Bennett teachers say school lacks leadership, demand change

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Teachers at Bennett High School say the building doesn’t feel safe and that they feel the man now in charge, Principal Dr. Terry Ross, is part of the problem.

“It’s a building that does not feel safe,” says Neil Lange, a veteran Bennett teacher.

“The problem is leadership,” said Anna Klapakis, a special education teacher who has been at Bennett for 12 years.

Klapakis says she has tried to take her concerns directly to Ross, but “he’s told me I complain too much. He told me I wasn’t a team player, and that I was nasty.”

Lange, who is also a special education teacher, says he sees little or no consequences for students who step out of line.

At a gathering of teachers early in the year, Lange says he heard Ross tell them that unless there’s blood, unless there’s a bone sticking out, students were not getting suspended.

Dr. Ross was hired to take over as principal of Bennett High School in July. He was brought in from out-of-state to help turn things around because of the school’s poor academic performance.

“Right now, it’s chaos,” says Carl Paladino, school board member. “The school is chaos.”

Paladino agrees with critics who point the finger at Ross’s leadership style, which Paladino says is just not working.

“Taking consequences away only exacerbated the problems because it let the kids know there’s no consequences for your actions,” he argues.

A survey of Bennett teachers was conducted in December by their union. More than half of the 95 teachers responded.

Here are some of the comments:

  • “Teacher morale is at the lowest I’ve ever seen.”
  • “The learning environment is a joke.”
  • “Dr. Ross has created an environment of confrontation and intimidation.”
  • “Students don’t respect or take him seriously.”

When asked to agree or disagree with this statement: Bennett is a safe place for students, 48 respondents disagreed.

One wrote: “Students are roaming the hallways. I have both witnessed and heard stories of students walking into classrooms and starting fights. Students are being jumped in the bathrooms. Before and after school students are fighting.”

Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, says the survey results are the worst that he’s seen in his long career.

“Kids are walking the halls. They walk out. And you have a principal that’s doing nothing about it, and besides doing that, making statements that are absolutely bizarre. I mean, he’s used curse words allegedly. Told teachers what they can do with their contract and you can imagine what he meant by that. What kind of a leader is this?”

In a recent letter to State Education Commissioner John King, Rumore said teachers and staff were in the process of turning Bennett around until Dr. Ross was named to take over as principal.

“You have singled out and are in the process of destroying a high school, Bennett High School, for problems not caused by teachers, staff, students and parents but by the assignment of one of the worst principals we have ever seen,” Rumore writes.

In an interview Rumore adds, “The superintendent and the board have had this information for months, and they’ve done nothing.”

News 4 investigates requested an on camera interview with Dr. Ross and Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown. That request was declined.

Instead, in a statement, the district says, “This is Dr. Ross’s first year as principal of Bennett, and he has stated that he didn’t expect to come into the school and push a button that would affect instant turnaround. He imagined it as a process that may take a few years.”

Because of low graduation rates and a lack of academic progress, the state directed that the district submit a turnaround plan for the school. The state is expected to decide soon on a district proposal to phase out the current school and start up another one with specialty
academics.

The district’s statement noted that Bennett’s graduation rate of 47.7 percent in 2009 dropped to 35 percent in 2012. The 2013 preliminary rate was 43.5 but the school was signaled out by the state “based on a lack of sufficient progress for the last several years.”

A critic of Superintendent Brown and her leadership, Paladino says Ross can not lead Bennett.

“Oh, he definitely has to go,” says Paladino.

Paladino says he’ll move to try and terminate Ross based on what he’s hearing from teachers. Plus, he questions why Ross did not receive initial New York State certification as a building leader for the start of the school year.

“This is another case of on-the-job training for a principal and we don’t need more on-the-job training.”

According to the state Department of Education, Ross applied for conditional initial certification in November and received it in December. He now has two years to pass a state exam for permanent state certification.

And while Ross never served as a high school principal, he has been an elementary and middle school principal. But for some teachers it’s more about Ross’s style and approach to leading a troubled school.

“I’ve been told that I don’t understand young people of color,” says Lange, who has taught at Bennett for 33 years. “He told me that right to my face. He said that I’m the problem.”

Lange joined other Bennett teachers on March 26 to voice their concerns at a board of education meeting because they feel the school is headed in the wrong direction.

“We’ve just become chaos. Our building is simply chaos. It’s a hard, hard place this year for anybody to execute their craft,” Lange says.

Klapakis adds, “When you have leadership, you put stuff in writing. You establish protocols. You put it in writing. You disseminate it, and then you follow through. We don’t have that.”

Both said they decided to speak out because they care about their students.

“I think my students deserve the same kind of a learning conducive atmosphere that Orchard Park or Kenmore or Williamsville or Clarence or any other city school does. Why should Bennett be so different?”

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