What I do not accept is the blame being narrowly and singularly placed on me."

He added: "This is a multifaceted issue at John Hopkins — school, home and community."

READ THE LETTER: Dallas Jackson writes to the Tampa Bay Times regarding his removal as principal of John Hopkins

• • •

As discipline dwindled at John Hopkins, so did student performance.

By the end of Jackson's first year as principal, only 3.5 percent of eighth-graders could pass the state math test. Nearly every other sub-group of students performed worse than the year before on standardized assessments, and the achievement gap between black students and their white peers on state English tests had grown to 52 percent.

After rising from an F in 2014 to a C in 2017, John Hopkins fell to a D, within three percentage points of an F, its first year under Jackson.

"There would be class periods where I was trying to teach but I would have so many kids running around that I would have to stop teaching and call security," Fiordimondo said. She added that many teachers had the same issue, but Jackson canceled assemblies and department meetings where they could have spoken up about the problems.

Instead, class time was lost, she said. And teachers continued to struggle to get through lessons.

About a week after the meeting with Poth in December 2017, 11 teachers were asked to join a "restructuring committee" to make a "reboot" plan for the second semester of Jackson's first school year at John Hopkins, according to emails.

They were given five focus areas: Discipline policy and procedures, communication, morale, safety and academics. To the surprise of teachers, who were told their comments would be kept confidential, Jackson was picked to lead the effort, Soto said.

"This whole thing was supposed to be closed-door, without administration being involved," said the teacher, who was fired by Jackson in July 2018. "Then before we knew it, we were told that Jackson was going to head the committee that involved resolving these issues."

Jackson told the Times he instituted a student uniform policy, installed a new phone system and spent time "working on the school culture collaboratively" with district leaders. That team included Poth, who told Jackson in a January 2018 email to take the lead and "fulfill his vision for the culture of the school."

But months and many more complaints later, records show nothing had changed.

In January 2018, Jackson fired Daniel Johnson, an adjunct dance teacher, without cause, according to the letter from the two assistant principals. The principal then placed Johnson's students in Fiordimondo's upper-level dance classes, leaving her with as many as 47 kids in one class.

At least 11 of her students later dropped out of the dance program because of the environment, Fiordimondo said.

In March, the parent of a bullied student copied Poth and Grego on an email to Jackson, alleging the principal had done nothing to help the child despite the months of pleas.

"I'm very disappointed in your leadership … and I'm tired of your lack of control over your campus," wrote the parent, whose name was blacked-out in records. "I'm also tired of your lack of attention that you give to children being bullied at your school."

In April, a parent wrote to Mills, Poth and Grego, saying John Hopkins "is setting my child up for failure" and "I am frightened that when my (child) goes into … freshman honors classes next year (they are) going to be behind."

By June, Fiordimondo had had enough. After suffering a concussion at the hands of a student six months before, she submitted her resignation in an email to district staff.

"The deterioration of the environment at (John) Hopkins has made it impossible to continue," she wrote. "I do not feel safe."

READ A TEACHER'S RESIGNATION EMAIL: Dance teacher Kim Fiordimondo resigns from John Hopkins, citing concerns about leadership and safety

The email said she had wished for a leadership change, and that order would be restored.

"I was hopeful when the district came in this year (in) December and said they would listen to our concerns and make changes," the teacher wrote. "But nothing changed. The conditions only got worse."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.