Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008 | Years after Keiller Leadership Academy transformed into a charter school, the sea of change at the school was visible even from its front gates, where its director greeted students by name and waited for eye contact before letting them pass.

Executive Director Patricia Ladd, a self-described “white lady from Point Loma,” shepherded the struggling southeast San Diego school to higher test scores and a calmer, scholastic culture marked by uniforms and a public list of grade point averages.

But this year Ladd was absent at the front gates after a dispute over budget cuts led to her departure. No permanent replacement has been found, and the Keiller board recently reopened its search after rejecting an assistant director favored by many teachers to replace Ladd. Staffers are frustrated with the turmoil at the top, and many say they have grown increasingly alienated from the board and suspicious of its connections to the University of San Diego, a prized partner for the revamped school.

That turbulence has recently overshadowed the successes at Keiller, one of the few middle schools in California to pull itself out of penalties under No Child Left Behind, a school that credits its achievements to the autonomy and freedom it gained by going charter. Staffers plan to air their concerns at a Monday board meeting. Some worry that the unrest could undermine the school’s advances.

“Every time I’m whisked away to a meeting, I have to cancel my after-school program with my students,” said teacher Robert Heredia, lamenting the time devoted to the leadership search and to discussing teacher concerns. “The students pick up that something is going on. They’ve asked what is going on. And I don’t know what to tell them because I don’t know what is going on.”

Teachers say the trouble began with money, or the lack of it. Budget cuts this spring forced Ladd to freeze salaries and to cut one of its two assistant principals, Dominic Camacho, who fired off messages to the board and staff complaining about his removal, according to several staffers. Eighth graders protested the elimination of Camacho with a sit-in at the campus theater, some complaining that the only Latino administrator at the school had been laid off. Camacho could not be reached for comment.

Deborah Ryles, a former Keiller teacher who left the school along with Ladd, said Camacho accused Ladd of favoritism and referred to her as a “white lady” that couldn’t understand the largely Latino and black families whose children go to Keiller.

“It became a big brouhaha,” Ryles said, adding, “And the board started investigating Patty.”

The Keiller board of directors spent much of June locked in closed meetings about personnel issues, meeting an unprecedented four times in a single month. Board secretary Paula Cordeiro, dean of the University of San Diego School of Leadership and Education Sciences, said she is not allowed to discuss whether Ladd was being investigated or why.

Ladd referred questions to her attorney, who could not be reached this week for comment. Ryles and other employees said the board ultimately offered Ladd a shorter-than-usual contract that only extended through the summer instead of the whole school year, leaving her at risk of dismissal in the fall when principals’ jobs elsewhere had already been filled.

Instead, Ladd took an offer in July to return to San Diego Unified and lead Correia Middle School in Point Loma. The remaining assistant director, Joel Christman, took her place as interim executive director of Keiller. In August the board began searching for a new school director and eventually narrowed its selection to two candidates including Christman.

But the board was dissatisfied with its choices. It threw the search open again, demoted Christman back to assistant principal, and chose a retired San Diego Unified principal, Linda Rees, as the new interim director of the school. Within a month, hers will be the face that students will see as they walk through the Keiller gates, replacing Christman, who had replaced Ladd. And as an interim director, Rees will likely be replaced too.

“Our pool of candidates wasn’t as deep and as strong as we would have liked,” said Cordeiro, who praised Christman as a “darn good vice principal” who had been strained by serving as interim director with no assistant directors of his own. “Rather than hire someone who didn’t have the experience that we were looking for, we hired an interim for the year.”

“We were lucky to get her,” Cordeiro added.

Many teachers were baffled by the choice.

“Joel (Christman) has been like a rock in all this chaos,” Heredia said. “If someone new were chosen, I would be okay with it, if there were a process. But they’re pulling in a random person.”

Ladd was the sole leader to direct Keiller since it converted from an ordinary public school into an independently operated charter school in 2005, a step that ushered in higher achievement and a changed culture at Keiller.

Its test scores ranked in the top 10 percent among demographically similar schools in California in 2007, though its scores dropped notably last year, and the California Charter School Association recently showcased Keiller as a model charter transformation on its website. Charter schools such as Keiller are publicly funded but operated by their own boards, a structure meant to give them more autonomy and put school decisions in the hands of those who understand their local impact, including teachers and parents.

But uncertainty over who will lead the school and why the search was prolonged has bred distrust of the board among staffers, who do not feel they have influence over the school and its direction. Keiller board members include Cordeiro, an educational heavyweight who also serves on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the James Irvine Foundation board, two University of San Diego professors, the Chief Executive Officer of an educational technology company, a school police officer, an Urban League employment director, two parents, a teacher, and an outside consultant.

Though there are only three Keiller board members directly affiliated with the University of San Diego, some teachers now link their aggravation with the board to the partnership between Keiller and the Linda Vista university, which is supposed to provide student teachers, counseling interns and student tutors to Keiller under an agreement first struck in 2004.

Both groups tout the partnership: Keiller mentions the university on brochures to attract parents and University of San Diego promotes the agreement as a link to the community. Christman said the university has been instrumental in providing teacher training, bringing the resources of a respected educational school to Keiller to help staffers hone their skills, and Heredia praised the University of San Diego student who helped in his class last year.

Research, however, has become a bone of contention. A growing chorus of teachers has expressed concerns about the purpose and use of university research in Keiller classes, which Christman said began last year under Ladd. One study surveys middle schoolers over a three-year period to track how Keiller has impacted their progress in school, a study Cordeiro said was requested by the school. Though Cordeiro said new studies are reviewed and approved by a board committee that includes teachers, complaints have percolated through the school about the studies.

“The staff, to a certain extent, feels like they are guinea pigs,” Christman said. “They are unclear as to how the research will help them, specifically, with their instruction in the classroom on a day-to-day basis.”

Ryles, no longer at Keiller, was more pointed in her criticism. “Their agenda is to use the school as a study site,” she said, adding, “It puts extra demands on teachers who are part of the study. They are constantly being observed. … They had no choice in the matter.”

Cordeiro was surprised to hear that research had raised concerns. The researchers “are fabulous and welcomed by the school,” she said. “They are not going to go into any classrooms and work with teachers if they don’t want to work with them.”

The rift between school staffers and the Keiller board echoes the rancor this spring at Memorial Academy of Learning and Technology, where the board and staffers split over whether to end the charter. Much like at Keiller, Memorial staffers complained that the board was dominated by representatives of an outside group that did not share their interests. While teachers and a significant faction of parents were eager to relinquish their charter, the board was reluctant to do so, and decided to dissolve only after the disagreement exploded into public view.

Unlike Memorial, however, the Keiller dispute has thus far remained within the schoolhouse gates, and the existence of the charter is not at stake. Few parents are aware of the controversy, teachers said. Nor has it consumed the entire school. Special education teacher Rush Glick said he just wants to focus on his teaching and leave the politics aside.

“I believe that the board in their wisdom will do the right thing,” he said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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