The must-read article of the week is the Seattle Times' in-depth article on Seattle's own John Marshall High School.
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.
[Regarding the principal] 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.
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.
Do you want to know why people are interested in charter schools? Look to John Marshall High School for the answer. When a history of failure is rewarded by the chance to fail more, there is something wrong, wrong, wrong with the system. Don't you dare tell me that KIPP or Green Dot are the enemy, when articles like this make it eminently clear that the enemy is US.
This is a situation crying out for a response, but with a lame-duck superintendent, a divided school board, and a history of doing nothing, is there any reason to think that the kids at John Marshall will be served any better than they have been? Stories like this shame us all, but is the will there to do anything about it?
This is a sad piece about a sad school. Hopefully, the story can be a change agent.