D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee is facing backlash from a diverse group of parents at J.O. Wilson Elementary School, a Title I school in Northeast, following the departure of Principal Guye Turner.
Community leaders have joined them in calling for Ferebee to directly address the issues that led to the departure of Turner, who had been at the school for less than a year. The principal’s exit has also exacerbated underlying issues at the school, including potential bullying and harassment of students, parents and teachers by other teachers.
Turner received a non-renewal notice for his one-year contract from DCPS on April 26, a decision that he continues to appeal. The former Two Rivers Public Charter School principal then submitted his resignation and two-week notice.
Ferebee’s office confirmed the resignation to Wilson teachers, staff and parents via email on April 29, just as students were beginning high-stakes annual standardized testing, and just a few days before the DCPS enrollment deadline.
The decision prompted hundreds of parents, teachers, and community members to sign letters and petitions in support of Turner and questioning DCPS’ decision.
Ferebee held a meeting with the Wilson community on May 7.
Emotions ran high at the meeting, which drew approximately 200 attendees. Prior to the meeting, parents and students rallied outside with signs demanding transparency regarding the non-renewal of Turner’s contract.
Throughout the meeting, DCPS officials including Ferebee, Chief of Elementary Schools Angela Chapman and Deputy Chancellor Melissa Kim declined to discuss what they characterized as a personnel matter. Their remarks were met by shouts and pointed questions from concerned parents and staff, many of whom sought answers as to how the decision not to renew Turner’s contract was made.
Emily Pappas, parent of a pre-K student, read a list of Turner’s accomplishments, which ranged from the school missing 4-star status by less than 1% to the school’s midyear assessments showing an average increase of 22% across all subjects.
“I define this as success, but obviously you do not,” she said. “Chancellor Ferebee, can you tell us your metrics for success and why Principal Turner is not coming back?”
Many parents expressed frustration about how the instability would affect students.
“Principal Turner’s replacement will be our fifth principal in under 18 months,” said Larry Gill, a parent who has had children in the school for the past eight years. “I’m concerned about attracting a strong leader to J.O. Wilson and about how far this will set our children back.”
Other parents raised questions about grievances filed against Turner by the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) building representative on behalf of other WTU members at Wilson without their consent. Parents asserted these complaints led to the non-renewal decision, although DCPS officials maintained they did not.
Parents also raised questions about the role of Cluster IV Instructional Superintendent Aileen Murphy in Turner’s non-renewal, insinuating that she sided with a teacher whose questionable behavior may have cost Turner his job.
The conversation at the May 7 meeting — and what has played out on social media since — also paints a broader picture of negative behavior toward not only the former principal but also other staff members and students perpetrated by a small group of teachers and parents.
“The revolving door of authority caused by principal turnover has allowed some teachers to establish their own authority, and it is adversely affecting our school and our children,” said Jennifer Speight, parent of a second-grader. “That led to our principal being bullied, even as he was rolling out a no bullying plan for our scholars. And it’s about more than just his departure, our teachers, most of whom are excellent teachers, have been dealing with this for years and will continue to unless DCPS acts.”
One parent, Leah Flemons, shared an emotional story about her daughter being bullied by a teacher. She described failed attempts to get assistance from DCPS and to have her daughter transferred, as well as the continued harassment by the teacher that ultimately required DCPS to create a safety plan for her other children.
Her daughter also spoke and shared her personal experience.
“I don’t know why she was so mean to me,” the girl said of the teacher. “I’m a pretty good student. She would make fun of me and then the class would do the same.”
A letter issued by the school describing the plan to keep Flemons’ children safe from the teacher in question describes the normal routine for the student and how it avoids overlap with the teacher, but also puts the onus on the child to express any concerns while not saying anything at all about the teacher in question being investigated or disciplined
“This is outrageous,” said Dori Olaseha, another parent at the school. “We talk to our children about bullying at school. We should not have to worry about it coming from teachers. The majority of our teachers are fantastic, and we will not stand by while they, our principal, and our students are bullied.”
Many in the Wilson community have been calling for greater transparency, saying that this issue is bigger than just their school.
“This whole situation has opened my eyes to several issues within DCPS, from the downside of one-year contracts that take principals away before they have a chance to make positive change, to processes that don’t give parents any transparency or feedback when grievances are filed against teachers,” said parent Don Hill.
Another parent, Catherine Fry, who has had children at the school for four years, said, “This has been incredibly frustrating. My kids have amazing, caring teachers here at J.O. Wilson. If DCPS wants to keep good teachers and stop parents from fleeing to charters and the suburbs, they need to reform how they evaluate principals, rid the system of toxic teachers, and truly engage the community.”
Council member Charles Allen, who represents Wilson in Ward 6, shared a letter he sent to Ferebee on May 8 noting that he heard from many parents who “feel their trust and faith in DC Public Schools has been greatly damaged — in some cases broken — as a result of the events of the last few weeks.”
“J.O. Wilson is a wonderful elementary school in Ward 6 with a strong legacy of outstanding education,” Allen said. “I know the J.O. Wilson community to be strong, resilient and committed — and they deserve to be engaged in an open and transparent manner that respects where the school is today, and charts a course for continued growth and success in the future.”
The Wilson community met with DCPS officials on May 15 to discuss the principal selection process. What DCPS intended to be a rote process-focused meeting ended up with more calls for transparency and protest against how the principal selection community panel will be chosen and the time frame for selecting members.
A chief concern among some parents was whether one of the teachers who prompted one of the safety plans would be allowed to participate. In conflicting email communications since the meeting, the date of the panel and the panel makeup has been changed multiple times.
As of press time, the principal selection community panel is scheduled to interview prospective candidates on June 4.
“At this point, there is no trust between the J.O. Wilson community and DCPS,” said Kei Tolliver, a PK4 parent. “The process for selecting a new principal will test whether DCPS is listening to our concerns. I’m not optimistic.”