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Monday, December 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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One school's legacy: "There's no learning"

Seattle Times staff reporters

Further reading

Letter to the superintendent of schools from Kathy Graves, a student at John Marshall Alternative School. Graves, a pregnant student, sent more than a dozen letters to school and district officials complaining about the teacher for John Marshall's parenting program. This was her final letter, sent to Raj Manhas. At its top is the logo for No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation that requires schools to make sure every student succeeds. (PDF)

A form letter prepared by Kathy Graves, a student at John Marshall Alternative School, and signed by her principal, Joe Drake. The letter promises that Drake will supervise one of the school's parenting classes. Graves prepared the letter after repeatedly complaining to Drake about the teacher of the class, and feeling the principal had not done enough to improve the situation. (PDF)

A written exercise filled out by Kathy Graves. An example of the work given to students in the parenting class at John Marshall Alternative School. Graves repeatedly complained to the principal that her teacher was often absent and poorly prepared to teach. (PDF)

One of many letters Marshall student Kathy Graves sent to her principal, complaining about the teacher of her parenting class. The letter, which involves the teacher's absence on a field trip, is also signed by four of Graves' classmates. (PDF)

This informal log recorded what was going on in every classroom at John Marshall on Dec. 3, 2006, when district evaluators did an unscheduled walk-through. The document shows that many of the school's classrooms are unused. Some are used later in the day for the Evening High School that uses the building. The document also shows that nearly 60 percent of enrolled students were not present in class on this day.

Some of the abbreviations refer to specific programs at the school. BIP stands for Behavioral Intervention Program. IAES stands for Interim Alternative Educational Setting. The BIP/IAES program is for special education students who have been expelled from other schools. TAPP is the district's teen parenting program, and IEP stands for Individual Education Plan, something required for every student in the district who has special needs. (PDF)

Between schoolwork and raising her daughter, 16-year-old Kathy Graves wrote letters. First to her principal; then to the man in charge of high schools; finally to the superintendent of schools himself.

More than a dozen letters, asking for help at John Marshall Alternative School. In one eight-week period, Graves wrote, she had a different substitute teacher every day — except for six days she had no teacher at all.

"It shows a great deal of effort for girls who are pregnant and parenting to get up every morning and come to school," Graves wrote last year to Superintendent Raj Manhas. "It would be greatly appreciated if their efforts would be rewarded with an education."

No one wrote her back.

For many years, students, teachers and staff members have complained that John Marshall's lack of leadership — and the district's lack of oversight — has failed some of the city's most vulnerable middle- and high-school students.

Only now, when the Seattle School Board has decided to close the school, has the district sent in a team of evaluators to assess the quality of education there.

Their report, due out this week, is expected to recommend dispersing John Marshall students to other schools and absorbing some of the programs into similar district programs in the North End. It will examine the school's administration, question why teachers aren't taking attendance, and point out places where the school has been out of compliance with federal requirements for special education.

John Marshall's programs are supposed to help struggling students — from teen mothers, to dropouts, to kids returning from jail — either graduate or return to a regular school setting. But in a review of school and district documents, it's clear the Green Lake school has often fallen short:

• Only 24 percent of students graduated on time in 2004-05. By contrast, South Lake High School, which serves at-risk students across town, graduated 66 percent of its students on time. Last year was particularly dismal: Only one John Marshall student received a diploma on schedule.

• On any given day, John Marshall teachers are doing work normally reserved for the principal. Others lead classes they're not qualified to teach. Over three school years, one teacher was absent more than half the time.

During a surprise head count last week, district officials found students watching movies, reading newspapers and listening to headphones. In one class, two of the three students were asleep, even though a teacher and an instructional assistant were in the room.

"There's no learning going on," said evaluation team leader Ramona Pierson.

At least two employees have called on the district to investigate the school's leadership in recent years. But if there was an investigation, the district has no record of it.

At the center of many complaints is longtime principal Joe Drake, described as visionary by supporters and incompetent by critics. Drake dismisses staff members' concerns as groundless. He also rejects the district's rationale that John Marshall should close because its building is underused and in poor condition.

He calls the closure an act of racism against the school's many students of color, and he has refused to meet with the evaluation team.

Principal criticized

Manhas maintains that John Marshall is doing its best with a troubled population. For some, he said, success is just showing up.

But in interviews with a dozen current and former staff members, most of whom would not go on the record for fear of retribution, a consensus emerged: The principal is not doing his job. He's anointed teachers to do it instead.

One teacher regularly communicated with district officials on staffing matters, writing e-mails "on behalf of Dr. Drake." That same teacher, along with a colleague, set up a booth at the district's kindergarten fair last winter, trying to recruit children as young as 5 to John Marshall, which serves grades six to 12.

The district had not even heard of the plan to add elementary-age students, let alone approved it.

Another teacher was hired last school year as "house administrator" and put in charge of typical principal responsibilities, such as hiring, school programs and testing. Among her other duties: counseling, grant-writing, event-planning, scheduling and teaching. At other schools, several people would handle those tasks.

In an interview, Drake defended his leadership style as firm but encouraging, with a focus on empowering his staff members.

"It's easy to be Attila the Hun," he said. "I push decision-making to the lowest possible levels of the building."

Drake, 65, said he has devoted his career to helping kids of color, who often lag behind in school. He took the post at John Marshall 12 years ago because that is where he felt he could do the most good.

Students at John Marshall often struggle with substance-abuse problems or behavioral disorders. Some read at a fourth-grade level.

"There's not two administrators in this state who would walk in here and work with these kids," Drake said.

There are no morale problems at John Marshall, he said — just a couple of disgruntled employees who don't want to work with troubled kids.

But Roma Holmes, a longtime reading specialist at the school, questioned how much Drake himself wants to work with them. At one point, Drake moved his belongings out of the main office — the hub of any school — and into a room down the hall.

His door was often closed. On several occasions, she said, students assumed the vice principal was, in fact, the principal.

"I felt he was separating himself from the nitty-gritty of the days," said Holmes, who retired last year, frustrated.

Shifting assignments

Last school year began at John Marshall without a vice principal, a registrar or a guidance counselor.

The district allows each school building to make many of its own staffing and budget decisions. So that year, as usual, John Marshall staff members went where they were needed, regardless of job description or qualifications. An administrative intern took on disciplinary duties. Teachers picked up the counseling and scheduling tasks for several months.

At one point, the language-arts teacher turned over his occupational-education class to the school's career specialist. That same specialist taught a physical-education dance class this fall. Midway through the semester, there was talk of turning it into an African-American history course.

Randy Beaulieu, a drug and alcohol counselor, said the school had no consistent way of dealing with students suspected of substance abuse. Beaulieu, who split his time between South Lake and John Marshall, said he'd never seen anything like it in his 13 years in the field.

At South Lake, Beaulieu said, administrators called on him as many as five times a day to meet with students suspected of being drunk or high. At John Marshall, Beaulieu said, he did not get called once.

"If they don't do their job, I can't do mine," he said. "It starts at the top."

That's why Graves began writing letters to her principal in fall 2004. Most days, she wrote, her parenting class watched videos. Sometimes they filled out the same worksheet two days in a row.

And that was when the teacher attended class. Graves had 24 different substitutes that year, district records show. Her teacher was absent 108 days of the 180-day school year. She was gone 60 days the year before, and at least 114 days the year before that.

The teacher's position was later cut.

But Graves had already wasted dozens of hours in that class. So when Drake referred to the closure of John Marshall as discrimination against its many students of color, she was not impressed. Graves is half-Hispanic, half-Native American herself.

"It's discrimination that I'm not getting an education," she said.

History of complaints

Complaints about John Marshall date back at least a decade.

In 1997, a longtime counselor wrote to then-Superintendent John Stanford, urging an investigation into Drake.

Since then, other staff members say they have complained to district officials about him — but Drake personnel files contain no record of those complaints.

Art teacher Patricia Rice began writing letters of complaint last year. "We are in crisis at John Marshall and I beg you to investigate these matters," Rice wrote in December.

She heard no formal response from the district until after her position was cut in March, when she said Ammon McWashington, then director of secondary schools, forwarded her a response from Drake. In it, Drake described her as a chronic complainer and a teacher of minimal talent — despite glowing evaluations the school had given her previously.

Rice's position was cut a month later.

In a recent interview, McWashington said he offered, after Rice's complaint, to meet with John Marshall staff members and teachers-union officials, but staff members declined. Teachers said they didn't think it would do any good.

As for Graves' letters, McWashington said he faxed them to Drake and asked him to follow up. McWashington said Drake told him last week that he spoke to Graves about her concerns. Now the district's director of school services, McWashington granted that John Marshall lacks a consistent vision. But considering the challenging student population, he said, staff members at the school have been successful.

And when they made mistakes, McWashington said, he set them straight. Last year, he e-mailed the language-arts teacher asking him to stop communicating with the district about personnel. After Rice told the district about the kindergarten-fair booth, McWashington scolded Drake himself — then followed up with an e-mail.

McWashington blamed Drake's run-ins with staff members on personality conflicts, describing him as a brash but committed educator. The plan Drake presented to the School Board last spring underscored his idealism, McWashington said — a proposal to create a pre-K-12 school that would function as a distance-learning hub, and connect to consulate schools in Mexico and Peru.

A promise delayed

Early in her pregnancy, Kathy Graves, now 18, made herself a promise: Quit drinking, stop taking drugs, get an education.

She's a senior now, taking classes at North Seattle Community College. Her plan was to graduate this June. But recently, a teacher looked at her transcript and found that the school had required Graves to take some of the wrong classes. That puts her college plans on hold.

With all the problems at John Marshall, Graves said she was frustrated that it took school closures to grab the district's attention.

"Bottom of the food chain, I guess," she said. "If it happened at any other school, a kid would go home and tell the parents and it would be taken care of."

Last week, several of her letters sat tucked away in a district file. For letterhead, Graves had used the logo of the federal law that promises an education to all — No Child Left Behind.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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