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Hillsborough teacher evokes strong reactions with public resignation

Denise Thomas Ford, April Cobb and Bianca Goolsby take part in a Facebook Live chat on May 19, 2019, to discuss Goolsby’s column about why she is resigning as a teacher at Jennings Middle School in Hillsborough County.
Published May 20

TAMPA — She's leaving the teaching profession, but Bianca Goolsby isn't going anywhere.

The 29-year-old business technology teacher who blew the whistle on violence and disorder at Seffner's Jennings Middle School said Monday that she will continue to advocate for minority youth and improvements in the Hillsborough County school system.

"We need to hold these people accountable, because it's absolutely deplorable," Goolsby said, speaking from the school after nearly two weeks of social media attention over a column she posted on her website, titled, "Happy Teacher Appreciation Week: I Quit Teaching."

Teacher resignation essays are almost an internet trope, shared widely by educators who identify with the frustrations of high-stakes testing, low pay, unsupportive parents and stifling bureaucracy.

In her words: Why I'm quitting teaching

Goolsby's piece, which the Tampa Bay Times published over the weekend, is especially gripping.

It describes "WWE-style fights" she had to break up, a student who threw a wrench through a classroom window (she provides photos of the boarded-up glass), sex in the bathroom, drug abuse, suicide attempts and "teachers who don't really want to teach black or brown kids."

Elaborating during a group chat Sunday evening on Facebook, Goolsby said the administration made matters worse by passing her from one mentor to another and, at the end of her first year, transferring the assistant principal, a move she learned about on the internet.

In person, Goolsby said, teachers are thanking her. But some readers say she quit too soon, and is disloyal to her colleagues.

"They're gaslighting me," she said several times during the group chat. She said they are misplacing blame instead of confronting the true issues, which include everything from corruption in the system to dysfunction in the students' homes.

"Don't tell me that I am throwing teachers under the bus when they are throwing me under the bus because they're not doing their job," Goolsby said, referring to a lapse in supervision that resulted in the thrown wrench.

Jennings is one of 50 Hillsborough schools with the "Achievement" label, a new approach that directs additional resources to schools where students are chronically behind in their skills.

On March 26, the district replaced longtime Jennings Principal Richard Scionti with Latonya Anderson, last an assistant principal of McLane Middle School in Brandon. Scionti is awaiting his next assignment.

Both Jennings and McLane serve children who are bused in from East Tampa, where the middle schools are all specialty magnets.

Since the column appeared, Goolsby said she has found herself defending Anderson from attacks.

"This needs to be on the record. My new principal, Ms. Anderson, is phenomenal," Goolsby said. "She was thrown into the fire and she is literally putting out fires."

District officials acknowledged Monday that Jennings has posed challenges for years.

They said the number of out-of-school suspensions almost doubled between 2016-17 and 2017-18, which was Goolsby's first year on the job.

"There were a lot of referrals written, a lot of suspensions, but it wasn't positively impacting the culture," said Yinka Alege, an administrator over a group of nine Achievement schools that includes Jennings.

But, instead of improving academically, Alege said, "performance significantly took a hit. Everything went down."

In response, "we created an action plan with the principal to look at how to attack behavior in a way that doesn't put every kid out for making poor choices. It was certainly a culture shift, going from every time a kid sneezed they would get suspended, to working with kids, putting support systems in place."

They hired a consultant. They brought in a district team to help with students who had learning disabilities. Ultimately, they determined they needed new leadership.

Goolsby described teachers who wind up at Jennings because of cutbacks elsewhere, even though they are not suited to work in an urban environment.

Alege said that could be true of two teachers at Jennings, "maybe three on a bad day." He and Grayson Kamm, the district's chief of communications, insisted that most of the teachers at Jennings are dedicated to their jobs, and most of the children are good students.

Yes, Alege said, "a student threw something." Yes, he said, there was a suicide attempt. But it happened at home, not in school, and the story was distorted as it traveled from one person to another.

"Like any other school, you have some pockets of kids who make poor choices," Alege said. "But I've walked the campus, and I'm there regularly, and it's not the 'Lean on me,' Joe Clark kind of environment."

When asked to assess Goolsby, Alege said, "She wasn't a performance concern. She had good management in her classroom and she didn't have frequent issues when administrators observed."

Goolsby said she was "highly effective" according to the district's evaluation system. The only possible mark against her was that she was approaching a deadline to pass the state's general knowledge exam for teachers, a requirement to keep her job for a third year. Goolsby said she chose not to spend the money and take the test because she knew she was leaving.

She said she can support herself as a web developer.

During the Facebook chat, some teachers said she will be missed. "We can't lose you," posted Delia Gadson, the principal of Sheehy Elementary, a high-poverty school now under state intervention.

Goolsby made it clear her decision is final.

"I don't need to bite the hand that feeds me," she told her Facebook audience. "And I'm going to bite hard."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol

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