Teacher fired over in-class comments? - Gilroy Dispatch: Schools

Teacher fired over in-class comments?

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Posted: Tuesday, March 23, 2004 12:00 am

GILROY – An English teacher's criticism of Gilroy High School administrators – inside the classroom – is the reason she was terminated and escorted off the Gilroy High School campus Friday, she said. But Kristen Porter is sticking by her comments.

Meanwhile, at least one school board member is opposing her dismissal because he wasn't given enough evidence to support it.

Trustee Tom Bundros cast the lone dissenting vote in the board's 6-1 decision to terminate the English teacher last Friday. Board President Jaime Rosso miscommunicated the vote to The Dispatch on Friday.

"I'm not confident that the process they used to evaluate teachers and make decisions as to who's retained and dismissed, contains integrity," Bundros said. "Because of turmoil at the high school with regard to staffing, and a host of other issues, I asked to see documented data that could give me some insight into the process and standards used, but that wasn't provided."

His "no" vote should not have come as a surprise to fellow trustees or GUSD administration, Bundros said.

"Given the lack of documented information I've asked for but not received, I'm not seeing a unity between what is said and what is done," Bundros said. "I've been clear with my concerns with the board members and the administration many times over the past month, through e-mails and speaking with them."

Some community members contacted Bundros to share his concern, he said.

During Thursday's board meeting, Porter told trustees they had a moral obligation to investigate hiring and firing practices in Gilroy Unified School District. In a closed session following the meeting, district staff recommended to trustees that Porter – who was already notified that she would not be re-hired next year – be terminated effective immediately. They cited inappropriate behavior inside the classroom.

Porter said the inappropriate behavior refers to comments she made to students about her termination and that of other GHS teachers.

"My students asked me about the situation, and I was honest with them," Porter said. "I told them what was going on.

"They asked me why I was being fired and I told them that I did not know. I told them what I was told, and I told them that I felt it was wrong."

Echoing comments she made to The Dispatch earlier this month, Porter told students that her firing was unfair. She said she was responding to students' inquiries and did not bring up the subject herself.

Another teacher participating in a peer assistance program entered Porter's classroom as she was talking to students about her release from GUSD, and Porter said she saw no reason to stop.

"I teach my kids to speak the truth and that my classroom is a safe place to express your opinions, whatever those opinions are," Porter said. "I don't believe it is unprofessional to speak the truth in my classroom and talk to my students when they question me."

Students were interested in learning why their teacher wouldn't be back next year, said Chris Hunt, a junior in Porter's third-period class.

"It was brought up somehow, and then she briefly said that the administration wants teachers that are going to give out better grades, not make (students) work very hard, which was what she was making us do – work hard for our grades," Hunt said. "I was thinking, 'Is that really true?' because it sounds kind of like a conspiracy deal, but I don't know."

GHS Principal Bob Bravo left town Friday to attend a conference through Wednesday and was unavailable for comment.

The six trustees who supported the decision to terminate Porter said they felt comfortable with the staff recommendation.

"I think we acted in what we felt was in the best interest of the district and the students at the school," Rosso said. "I think that the district is working to put – and the school is working to put – the best qualified teachers into the (faculty) positions."

Trustee John Gurich, a teacher in San Jose, said he followed GHS administrators' recommendation because he doesn't go into the classrooms and has no personal knowledge of a teacher's performance.

"That's not something that we're trained to do, so you have to trust the administration and go off the best recommendation that they have," Gurich said.

He said Porter was given a chance to give her opinion and did so during Thursday's meeting.

"She spoke on her behalf, and what I gathered from it was that she really didn't care about her job ... that she was more concerned about the welfare of the students," Gurich said.

Given the sequence of events in the English department over the past two years, Gurich said, he feels "uncomfortable" and would support an investigation into the high school's hiring and firing policies.

"I think we've said that there may be some practices that we have to look at," Gurich said. "Whatever else there is at this time, I don't know, but we need to look at the policies for processing teachers and evaluating tenured (teachers). We need to come up with something concrete."

Bundros said Porter brought up some "excellent" points Thursday.

"I thought her questions were valid and deserve the follow-through, absolutely, with the board," he said.

Teachers union officials are reeling from Porter's abrupt departure from GHS.

"I haven't had that experience in my experience as a union representative," said Mark Rose, president of the Gilroy Federation of Teachers. "I haven't seen such over-the-top action, such unnecessary action, taken."

Michelle Nelson, president of the Gilroy Teachers Association, said there are few reasons why a teacher would be terminated just before the start of class.

"The only thing I would think of would be imminent danger to the students, and there wasn't any," Nelson said.

She said that district officials did not place a call to any union representatives so they could help Porter Friday morning.

"They've been very evasive, as far as answering questions," Rose said. "They're not giving us any information."

Teachers hired on a temporary basis like Porter cannot be fired without cause after they complete 75 percent of their contract. Porter was about five days short of 75 percent as of Friday, Rose said.

Porter's comments at last Thursday's school board meeting echo those laid out in a position paper written by The Alliance for Academic Excellence and presented to trustees in February. The Alliance, a group of parents, teachers and community members pushing for academic rigor at the high school, wrote that GHS rewards teachers for progressive educational philosophy rather than traditional academics.

"Teachers in the system who do not share the goals of progressive education experience hostility, isolation, intolerance, and exclusion from advancement and preferred classroom assignments," The Alliance wrote.

Porter has said she is a traditional teacher who pushes her students to focus on and succeed at academics.

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