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REACH to have new director next year
4/4/2008 By: Melanie Mazur
The board of Skills for Living and Learning has announced that Susan Livingston will remain as the executive director of the non-profit agency, but a new director will be hired for the REACH school
GirlScouts deliver 500 cookies to Upper Pine
River Fire Department.
program next year.
The moves come after a tumultuous month for the program. Two employees were fired earlier this month, and two were fired on Monday after talking with the Times for an article in last week’s edition.
The most recently fired employees, Deanna Farmer and Hallie Hallberg, were offered their jobs back on Tuesday, the board announced.
A special board meeting on Monday attracted dozens of parents and students who jammed into the Skills for Living and Learning office. Three hours later, the public left, and the board met until 12:30 a.m.
The predominant message parents gave at the meeting was that the REACH is important to their children, and they want to see the program continue and succeed.
Most of the parents said adequate safety plans, written procedures and more communication is needed at the school. Some supported Livingston as director, while others said she should no longer head the REACH program.
REACH stands for Resource, Enrichment and Academic Choices. It is a private K-12 school run by Skills for Living and Learning, a non-profit agency, but it receives some public school district funding.
REACH has been in the spotlight lately after a copy of a PowerPoint presentation made by two students in the high school surfaced that had racist, homophobic and violent images. A letter to parents and the community from the Skills for Living and Learning board is on Page 3.
During the Monday board meeting, and in separate interviews with the Times, a chronology of events began to appear.
The teacher who assigned the students to make the presentation, Irene Barry, in early March asked other teachers and Hallberg, the school’s student case manager, if it was appropriate for a classroom. Both Hallberg and Mandy Houpt, the school’s math and science teacher, said they told Barry, then Livingston, that it was not appropriate for other students to see.
Hallberg said she asked a counselor from who had been called into the school to talk with the students about the recent death of Bryan Howlett, a REACH student, to talk with the two boys.
Hallberg also discussed the PowerPoint with the boys and said she frequently talked with them about their feelings.
“I was worried about them,” because of the images in the PowerPoint, she explained. She said she asked Livingston three times to remove the presentation from an unsecured school computer that was in the classroom.
At Monday’s meeting, Livingston said she also discussed the presentation with the boys. She did not say why she left the presentation on a school computer that other students could access.
The mother of one of the boys who had the presentation said she wasn’t notified about it until about 10 days after it came up at school.
Tom Garcia, a parent of three students at REACH, asked why parents weren’t notified about the incident until Livingston sent an e-mail to them on March 30.
He also was angered that two employees had been fired that day.
“Where is the team building?” he asked. “We have wholesale firings of the staff. What the heck’s going on here?”
Garcia said he had viewed the PowerPoint presentation and thought it was disturbing. He was more concerned about the failure of the teacher and Livingston “to deal with it quickly and decisively.” The student presentation “revealed a deeper dysfunction” that needs to be addressed at the school, he said.
Garcia and all of the other parents said the teachers and staff at REACH do a wonderful job of teaching their children, but at Monday’s meeting, two teachers said they were resigning the next school year if Livingston was the school’s director.
REACH’s mission was not being supported by its administration, and the safety and integrity of the program had been compromised, said Houpt, the math teacher.
Another REACH teacher, Laura Driver, said she hoped she wouldn’t be fired for speaking at the meeting.
“It just saddens me,” she said. “The program could be so much more. Hopefully I’m here tomorrow for the students.”
The teachers said the school doesn’t have handbooks, hiring and firing procedures, and other policies it needs to have in place.
Jen Rumore, a REACH parent, said she and other parents were surprised to learn that basic safety procedures, such as fire drills, weren’t used.
She also suggested that Skills for Living and Learning release its financial statements quarterly to parents as part of the school newsletter.
Livingston is an excellent occupational therapist, she added. Running both Skills for Living and Learning and REACH “is too much for one person to possibly handle,” she said.
Justin Howlett, a student at the REACH high school, said he and other students have felt the tension at the school.
“You can cut it with a butter knife and put it on bread,” he said.
He said older students student love the school, particularly when they interact every day with young students, and he hopes the staff and administration could return their focus to teaching.
In their letter to parents, the Skills board said they would handle the parents’ concerns, and that fire and safety drills would start this week.
When asked via e-mail if the board would look at reinstating two other employees Livingston fired in March, Hesford said the board has made no recommendations on any other terminated employees.
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