A long conversation about bias, responsibility and moving forward as a community preceded the East Lansing Board of Education’s unanimous decision today to approve Ashley Schwarzbek as the next principal of East Lansing High School (ELHS). Schwarzbek had been serving as acting principal since February.
The special meeting took place at the unusual time of 2:30 p.m. on Friday, May 19, and brought more attendees than could fit in the room – including many teachers and school staff members present to support Schwarzbek’s appointment.
Not everyone was in favor of the hiring committee’s desired candidate. Some parents came to raise concerns about how ELHS administration has operated since Schwarzbek arrived in January of 2020 and shared negative experiences they say they have had with her.
Staff support was clear
One overwhelming feature of the meeting was the resounding support from school staff for Schwarzbek.
Social Studies Teacher Mark Pontoni said when the East Lansing Education Association (the teachers’ union) surveyed its members, more than 80 percent expressed “strong support” or “very strong support” for Schwarzbek.
“Getting 80 percent of any group to agree on anything these days in this country probably qualifies as a legit miracle,” Pontoni said.
Computer Science and Engineering Teacher Kevin Mayes, who was on the hiring committee, said that Schwarzbek was by far the best candidate. He also praised the turnaround the district experienced under Schwarzbek’s leadership. Earlier in the year, ELHS was seeing extraordinary levels of violence and endured a scandal when, according to Superintendent Dori Leyko, it was discovered former principal Shannon Mayfield had presented fraudulent evidence of a degree.
“This marking period was easily one the best that I’ve had as an educator and I’m starting to get a long career,” Mayes said. “In the middle of the year ,when this building was on fire, I was going ‘Man, I love East Lansing and these kids, but is this what I want to be doing?’”
“[Schwarzbek] did an amazing job,” he continued.
Several other teachers spoke up to praise Schwarzbek’s leadership through a myriad of challenges during her stint with the district.
“Our teachers are ready to break,” Social Studies Teacher Ross Gorman said. “We’ve been through a pandemic…. We’ve been through a gun inside, we’ve been through a gun outside, we’ve had a questionable principal to say the least and Ashley was the one there that kept us showing up, that kept us doing what we needed to be doing.”
Ultimately, the Board of Education voted unanimously to approve Schwarzbek, largely due to the outpouring of support displayed by staff.
“I never worked for a principal that this room would have filled up for,” Trustee Amanda Cormier said.
Parents raised concerns about bias, disciplinary measures
The approval shared by school staff members was not felt by some parents in attendance. Parents spoke out about negative experiences they had with Schwarzbek and concerns about approaches administration has taken to discipline in recent years.
Speaking on behalf of the East Lansing Parent Advocacy Team (ELPAT), Shari Brooks requested that the offer to Schwarzbek be rescinded and the job be reposted.
“Through community conversations, parental engagement and student feedback, we learned that behaviors, specifically those of Ashley Schwarzbek…were condescending, demeaning, inequitable, lacked integrity, unhelpful and unnecessarily harsh,” Brooks said.
Brooks and other speakers opposed “exclusionary discipline” measures employed by the school like suspension and moving students to Graduation Alliance, an online program. Brooks said these measures are disproportionately applied to students of color.
“The academic gap is widening amongst students identifying as BIPOC versus those identifying as white,” Brooks said.
Another parent who said they are a member of ELPAT said if Schwarzbek is to lead the school, they’d like to see growth from her in nonviolent communication and work around implicit biases and trauma.
ELHS staff and school board see conversation as opportunity to grow
Despite differing views and, at times, harsh words there was clear respect between ELPAT and the teachers and Board members that supported Schwarzbek’s promotion.
“I believe we need voices in our community and groups like ELPAT,” said Interim Associate Principal Jeffrey Lampi during a speech in support of Schwazbek receiving the job. “The quote is ‘Iron sharpens iron.’”
Brandy Branson, a parent who spoke against Schwarzbek’s appointment, took time to thank Lampi for helping her child when she returned to make additional comments. She and Gorman also exchanged a handshake after his comments in support of Schwarzbek.
Former ELHS Principal Andrew Wells, who spent 34 years working in the district, urged stakeholders to communicate respectfully and pointed out Schwarzbek has never been a sole decision maker that created the issues that exist. He also highlighted the fact that Schwarzbek was tasked with tackling unprecedented challenges.
“Quite frankly, this pandemic put us in a very interesting situation,” Wells said. “We had students come back to the school house who were still stuck in seventh grade. They were out for two years.”
Wells said he and Schwarzbek did not always agree on things, but they were able to work together well.
ELHS Associate Principal Quiana Davis said the issues surrounding diversity raised by parents are real. As a Black administrator serving on a staff that is disproportionately white compared to the student body, Davis sees many of the challenges students of color face.
“Anyone who feels like they are opposed or marginalized tends to gravitate towards my office and that’s heavy,” she said.
Davis said she feels she can push back against positions Schwarzbek takes and that she listens to differing views. Those are a couple of the reasons she feels Schwarzbek is capable of leading the district to make needed improvements.
Board Treasurer Kath Edsall said the meeting was positive in her eyes because of the conversation that took place. She said the issues parents raised are very real but they cannot all be attributed to Schwarzbek.
“We have families whose children were suspended, expelled, sent to Graduation Alliance as if they are not our kids,” Edsall said. “We have staff who feel the status quo of suspension [or] expulsion is the best solution to students who don’t respond to their traditional way of doing things. In the middle is a principal who is being blamed for more than she could have possibly done or being given credit for more than she could have possibly done.”
Multiple board members said that comments from parents will be used during Monday’s board meeting, when goals for the district will be set.
UPDATE, 9 p.m.: Monday’s board meeting has been cancelled.
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