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Shaker Heights High School hopeful the toughest times have passed

November 16, 2018

Shaker Heights High School hopeful the toughest times have passed

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio – Board of Education President Jeffrey Isaacs feels things are beginning to trend positive at Shaker Heights High School.

“Yes, I definitely think so. We had a perfect storm from several personnel issues that happened in a short time,” Isaacs said after a regularly scheduled board meeting on Wednesday night (Nov. 14).

“Prominent posts -- the football coach, the cheerleading (coaching team), the principal and a very popular English teacher -- all within a few weeks. So we certainly believe we’ve turned a corner on that,” Isaacs said.

“I think you saw tonight that our teachers came with a message of ‘let’s all pull together.’ Some other parts of our community spoke in the same vein, so we’re hopeful that temperatures have cooled and we’re moving forward now,” he said.

Isaacs referred to the tension prompted by a flurry of personnel moves since early October, which included Principal Jonathan Kuehnle being put on administrative leave on Nov. 1. Kuehnle’s status remains under review.

Wednesday night’s board meeting just about packed the school’s smaller cafeteria with more than 200 people, including parents, students, teachers and administrators.

Many would have come anyway to learn about the board settling on a budget for the renovation of the fire-damaged Fernway Elementary School, but others came to learn more about the handling and effects of the personnel moves.

Earlier in the week, Superintendent Stephen Wilkins issued an apology to longtime honors English teacher Jody Podl for the district’s handling of her placement on administrative leave on Oct. 10.

Soon after Wednesday night’s meeting began, Shaker Heights Teachers Association President John Morris said, “We must also have due process for our teachers, which was denied to Mrs. Podl.”

On Tuesday (Nov. 13), Podl revealed in the student newspaper, the Shakerite, that she is taking a medical leave.

Podl’s status was a primary reason that about 800 people attended an emotional community meeting in the school’s auditorium on Oct. 8. Many there also voiced concerns that African-American students are not getting sufficient opportunity and preparation to adequately pursue their academic futures.

Isaacs said on Wednesday (Nov. 14) that an Equity Task Force has been formed, and that a meeting was held the previous night that included himself, students, Wilkins and acting high school Principal David Glasner.

“The Task Force has been working hard on our equity issues,” Isaacs said. “Students came together here (on Nov. 13) in this very room to discuss issues of race and equity.

“It was an incredible experience, student-led conversations, and we understand that the voices that were expressed by students (on Oct. 8) have been channeled into this positive format, and we want to keep that moving forward. We have wonderful student groups at our high school who came together to address this, so we’re very proud of the work they did,” he said.

Isaacs expounded somewhat on other personnel issues during his opening statement.

“We also had a problem with the football team,” he said. “A guy serving as an assistant coach was not on the payroll. He has a criminal record and never would have passed a background check. He’s gone. So is the head coach. We eliminated the entire coaching staff and we’re starting over.

“We had an assistant cheerleading coach accused of (criticizing a cheerleader for her weight). We’ll have a new (coaching team) installed shortly,” he said.

About the various personnel matters, Isaacs said, “In none of these instances were students in any danger.”

Isaacs expressed regret that the handling of matters was not as timely as it should have been, and “not always perfectly” done.

Both he and Morris said they were troubled by some social media conversations critical of both students and teachers. They complimented both groups and discouraged any division between them.

In the apology message to Podl, Wilkins claimed that she was “cleared to return to work on Nov. 7,” though that had been preceded by a series of reviews and meetings.

Most students and parents say Podl’s classes are challenging, but are fair and can be rewarding. Some have complained -- including in recent statements to administrators -- about her teaching approach.

In a Nov. 7 letter sent by Morris to teachers, he wrote, “The statements were made by students who had not completed assignments and were unhappy with the rigor of the advanced coursework,” adding that “the students construed academic rigor as bullying and harassment.”

During the open-commenting segment of Wednesday night’s meeting, two mothers of Shaker High graduates said their children had complained about Podl’s teaching.

Several teachers and parents echoed Morris’ sentiments about Podl’s situation, though. Teachers said they would like more clarity as to what constitutes verbal bullying or harassment.

“A climate of less trust has developed,” one teacher said. “It has impacted teachers’ effectiveness. Are challenging assignments the same as intimidation?”

Another teacher who expressed support for Podl also said he empathized with administrators and the board, understanding that they “have a lot on the plate.” He said he has begun to see a “de-escalating” of the situation.

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