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Toxic environment at public elementary school

Por Mariel Fiori
July 2024
What recourse do parents have when they encounter an unfair situation at the school where their children go? Who looks out for families who pay taxes to fund their community's school district, but don't receive information in a language they understand? Why do many call school districts a feudal system? A case that I am following closely, and which illustrates these questions quite well, is that of the George Washington Montessori Elementary School in Kingston. It is worth clarifying that in the entire state of New York there are only twelve public schools that follow the Montessori method, seven of which are in New York City. In the Hudson Valley, the only one is in Kingston, or you must go to Albany or Yonkers, to find a similar gem.

In May of this year, the Kingston City School District hired the consulting firm EdLife to meet the requirements of the New York State Department of Education because the state has identified George Washington (GW), as well as three others district schools, needing “specific support and improvement” for student subgroups identified as “Hispanic” (45% of GW students), “English Language Learners (ELL)” (29% of GW’s 332 students) and “economically disadvantaged” (66% of GW students).

The EdLife team conducted interviews with 25 GW students, 20 parents, and more than 40 teachers and support staff. I attended one of the parent interviews with the four hired consultants and was surprised to learn that none of them have a Montessori certification or training, and none of them considered it important to understand the Montessori system to review and provide feedback on a public Montessori school. In fact, when asked about possible solutions to the school's TSI status, Angela Prince, the lead consultant, felt very comfortable offering suggestions to the five of us parents on how to change the Montessori grade configuration or blend the school offerings, two issues that have already sparked strong community advocacy against it, and prompted the district to offer an Implementation Plan after a consultant from the firm Public Montessori in Action was hired in May 2023.

Aside from that worrying “detail,” there are several more that should alarm the entire community and cause the district to take decisive and immediate action. The report uses the term “toxic” to describe teachers’ feelings about their work environment: “Most teachers expressed concerns about divisions among staff, which have led to toxicity and a lack of trust.” Even worse, the consultant wrote that “Staff reported that interactions such as yelling, silent treatment, slamming doors, and pulling students exist in the school and are deemed punitive towards both students and adults.”

Additionally, the consulting firm's report revealed that people who did not speak English “were not receiving the services needed because of the shortage of staff.” In the summer of 2023, through a petition signed by 31 GW parents and staff, including the school's former principal, a review of the school's ELL staff was requested but was ignored. The petition was one of many recent petitions submitted by the community to the school district.

GW Principal Wanda Lobianco was hired for the position by Superintendent Paul Padalino and Associate Superintendent for Elementary Education Stacia Felicello in 2019, following the retirement of Principal Valerie Hannum, who instituted the Montessori method at the school and led the school from its lowest ranking in the district (under the leadership of Felicello, who had been principal at GW before Hannum) to one of academic success.

Despite widespread requests from GW parents for a nationwide search for a Montessori-trained principal, Padalino and Felicello hired Lobianco “in-house” (who, at the time, had no Montessori training), transferring her from the school Myer Elementary to GW. The school's academic performance and work environment have been declining since then.

“I witnessed teachers struggling to be heard and worse,” said Britta Riley, a parent representative on GW’s Leadership Team in 2023. “I saw what looked like a toxic work environment. I also spoke with several families who had shocking experiences. They told me they were afraid to speak up for fear of reprisals or told me their escalated reports to Superintendents and the Board of Education had gone nowhere.” 

Another GW parent, Jen Verrell, said “The Montessori Program is not what is failing the non-English speaking students. The district is failing them.”

Mariel Fiori
Managing Editor

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