More teachers signing out: new places for familiar faces

Year ends same way it began - with high turnover


Photo Illustration by Miguel Laureano Damian

More than 15 teachers and staff won’t be returning next year.

The teacher turnover torments Cleveland once again. Right when the Eagle’s Nest seemed to be preened and settled down, a strong gust came along to shake out a few eggs. As the Class of 2015 prepares to walk out for the final time, so do more than 15 faculty members.

A combination of budget cuts, changes to the endorsement policies for Language Arts teachers, and personal reasons resulted in this third exodus of teachers. In 2012, 14 new staff members were brought in. By the 2014-15 school year, almost half of those were gone, and 13 more staff members were hired. Only a handful of all those new hires remain.

Due to a restructuring of the Language Arts department, the program will shift from separate LA and Social Studies classes to one Humanities class. Teachers were given the option to get a Humanities endorsement or risk being displaced. Susannah Woehr, Laura Blackburn and Janice Morton will not be returning next year.

Morton has watched many teachers and students come and go in her 13 years at Cleveland. She finds it hard to believe that Cleveland is removing LA from the course catalog when it is a graduation requirement and a prerequisite to admission to college. Despite her misgivings, she has enjoyed her time here at Cleveland.

“I benefited by working here because the diversity and the talents that students here have brought to my classroom have expanded my understanding of the world,” Morton said. “I hope everyone will continue to be students of writing and reading for the rest of their lives.”

Budget woes

Because of the budget cuts, four other staff members won’t be returning. Linda Sinni, Greg Kowalke, Kathy Mayeda and Tracy Robnett all saw their positions reduced in hours or cut completely. 

Physical education teacher Linse Vlahovich made the difficult decision to take a teaching position at McClure Middle School on Queen Anne after finding out her class load may change.

“They are shifting around my position,” she said. “I would be teaching things that I wouldn’t enjoy teaching.”

Administrators opted to remove electives that were not graduation requirements to make room in the budget to hire another computer science teacher. Robnett and Kowalke had their classes pulled from next year’s schedule. Kowalke teaches a core class (Biology), but since the layoffs are based on seniority and he hasn’t worked for the district that long, his position was cut.

There is still a possibility that Sinni, Mayeda and Kowalke could still have positions in the fall, but because SPS doesn’t finalize the school’s budget until late summer, teachers generally have found other employment at other schools.

Sinni has accepted a job at Interagency next year. After four years of dedication to Cleveland, she is pleased to be taking a positive step into the right direction. Although she will miss the small, supportive, family-like community she has been able to experience during her four years of teaching, Sinni said that going to Interagency really feeds her passion, considering the change in Cleveland’s demographics.

Kowalke was disappointed that his time at Cleveland was curtailed by the budget cuts. Although he continues to hope the situation will change and he could stay, he believes that the students should be proud of Cleveland.

“This is a fantastic school,” said Kowalke. “Great administration, fantastic and dedicated teachers, and a student body that is not only dedicated to their education but dedicated to each other, it’s really kind of cool.”

Making changes

Not all of the reasons that teachers are leaving are negative. Many of the departing staff members are facing life changes that require a difficult move. Others simply want to work closer to home, while two staffers headed into retirement.

Teachers Kelly McFadzean, Susan Evans, Jim Grunewald, Genny Van Laar and counselors Noelle Zentz and Serena Swanson are all leaving Cleveland for personal reasons. SoED Assistant Principal Dr. Eddie Reed and Head Custodian Chau Tran settled on retirement. (Tran’s last day was March 31).

McFadzean has been a Language Arts teacher at Cleveland for five years. She started her time at CHS as a student teacher for Reed.

“I’ll miss them a lot,” she said. “Cleveland students are so cool and fun to work with.” McFadzean is moving to Vancouver, Wash., and will be teaching at Mountain View High School.

Van Laar, who teaches math and Principals of Engineering, is sad to leave. But stress from the long commute, block scheduling and large number of students was overwhelming for her. The math department also met separately each week, which is grueling for someone with young children.

“I feel like I didn’t serve students as much attention as I should’ve,” she said. This year’s schedule only allotted her every other day with her students. 

Evans, who teaches computer science, has decided to move on from teaching high school and will be starting a Masters program in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She wants Cleveland students to maintain a level of excellence in computer science.

“Help support the new CS teachers by continuing to be passionate and dedicated students,” Evans said in an email to The Journal.

Counselors Zentz and Swanson are making moves for their families. Zentz is moving to Portland while Swanson is transferring to Nathan Hale High School on the north end, which is closer to her home.

There is no word on whether Dr. Scott Wilhelm will return. The Human Body Systems teacher was placed on administrative leave in April after a complaint was filed against him. Music teacher Michelle Maury has also said she may be moving with her family to New Mexico, but has not made a final decision.

What’s next?

At this point, we know why they’re leaving. The question now is: How will their departures affect students?

Next year, all levels of Language Arts classes are going to be combined with History, making them block classes. This block scheduling is why LA teachers need both English and History endorsements.

Two AP Science courses will be changed as well. Instead of AP Biology and AP Environmental Science being offered every year, the classes will alternate. Unfortunately for fans of the show “CSI,” Forensics was a victim of the budget cuts. The vastly unpopular senior level SoLS elective, Biomedical Innovations, was also dropped due to the majority of students opting for AP classes. The instructor, Michael Shaw, will continue teaching the freshman SoLS course Principles of Biomedical Science. He’ll also take on Kowalke’s biology classes.

Familiar faces

Despite the havoc wreaked by the loss of funding and other issues, there will be familiar faces walking down the halls. Bryan Gordon, video productions teacher and the advisor for the Class of 2017, will take over as Activities Coordinator.

Gordon maintained his status as a full-time employee by teaching Video and Computer Science. After he dropped the Computer Science position, administrators had to find a way to keep him on staff.

“A way to make the Video Production full time … was to attach it to the Activities Coordinator position,” he said. For Gordon, it’s fortunate that he enjoys planning out activities, but his taking over the job is bittersweet.

No change

With all the change rocking the school, students and staff will need to band together to navigate the changes. Despite the trend of money troubles afflicting arts and music programs around the country, neither of the classes were dropped after the budget cuts. All of the media classes are slated to return next year as well.

Dr. Granville “Grant” Storey, a lecturer and researcher for UW, is also one of the teachers not affected by the budget cuts.

“I’m the only one who can teach Medical Interventions,” said Storey. He has been teaching the junior-level biomedical lab science for several years. He also teaches Biology 100, which will be offered to any interested seniors.

The math and computer science department also walked away from the budget cuts unscathed.

Struggles with teacher retention are more than just a headache for administration. Without the stability afforded by a long-term staff at a school, the atmosphere and learning environment are just not comfortable enough for students. With yet another staff overhaul next year, Cleveland High School may never be the same.

Journal reporters Dakaria Heru, Erianne Viray, Cornelius Cambronero and Abbygail Eleccion also contributed to the reporting of this story.