POSTED ON JULY 9, 2008:
Between Discipline and a Hard Place
Tulsa Academic Center could work, given the proper management, TPS Superintendent tells Urban Tulsa Weekly
"...I've always been for the children and trying to make sure that I can help kids, and sometimes that doesn't concur with other people's philosophical and political views," says Dr. Michael Zolkoski, the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools.
TAC principal apparently never followed instructions, buoyed by his cultural identity, own agenda and supported by certain teachers and parents, according to a teacher
"Everybody is culpable in this, so why in the world they are trying to hang Dr. Z, I have no idea," one former teacher at the Tulsa Academic Center told UTW recently.
Ever since the story broke in middle March revealing the violence, overcrowding and overall dysfunctional environment at TAC, many have been demanding the head of Dr. Michael Zolkoski, the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, for the apparent failure of that school's reform program.
The Tulsa World initially reported on students and teachers' tales of fights, disorder and of the "lunatics running the asylum," so to speak, at TAC.
A month later the board of Tulsa Public Schools hired Doug Mann of Rosenstein, Fist and Ringold (a Tulsa law firm, specializing in general corporate and commercial litigation) to investigate the complaints.
When Mann and his team completed their inquiry last month, they confirmed that dismal depiction of TAC.
The Tulsa Academic Center was Zolkoski's brainchild, created last year as an alternative to suspension. It was based on similar programs from school districts in Texas and Louisiana, at which Zolkoski previously worked as superintendent.
The Academic Center had two, basic regimens. The first was the Term Academic Program, for students that had committed offenses generally worthy of suspension. The second was to be a "boot camp"-style program, called the Performance Training Program, for more serious offenders: students who had committed violence, been caught with weapons or used or sold drugs.
The programs were designed to serve 166 students, at most, in TAP, and 135 in PTP; but the report indicated that as many as 1,025 students had been referred as a result of TPS principals treating TAC as a sort of "dumping ground" for problem students.
While the Mann team reported that the situation was the result of "a failure of several (TPS) District leaders at various levels," many have singled out Zolkoski as the sole culprit, calling on the district to fire him or force his resignation.
Jumping on the bandwagon, the Tulsa World ran an editorial two days after the report was made public, entitled "Fire Superintendent Zolkoski."
Within a week of the World pronouncing sentence, the Tulsa chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a press conference at which Twan Jones, chairman of the local NAACP Legal Redress Committee also called on the TPS board to fire Zolkoski.
A source close to the TPS board has since told UTW that Board President Gary Percefull has raised the issue of Zolkoski's resignation, which Zolkoski reportedly refused.
Prior to that, though, UTW had asked Zolkoski for his side of the story. Inexplicably the Tulsa World has covered the story apparently without seeking Zolkoski's comment or input.
A Working Model
Zolkoski, who was readily available for comment, said he does not dispute anything in the report, but said it didn't present a complete picture of the situation.
"Some of it's vague, and not all-encompassing," he said.
So, if it were less vague and more detailed and comprehensive, would it cast you in a better light?
"I don't know. My point is that I'm up here," he said, motioning with his hand to indicate his position "at the top of the food chain," as he worded it.
"You know, I'm responsible for 7,000 employees, 330 buses, 42,000 students, 90 campuses and half a billion dollars, and even though I don't do things directly, I'm at the top," Zolkoski elaborated.
"I would love to be able to tell you that I check everybody, but I don't. And I assume, if I tell you, 'Take care of this,' that you'll take care of this. So, what I did when I found out things weren't exactly what they should be--we cleaned up," he continued.
Zolkoski added that he has "visited with those personnel" responsible for the deterioration of TAC. "If the model had been followed, it would have been perfect," he said.
The revised version of TAC, which is set to commence next fall, he said, will have "more checks and balances," a "Clearinghouse Committee" to double-check the work of Dr. Richard Palazzo, the Director of Alternative Schools, to determine if 'the child is right for the program,' as well as to determine the student's placement at the conclusion of his or her time at TAC.
He also said principals won't be able to withdraw students and send them to TAC, but parents will decide after hearing recommendations from the Clearinghouse Committee.
Of course, that's assuming Zolkoski is still in charge in the fall and given the opportunity to reform TAC, to make it work in its intended purpose of turning problem kids around.
"Oh, it will work, because I put so many stop-gaps. Plus, number two, it's (based on) parent selection," he said.
That all sounds pretty good, but as the TAC was originally presented, it sounded good, too.
"It is good," Zolkoski interjected again. "It does work in four different locations, except for here (in Tulsa)."
But, what's on trial in the court of public opinion isn't necessarily the TAC model, but Dr. Michael Zolkoski.
"That's right. And that was chosen by the Tulsa World, I believe. I don't know why," he answered.
"I was here to try to cut down suspensions. Someone told me I needed to cut student suspensions, and I did. I almost cut them in half," Zolkoski continued.
But, according Mann's report, the price for that was the disaster at TAC.
"The program, if it would have been followed, would have been perfect," he repeated.
So, why wasn't it followed, and who's responsible for it not being followed?
"Well, there were a lot of people involved in this process. It wasn't just one. Maybe it was not understanding the model, maybe it was misinterpreted. I don't know," he answered.
So, why do you think you're being singled out and cast as the bad guy?
"I really don't know. Maybe others could tell you. Some people may not like my leadership style, but truly, my style is about children. I've always been for the children and trying to make sure that I can help kids, and sometimes that doesn't concur with other people's philosophical and political views," he answered.
The World Is Black, The World is White?
According to at least one former teacher at TAC, it's that disagreement with his philosophical views and leadership style that's behind the entire mess.
While Dr. Z's stated plan all along was for TAC to teach wayward students discipline and respect through a "boot camp"-style approach, TAC's principal, Dr. Raushan Ashanti-Alexander, opposed that approach from the beginning, she said.
That teacher asked not to be named in the article.
"If you put my name with this, I'm going to be labeled as a troublemaker," the educator said.
She added she'd like to return to TAC to teach in the fall. Because of the troubles at the school, though, all teachers and support personnel have to re-interview for their jobs.
While it was plain to her and others before TAC started up last fall that it was to implement a boot camp-style disciplinary program, she said Ashanti-Alexander openly defied that model.
"I want to go back to our 'meet the parents' open house night," she said. The teacher estimated that about 150 people attended the meeting, many of whom were parents whose children had been referred to TAC.
"We were at this meeting, and Dr. Alexander got up and said, 'This is not going to be a boot camp,' and several people in the auditorium cheered," she said.
"Well, Dr. Z is sitting right behind me, and knowing that he wanted that to be a boot camp, that was very, very brazen on Dr. Alexander's part. He never intended for it to be a boot camp," the teacher continued.
Rather than offering discipline at TAC, the teacher said Ashanti-Alexander sheltered students from it.
"He would not punish the children. When the children had done something really bad and needed to go home, he'd just kind of take them under his wing, and they'd follow him around that day," she recounted.
And the educator wasn't exaggerating when she said the children did "something really bad." Threats of physical violence against teachers were commonplace, everyday occurrences at TAC.
Considering that many of the students were sent to the school for having carried out various acts of violence at the schools that had referred them to TAC, and many were actually out on parole from similar offenses, the teacher didn't take them as idle threats.
However, she said Ashanti-Alexander rarely, if ever, took them seriously.
"He would not give them the punishment they were supposed to receive according to the code of conduct," she said.
"The referrals were written, and he would do nothing about it. He would not allow 'his children' to be punished," she recounted.
"And he called them 'his children,'" she said.
Claiming them as "his children," the teacher explained, was usually a gesture of racial solidarity.
"Usually, they were black, because the majority of our children were black," she added.
And as the teacher explained, it was Tulsa's historic and ongoing racial divide that fueled Ashanti-Alexander's opposition to the program, as well as the support he received from parents and TAC staff in doing so.
"The black culture is unusual," the veteran teacher said.
Having taught at an all-black school in Alabama during the integration period, she continued, "The black culture today is not like it was years ago. The black culture today is defensive in the sense that they think that if you come up with an idea to discipline their children, they're just not going to allow it."
You're saying they think it's motivated by racism rather than genuine concern for their child's well being?
"Absolutely. You'd better believe it," she answered.
The following commanded by Ashanti-Alexander went beyond racial solidarity, though.
The teacher said most of the other faculty at TAC had followed Ashanti-Alexander from Madison Middle School and had an almost fanatic loyalty to him, choosing to side with him and follow him "even when he was clearly wrong."
But a particular comment made by Dr. Z didn't help matters.
At a meeting with TAC faculty and staff in November, upon hearing complaints about conditions at the school, he reportedly said, "I'll shove 800 kids in here if I want to and I'll hold your teaching certificates."
When asked about the remark, Dr. Z told UTW, "I never said that. What I did say is that I would hold their teaching certificates. Oh, yeah."
What did you mean by that?
"Let's suppose I have 20 teachers and you all walk out and leave my students with no teachers. I'm going after your paperwork. You're not going to teach anywhere. I did not want teachers walking out on those children. Those children count on them. It was not a vicious statement. It was a statement that I wanted to take care of the children," he answered.
And that was how the teacher interviewed by UTW took the statement.
"Teachers were letting him know that things weren't going well, and basically, he told them that he didn't care how many kids were there, it's going to be a success and don't think about leaving, basically, because you won't work anywhere in the state of Oklahoma for the rest of the year," she said.
"If he had not done that, those people probably would have been for him, but that cooked his goose in the eyes of everybody there. All teachers, as far as they were concerned, were mad at him and would like to see him gone."
"But it wasn't that way for me. I thought he just lost his temper. I have a temper. We all have one," she added.
The teacher said she had never met Zolkoski outside of his occasional visits to TAC, but from what she did know of him, she said, "I've never seen anything to indicate that he wanted that place to fail, or that he would not have done something if he had actually known it was really that bad."
Zolkoski told UTW that he never received any indication that anything was amiss until March, and prior to that, he granted whatever requests Ashanti-Alexander made for additional personnel.
He said he added an assistant principal, three teachers and three support staff, which Zolkoski said was exactly what Ashanti-Alexander requested from the district last September, and received in October.
Obviously, however, those seven people weren't enough to stem the tide of students being sent to TAC.
So, Zolkoski was asked, Why wouldn't Ashanti-Alexander have asked for more, or asked that no more students be sent?
"I don't know," he answered.
Tip of the Iceberg
When this reporter began to ask Zolkoski if he thinks Ashanti-Alexander might bear the brunt of the responsibility for the deterioration of TAC, before the question could be finished, Zolkoski interjected, "I'm not saying anything about that principal."
His reticence was not necessarily of his own choosing, though.
Ashanti-Alexander filed a lawsuit against the district last year, claiming that TPS had inaccurately reported Madison Middle School's test scores, understating the school's progress.
As part of the settlement reached in March this year, along with Ashanti-Alexander's resignation, he and TPS mutually agreed that neither would saying anything disparaging about the other, neither in public nor in private.
Along with that, Ashanti-Alexander also received the remainder of his salary and benefits for the 2007-08 school year, another $130,000, and an additional $18,000 paid to the Oklahoma Teachers' Retirement System for his benefits.
"That's part of the problem with this issue--I've given as much as I can give you without getting myself sued," Zolkoski said.
He then volunteered, "Because I picked that principal, I really can't say anything."
The teacher interviewed by UTW went on to explain that when she and others complained to Ashanti-Alexander that they were overwhelmed by the number of students sent to them, his typical response was simply, "They know, they know."
"He would never say, 'Dr. Zolkoski knows what's going on here.' He would never say, 'The area superintendent knows what's going on here.' He would say, 'They know,'" she said.
"But, I know what he meant. That was his way of evading an answer. He was waiting for this thing to fall apart. He wanted this thing to fall apart. He wanted somebody to be blamed," she speculated.
Why would he want that?
"I don't know. I didn't know anything about his lawsuit until the lawsuit was over. I don't know," she answered, but then ventured, "Because he didn't want his children 'hurt,' as he called it. He wanted his children babied. He did not want a boot camp, and he was determined to show Dr. Z that it was not going to be a boot camp."
The teacher also said Ashanti-Alexander and his loyalists went to great lengths to hide the extent of the problem from Zolkoski and others.
She said, when word traveled through the school that Dr. Z was in the building, they were told "It's time to take the kids to lunch."
So, they were instructed, "We are going to take the kids out this back door down the hallway, we're going to go in this side door in the gym, and then into the cafeteria. That's how we did it."
And you did this, too?
"I did it all the time, yeah, because I was told to," she said.
Why'd you go along with it?
"Well, you were told to. You don't disagree. That was the assistant principal, and before it was the principal, or at least, Ms. Allen, who was the principal's right-hand lady, and they were best friends. You didn't dare cross Ms. Allen," she said, referring to Quanda Allen, a special education teacher at TAC.
"To me, that just knocked me off my feet, how they did not consider that a serious matter. To me, that was almost breaking the law. That was a tremendous cover-up," she added.
Zolkoski said he only discovered the true extent of problem after Ashanti-Alexander resigned, at which point he issued a moratorium on referrals to the school.
"Until March, after the leadership changed at TAC, then we went in and found that there were some things that needed to be corrected, and I was immediate in correcting all those," he said.
By then, however, the horror stories about TAC had already leaked, and Ashanti-Alexander was safely out of the line of fire, putting Zolkoski directly in the line of fire.
Attempts by UTW to contact Ashanti-Alexander were unsuccessful. His telephone number is unlisted, and the number previously listed for him has been disconnected. Also, TPS stated that their policy precludes giving out contact information for past or present employees.
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