My turn: Quality teachers were forced out

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2007

We thank the Juneau Empire for its May 11 article on the Angoon student walkout, an unprecedented and deeply moving event for this community.

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We did, however, notice errors in the article. The high school in Angoon is not named Eli Klatwook Memorial, but Eli Katanook Memorial, after the well-known Tlingit leader and educator from Angoon. Also, the Chatham School District Superintendent's last name is not Cortez-Rusker, but Cortez-Rucker. If the minimal research in your article was limited to these two easily corrected errors, our letter would end here.

Unfortunately, in covering the reasons behind the student walkout and subsequent five hours of community testimony in support of teacher Melissa Cullum, the reporter relied heavily on a phone interview with Cortez-Rucker. The article implies, by omission of pertinent facts, that Melissa Cullum is not a quality teacher who measures up to the new No Child Left Behind standards being implemented in the villages. This potential damage to a teacher's reputation is not as easily retracted as inaccurate names. Examination of improved student test scores over the last three years will demonstrate Cullum's competence as an English teacher and as "someone who can adapt to the new federal system." Cullum is indeed a highly qualified teacher who gained her teaching experience in Texas, home of the now nationally adopted No Child Left Behind standards.

In addition, 80 Angoon residents - elders, parents, Angoon School Board members, students and school staff - testified to Cullum's high standards for academics and discipline and her commitment to students and the community. A petition calling for the retention of Cullum - signed by 227 people in this small village - was also submitted to the superintendent and board.

At this same board meeting, community members in Tenakee Springs spoke in strong support of resigned secondary math and science teacher Megs Testarmata, who took Tenakee students to first place in the rural division of the Math Counts Competition, and to second place in state at this year's Ocean Science Bowl. On April 30, Cortez-Rucker placed Testarmata on administrative leave without explanation. For the remainder of the school year, Tenakee students, five of them graduating seniors, were left without a secondary math and science teacher, or any replacement, despite numerous requests.

Testarmata and Cullum have nothing to hide about events and policies leading to their resignation or nonretention. Both are committed to high standards of professional practice and have challenged and inspired our students to new levels of achievement. Both have brought to the attention of the administration matters they consider to be of ethical and legal concern. Both are members of the Chatham National Education Association. (Cullum is the union's secretary-treasurer and is on the negotiating team.) In addition, Cortez-Rucker has stated in writing that a primary factor in Cullum's nonretention is that she is due to receive tenure next year.

Lack of quality is not the reason these teachers - and others - have been forced out of our district under the two-year administration of first-time superintendent Cortez-Rucker. The teachers we mention are courageous, accomplished women who hold themselves, their students and their administrators to high standards of performance and integrity.

Cortez-Rucker's only response to Angoon, and to hours of tearful testimonies by students and strong speeches by concerned adults, occurred the day after the May 8 board meeting: He posted Angoon's English teacher position with Alaska Teacher Placement and e-mailed the posting to the district teaching staff. The Chatham School District Board has scheduled a hearing for Cullum at its meeting on June 19, so we are concerned about this immediate posting of her job and the lack of sensitivity and respect it shows the Angoon community.

Teacher turnover has been cited repeatedly as the primary impediment to the success of rural Alaskan students. We are told we will lose two exceptional teachers who have earned the respect and trust of our communities and our children. We seek the opportunity to have a voice in how our schools are staffed. We will again be seeking representation of our views at the June 19 Regional School Board meeting in Angoon.

• Frances Jacobs is the advisory board chairwoman of the Tenakee School Board. Donald Frank is the advisory board chairman of the Angoon School Board.



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