What happened to Bache-Martin School?

Posted: May 16, 2014

FIFTH-GRADERS have been sent to kindergarten.

An eighth-grader was banished to first grade.

Draconian "behavior contracts" stipulate to whom certain children can speak and where they can eat breakfast.

These are among the incidents that have fueled concerns at Bache-Martin Elementary in Fairmount this year, and left parents asking: What has happened to our school?

"It's ridiculous compared to how it used to be. It used to be better," said Millie Martinez, who discovered last month that her fifth-grade son was actually spending time in first grade because he didn't have a teacher.

Bache-Martin, a pre-K-8 school of 413 students on Brown Street near 22nd, is a stable school in a city with a lot of failing ones, parents say. But they've become increasingly frustrated by what they're seeing and hearing at the school.

For example, the principal disappeared in December. The school was left in the hands of a principal who had been booted from a high school in September.

"Bache-Martin is a really good school. My kids have been going there for a long time," said Kimberly Johnson, a Francisville resident with two daughters in the school and a son who graduated from there last year.

Recently, though, there have been "strange things" happening and communication with parents has broken down, she said.

Johnson is one of several parents who say they were pressured to sign "behavior contracts" for their children after the students allegedly prank-called two teachers.

In addition to serving a suspension, the students were issued 13-point contracts that banned them from Bache-Martin next year. The contracts also prohibited students from going on field trips or participating in extracurricular activities, being on school property - "including sidewalks" - after 3:09 p.m., using any phones or electronic devices inside the school, going "anywhere near" certain classrooms or the gym, or eating breakfast in the lunchroom near the class of one of the teachers targeted in the alleged prank.

"Other arrangements will be made for breakfast," a stipulation in the contract reads.

"Not being really aware of what our rights are, we find out later that these contracts were totally invalid. They were taking away the rights of the parents and students," Johnson said. "This was kind of harsh for a prank call. You made an example, but then you took it way too far."

Sources told the Daily News that one of Kristin Luebbert's eighth-grade students was sent to first grade - for about two months - as a disciplinary measure unrelated to the prank calling. Luebbert, the school's representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, is also one of the teachers named in the behavior contracts. She declined to comment on the accusations.

Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, said her group does not usually get involved with individual student situations in schools, but decided to assist several parents at Bache-Martin after they reached out to the organization because the incidents were so egregious.

"We are concerned when we've got serious issues around school discipline or when school officials aren't responding to very legitimate parent concerns," Gym said. "We want the district to be laser-focused on our classrooms. Instead, they're distracted with charter expansions, universal enrollment or new metrics for school rankings. What's getting lost is our children and how they're being treated, taught and disciplined."

Last month, parents of fifth-grade students learned that the class had apparently been disbanded when a teacher went on disability. Instead of finding a substitute, the students were dispersed throughout the school, parents say.

Some of them even ended up in kindergarten.

"My son was in first grade for a while. He even went on a class trip with them. It's unheard of, but this is what's happening," said Martinez, the parent of a fifth-grader. "I don't want to be interrogating my son when he comes home, like, 'What class were you in?' but I feel like I have to do that. He told me he helped out the teacher with the kids. So he's a teacher's aide."

Martinez said she heard through her husband, a crossing guard, that a fifth-grade substitute teacher had arrived, but the school hasn't communicated that directly to parents.

"There are parents saying, 'We're out of here; this is ridiculous,' " Martinez said. "There are just people unhappy."

Principal Yvette Duperon did not return a message seeking comment. She's been principal at Bache-Martin since 2008. Her current salary is $147,006.

Duperon left the job in December to work on her dissertation. Parents say they were not informed and didn't know who was in charge. School district spokeswoman Raven Hill said the monthlong leave was approved.

While Duperon was gone, Ogo Okoye-Johnson filled in as principal at Bache-Martin. Okoye-Johnson had been hired Sept. 1 to be the principal at Bartram High in Southwest Philadelphia, but she was removed from the school nine days after classes started and sent to Bache-Martin to assist Duperon. The district will not say why Okoye-Johnson was removed from Bartram. She makes $130,914 a year.

"I've never gone through any trouble in the school in 10 years - until now," said Rozanne Harrison, who said an assistant principal told her last month to sign the 13-point behavior contract for her seventh-grade daughter.

A couple of weeks later, Harrison said, an assistant superintendent from the district called to tell her that the contract was null and void.

"They went overboard," Harrison said of Bache-Martin officials. "They went too far."

Hill said the district would not comment on the behavior contracts or any personnel matters or student disciplinary issues.

"The district is aware that a group of parents at Bache-Martin Elementary School have voiced concerns over various issues," Hill said. "District officials have met with the parents in an effort to understand the issues and will work with all stakeholders at the school to reach resolutions."

David Lapp, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center, an advocacy group for Pennsylvania schoolchildren, said the language in the Bache-Martin contracts is problematic on several levels.

"Schools cannot use behavior contracts to erode the due-process protections and legal rights that students have under state and federal law. And principals cannot use these to replace the codes of conduct that have been adopted by their school district's governing body," Lapp said. "Only a school board can legally expel a student. The principal of a traditional public school or a charter school should not be using behavior contracts or any other means to push out the students that they would prefer not to educate."

Parents hope that this tumultuous year is just a blip, and that Bache-Martin can bounce back to the school it once was. The school outperforms the district average on the PSSA test in most subjects and grades, despite the fact that 85 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. But it ranked among the lowest 25 percent of K-8 schools in the district, according to a recently created School Progress Report, which measures performance on standardized tests, growth on standardized tests and school safety.

Martinez and other parents say the school seems to be suffering from weak leadership, and something needs to change.

"It's poor management," she said. "I think there is a definite improvement opportunity here."


On Twitter: @wbender99

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