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Parents Form Action Group In Response To Environmental Charter School Teacher's Resignation

 Mark A.D. Williams
Courtesy Mark A.D. Williams
Mark A.D. Williams (center in red shirt) poses with a group of former students and families during a hike in Riverview Park Sunday.

Mark A.D. Williams still leads his former fourth grade students in virtual mindfulness practices every Saturday. On Sundays, they still hike through Riverview Park — two months after Williams left his classroom at the Environmental Charter School for good.

“We really just spend time in each other's presence, loving on each other and having fun. So in one sense, that's beautiful,” Williams said. “But I don't say that to overshadow or delegitimize how hurt, how sad and how angry they are.”

Williams resigned from his teaching position in February, after top administrators suspended him without pay for a video message in which he expressed concern about a return to school amid the coronavirus pandemic. When the school reinstated him, Williams declined to return, saying they had not apologized and refused to participate in the restorative justice process Williams uses with his students.

“I just want [top administrators] to hear from students and families about the harm that was caused by what they did to me,” he said.

Environmental Charter School’s central administration — known as "home office" within the ECS system — declined Williams’ request to talk it out. Jon McCann, the CEO and founding principal of the four-school system, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But dozens of families have offered support for Williams during the past few school board meetings. More than 350 signatures were collected in a petition calling on administrators to engage in restorative practice and for better transparency. That prompted a group of parents to form the ECS Action Alliance.

Bonnie Culbertson’s daughter Lily, 10, was in Williams' class and was devastated when he left.

“I’ve never seen this child so heartbroken in my life. He’s had more impact than any teacher ever in our entire lives with our children growing up,” she said.

Culbertson says she joined the Alliance because she hasn’t given up on the school, which she said she hopes will “remain the type of school that we came here for. We just want to make sure that we just don’t turn into like a corporate feel. We want it to be this different school.”

Controlling the narrative?

The trouble began in February, when Williams recorded a video for his students outlining his concerns ahead of a return to in-person learning after a year of remote learning. He told them that some teachers were concerned about their own health, that he wasn’t sure how all of his students who chose to return would fit in his classroom safely. He asked them to reconsider if they needed to return.

The question he wanted families to think about, he said, was that given the ongoing threat from COVID-19, “What will my decision to do the most vulnerable, to the people who are most likely to be affected negatively by this virus?”

Williams regularly recorded videos for his students, which often included mindfulness exercises, or Williams strumming a guitar and singing a song. Once he recorded the COVID video on Feb. 14, he said he sent it to the intermediate school administrators to publish in the internal learning system that students can access.

Shortly after the video was posted, Williams said, McCann called and told him he was suspended. Williams said he didn’t know why for several days. Then Williams said home office administrators told him that parents were offended by his video.

Williams said he did speak with one parent who took issue with the video, and said they both left better understanding the other’s perspective. But he said he didn't have that opportunity with any other parents. Williams said that since one virtual meeting with home office staff, his emails and calls have gone unanswered.

“The best intention could be [that home office is] worried about lawsuits, they’re worried about losing students, they’re worried about something happening that creates a … bigger divide in our community,” he said. “But I’m left with the conclusion that they’re being motivated by ... a worry that they could lose control over the narrative.”

Williams, who identifies as mixed race, said that when he made the video, he had issues of equity and justice in mind.

“I was looking through the lens of what we do in the Black and brown community with difficult information,” he said. “We have to choose: Do we keep our students naive and innocent and living in their childhood privilege, or do we tell them the hard and difficult truth to keep them from being more traumatized by the realities of the world? And I think it's possible to walk both lines.”

But battle lines were quickly being drawn.

‘He wanted emotional repair’

Williams’ departure came at a time when relations between ECS and its teachers were in limbo.

The educators voted in favor of a union in 2018 by just 4 votes out of 73 staff members. Later, a group of teachers who opposed the union pushed a decertification vote, which failed by the same four-vote margin.

Laura Hudson, a second-grade ECS teacher and a union representative, said that since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s been increased support for the union, and its goal is to finalize a contract by June.

As contract talks continue, teachers operate under a memorandum of understanding that outlines working conditions during the pandemic. And had a contract been in place, the union would have been able to protest ECS’ actions before Williams was suspended.

Union leaders want the ECS board to correct the record on the message it sent to parents surrounding Williams’s resignation. According to Hudson, home office asked the union to issue a statement confirming that Williams’ resignation was a personal choice. She said before the union had time to consult with members, the board released a letter saying it had closely worked with the union and determined that all proper procedures were followed.

The letter, Hudson said, “left a lot of parents going, ‘Is this true? Have you been working with the board the whole time?’ And we were like, ‘No we sure haven’t,’” Hudson said.

Michael Aronson, the ECS board president and a parent of two ECS students, did not respond to a request for comment about how the board handled Williams’ departure.

A union steward did join Williams when he met with administrators about his suspension, and Hudson said, “At the point when they did reinstate him with back pay, that was kind of our victory.”

But Hudson said the union grievance process is likely more bureaucratic than what Williams wants.

“He wants to do true restorative justice, which is human-to-human, non-bureaucratic, emotionally centered practice,” she said. And although “I think that we could have done a bit more if we had the contract,” Hudson said, “I think at the heart of it, he wanted emotional repair with specific human beings in administration. A contract would not have given him that in any case.”

Restorative justice is a progressive model sometimes used by school districts including Pittsburgh Public Schools. When harm is done, students talk it out via a facilitator. Williams says it created a culture of trust and respect in his classroom, and that his suspension could have been an opportunity to model restorative justice and navigating complex situations.

“What is needed in this school, in this state, in this country, in this world, is for people who disagree to sit down and see the other person as a human and listen deeply and then move forward together,” he said.

Hudson said she thinks school leaders are wary of doing anything that could tarnish the reputation of the system, which is expanding its high school. But that, she said, could give parents more leverage.

“Parents are the ones to watch in this situation,” said Hudson, whose daughter also attends ECS. “I think that this parent activist group, even more than the union, has the power to bring pressure toward addressing some of these systemic problems.”

‘We have to shed light’

Parents say they will keep up their demands for more transparency from administrators, even if they hold little hope that Williams will return.

“We were completely dissatisfied with the 'reinstatement' of Mr. Williams because we felt in large part it was done to placate parents,” said parent Beth Ruzanic. “It was never really meant to bring Mr. Williams back because the administration never really was going to engage in the restorative justice that Mr. Williams was looking for.”

One of Caitlin Spear's children attends ECS. She was hopeful that her other child would as well — but the way the home office handled Williams' request for restorative justice made her want to pull the first child out.

"But Mark made the point early on that there's a waiting list at ECS, and we have to shed light on this,” she continued. “So I'm spending all of this time trying to connect with these other parents because I do think parents should have their voices be part of this.”

As for Williams, he’s applying for other teaching positions.

“I want to be there,” he said of ECS. “But are they willing to do the work necessary to grow into their ideal?”

The school’s website asserts that it will “strongly commit” to using “the platform of environment and ecology to explore complexity, diverse perspectives, and various disciplinary ways to engage or explore a problem.” And Williams still believes in that mission — and in charter schools generally.

“Charter schools at their purest and most noble center were designed to figure out what is broken in education for the most vulnerable students and ... find a solution that works,” he said. “I know they can still be that. I know that because they still do listen to teacher voices. They just have this curious habit of not listening to teachers who disagree with them. That’s where it can get dangerous.”