GREEN ISLAND, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Green Island Union Free School District parents and students say the district is sinking as teachers continue to jump ship. Since NEWS10’s last report, they estimate around a dozen teachers and staff have left the small district already this semester amid increasing school violence and lack of support from the administration.
The district confirms Monday, yet another person called it quits and Heatly School Senior Sean Ellis says since August, four of his teachers have all left.
“Two of my favorite teachers that I’ve ever had in my entire school career have left this year. Personally, I can’t bring myself to go into one of their rooms,” Sean says.
He says fights are now happening weekly, with two more reported yesterday. Sean is one of the students who staged a walkout back in November. He says it was a boiling point between one of their favorite teachers leaving, protesting the school district’s treatment of teachers, and failed attempts to speak with Superintendent Kimberly Ross on improvement ideas.
“We stood outside for half of the day in the pouring rain and cold. They tried to coax us back inside, but we said no. We were going to make them listen. It was a bit spur of the moment, but it was a very heated day. We were upset and emotional,” Sean explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
Sean’s dad, Andrew Ellis, says the walkout was the spark to help parents catch on just how serious the situation is at the Heatly School. He says since then, around 70 parents have requested meetings with Superintendent Kimberly Ross. While there was a coffee and conversation session with Ross in early December, Andrew says there was no clear resolution and further attempts to reach Ross have been unsuccessful.
“During the December cafe, they had us all put our issues on the board and she grouped them up, but most of the parents felt just like [she] dismissed the problems. Like okay we are working on this, well how are you working on it? When is it going to get fixed? These are the things that we need to know,” Andrew says.
“The classrooms are struggling, the academics are struggling, the kids are out of control. The morale of the school is awful,” he further says.
“Anytime we would go to the administration or go to Ms. Ross herself and bring up an issue we were having and, you know, say hey something’s wrong and we as students are recognizing it when we shouldn’t be, how can we fix this? The administration would go, oh it’s fine, we’ll take care of it,” Sean adds.
They say the cycle starts with the Green Island disciplinary policy. The policy, which Ross says is distributed several times during the school year, says teachers should handle minor misbehavior in the classroom.
However, up until December the policy stated teachers had to consider profanity, inappropriate comments, and put downs as minor infractions. Ross explains her policy is teachers first needed try resolution by calling parents three times before a student can be referred to the administrative office.
“They are the direct line to a parent’s child. Encouraging and supporting them to call home in those minor infractions is more impactful than if they send them to the office for the principal to handle,” Superintendent Ross says.
However, Andrew Ellis points out the rise in violent encounters at the school as evidence that one consequence of this policy is some students continue escalating bad behavior and by infraction three are already resorting to aggression.
“Teens push boundaries, and anyone can tell you that they will keep pushing and pushing and pushing until they find one,” he says.
Teachers who’ve left the district similarly agree. They say they wish to remain anonymous to protect their ability to find future jobs, but the treatment they experienced within Green Island UFSD needs to be talked about.
“When they misbehave, they’re teenagers doing what kids do. I can take that, but teenagers push limits and it will get out of control if you don’t have limits,” one person says, further referred to as Teacher A.
Ross responds the disciplinary policy has since been changed to reflect “disparaging, disrespectful, and/or vulgar language directed towards a faculty/staff member” as a major infraction that can be referred to admin. She also asserts any form of violence has always been met with an admin response.
“We apologized to staff and said that this was an error,” Ross says.
“We have suspended 45 students out of our 300, with a total 150 days of suspension. That is quite a bit for our student population, but we do follow the code of conduct which is board approved every year,” she further explains.
However, both Andrew Ellis and Teacher A say the code of conduct is not followed consistently. Teacher A also says one of the most troubling things to them is the way teachers are treated by Superintendent Ross when they approach her with concerns.
“When you spoke to her, you had to be very, very sure you were careful not to say anything she would disagree with, because she made you feel like you couldn’t possibly disagree with her and be a good teacher,” explains Teacher A.
Another person, referred to as Teacher B, wrote in to NEWS10:
In addition to the completely toxic culture created by the administration, under appreciation, low value and zero support, I began to question how the district could justify four administrators for a student population of less than 300. That budget line is around $500,000. I could not put the investment of my own education and career in the hands of someone who is so unqualified and inexperienced. I feared that my career would be cut short and I’d be left unemployable after 19 years in the field. When you couple those fears with the toxicity and trauma the Administration and Board throw at the faculty and staff day in and day out, I decided it was my time to move on.
“Asking administration to take an active role in behavior management was seen as tantamount to admitting you were incompetent or that your lessons weren’t engaging or that demanding accountability for students was the same as wanting to hurt them back,” Teacher A elaborates.
Teacher A refers to an email sent out district wide by Superintendent Ross and CC’d to Board of Education Chair Andrea Ryan. In it, teachers say they were highly offended by things Ross wrote such as:
-“For those who want a pound of flesh for every infraction, may it be minor or major, how are you modeling what you desire from students? If a child does not feel respected because an adult is snarky or unkind, how can you expect them to behave in your classroom?”
-“These same adults continue to just point the finger at the children and their parents.”
“I personally find it insulting on a number of levels. One, that these students are incapable of controlling themselves, and then as a teacher that you should just take it and accept it’s part of the job, and if you can’t take it, then you’re a bad teacher or you don’t have a good relationship with your students. You start to internalize it’s your fault. That weighs on you,” says Teacher A.
Ross says she and the school board “firmly believe no teacher should be subjected to verbal abuse by students” and she is “concerned” teachers feel unappreciated, but also says she cannot clarify the email without context. She claims any of her interactions with staff are meant to push them towards “excellence”.
“Change is hard is it is, right? School improvement process is about change and that’s hard for some people that have difficulty acknowledging that they may need to change their approach and practice,” she says.
“[Superintendent Ross] would also say we left because of the pandemic or that we don’t want to change, but all but one of the teachers who have left didn’t leave the profession, they went to another school district and I know of one person who took a 40 percent pay cut just to get out. This is not about money. It’s about escaping the disrespect and policies at Heatly,” Teacher A says.
“These kids are all remarkably kind, decent, and good young men and women. We love our students, I don’t know a single teacher who was happy to leave. It devastated us, it devastated me,” they go on to say.
When asked what they would like to see changed about the Green Island Union Free School District, all those who came forward say they want Ross to resign.
“We wish her no ill will, but I don’t see how the goal of improving the schools can take place when there’s no rapport with the people who are going to be able to do it. I don’t believe she has the ability to perform the job function she was brought in to do when she’s spoiled all the relationships and chased away all the good teachers,” says Andrew Ellis.
“It’s not just that we don’t like the administration or we don’t like the superintendent, it’s that there’s something wrong and it’s affecting us as students,” says Sean Ellis.
Teacher B writes:
I think the Board President and Superintendent should realize their involvement in the demise, step down, let the faculty and families heal so that they might find ways to rebuild.
And finally, Teacher A says: “At some point you have to admit your policies aren’t working. At this point, I feel she’s just holding on due to pride. But she needs to resign and give notice, so the district has time to find someone qualified and prepare for the next school year.”