Report: Teachers' 'climate of rebellion' stifled learning at Pierce

Published July 13, 2013

TAMPA — Things weren't just a little bad at Pierce Middle School this school year.

The school went through two principals. And morale was so low, a lot of teachers weren't showing up.

After three days at the school in May, an assessment team from the Hillsborough County School District concluded: "Teachers that are resistant to changes the current administration has put in place have contributed to a climate of rebellion by not reporting to work in large numbers."

Those teachers who did report to work had trouble keeping track of all the students between classes. "There was an obvious lack of supervision in high traffic areas," the report said.

The three-page document paints a disturbing picture of the school, which served 1,039 students in 2012-13, most from low-income families in the Town 'N Country area and many learning English as a new language.

While unable to say what prompted the investigation, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said School Effectiveness Assessment teams like the one that toured Pierce are typically assembled when multiple complaints reach administrators' ears.

"To a lesser degree, this happens to schools all the time," he said.

After the team releases its findings, which include recommendations for improvement, officials work with the principal to address the issues.

But Pierce is without a principal since the recent retirement of Anna Voida after just seven months on the job. That gives her replacement, who could be named as early as Tuesday, a clear mandate for change. "Absolutely, it is a blueprint for the new principal," Hegarty said.

While the source of conflict was not made clear, the report leaves no doubt that Pierce at year's end was a school in turmoil.

Staffers could be divided into three categories: Those who liked their work environment; those who saw both sides and tried to stay neutral; and those who were clearly unhappy.

Such divisions didn't happen overnight, said English teacher Jennifer Barnard, who worked at the school from 2008 to 2011 and is on parental leave.

Barnard was hired by Victor Fernandez, a popular and hands-on leader who now is principal of nearby Leto High School. Fernandez was replaced by Henry Lefler, who, by some accounts, never gained the same degree of support from faculty.

"I always felt like he could do no right," said Barnard, who enjoyed working for both principals.

She found the teachers fiercely loyal to one another. Although they welcomed her warmly, she felt they put too much pressure on her to join the union and were quick to discount her opinions if they did not conform to the group's.

"It actually seemed fashionable to be unhappy," said Barnard, who was 24 when she was hired. "It was almost like if you were not unhappy, you were not paying attention."

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Lefler was transferred to Memorial Middle School in November and replaced by Voida, who made the commute from Riverview, 20 miles away.

Most teachers contacted by the Tampa Bay Times declined to be quoted but generally agreed that Voida walked into a difficult situation. Shortly before Lefler left in November, a sixth-grader ran away from the school, prompting a teacher suspension that is the subject of a district investigation.

The May report from the assessment team described the overall atmosphere as "not conducive to student learning." Teachers were so focused on problems, it said, "school culture has been compromised, which is interfering with classroom instruction."

There were criticisms about the teachers (they didn't communicate enough with parents) and from the teachers (the administration peppered them with emails instead of talking to them in person).

Behavior suffered, with students dressing inappropriately, using electronic devices when they shouldn't, arriving late to class and showing "frequent public displays of affection."

There was a lack of academic rigor at the C-rated school and a lack of "procedural infrastructure" — in other words, no clear understanding of how things should be done.

Similar issues are reflected in the Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning survey, conducted in the spring with a 58.8 percent response from the Pierce staff.

While more than half of the teachers polled agreed that Pierce is "a good place to work and learn," just 12 percent agreed that students follow rules of conduct. Nineteen percent agreed that administrators consistently enforce those rules.

Seventeen percent thought teachers have an appropriate level of decision-making authority. And 23 percent agreed that the school leadership consistently supports its teachers.

District officials have not given any indication that Voida's retirement was related to problems at the school.

Nevertheless, School Board member Susan Valdes, who attended Pierce as a child and was PTA president as a parent, is alarmed at the turnover in leadership. "It's unacceptable," she said.

While board members do not play a role in hiring principals, Valdes said she has offered to assist Voida's replacement in making introductions to staffers and parents.

"You have to know the community that you are serving," she said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or