By Maureen Robertson
Hearing parents, teachers, and others talk about Mount Woodson Elementary School Principal Theresa Grace at the March 13 school board meeting, one could almost imagine her as Wonder Woman.
“Strong leader,” “awesome,” “phenomenal,” “fabulous,” and “energetic” are among words they used to describe Grace who was scheduled to be transferred to Hanson Elementary on Aug. 1.
That won’t happen. At last Tuesday’s meeting, about half of the meeting room was filled with Mt. Woodson Elementary teachers, parents, other staff members, and some children, many wearing “Commitment to No Excuses—Mt. Woodson Elementary” T-shirts. That’s the school’s motto this year. It’s part of the universal achievement theme at the school, teachers said.
Other supporters of keeping Grace at the school spilled into the hallway, and 23 — mostly teachers — stayed until just before midnight when the school board came out of a closed meeting to announce that Grace will stay at Mt. Woodson.
The proposed transfer came after Hanson Elementary’s principal, Shelagh Appleman, recently announced her resignation, effective June 30. According to district administrators, Appleman plans to return to the classroom in another district.
Because of student test scores at Hanson Elementary, the school is in the third year of Program Improvement, a federal No Child Left Behind plan to help improve scores.
Faced with replacing Appleman, the district chose Grace, a veteran principal at a school with similar demographics to Hanson, and trustees were scheduled to vote on the transfer at their March 13 meeting.
“If you look at her test results, we have the data there to show that she can certainly increase student learning,” Cathy Pierce, assistant superintendent of Education Services, said earlier in the month.
“Isn’t there an alternative option to help Hanson, a school in need, without sacrificing the progress and momentum at Mt. Woodson?” asked teacher Leslie Wilson.
Teacher Adrienne Moreland suggested the district consider other options for increasing student achievement at Hanson.
“Mt. Woodson could become a sister school, mentoring and sharing and collaborating programs we have found successful at our site,” said Moreland.
Educator Damen Lopez of TurnAround Schools inspired Mt. Woodson teachers at their staff development day last year, said teacher Roberta Nau, and they decided to follow the program.
“We are halfway through this journey, but we cannot do it without Theresa Grace,” said Nau, explaining that research shows that “no school can become truly great unless a maverick leader is at the helm.”
Grace has studied and is committed to the turnaround school model, which embraces a culture of universal achievement, said Nau.
“We are in the midst of creating a truly exceptional school, and the loss of Theresa Grace will bring that to an end,” she added.
Later in the meeting, before voting on a packet of personnel recommendations, the trustees pulled Grace’s name from the list.
“I find myself in a quandary with this item, because it’s very easy to see why we have a public that doesn’t want to lose Theresa,” said Dan Lopez, board president.
Superintendent Robert Graeff cautioned the trustees about discussing personnel issues in open session, explaining that employees have rights.
“I’m not sure this is an open session conversation,” he said. “...I think, if the board wants to debate this topic, it’s probably more appropriate, under the law, as a closed session item.”
At the conclusion of other business on their agenda, trustees went into closed session at 10:25 p.m. and returned at 11:53 with their announcement that Grace will stay at Mt. Woodson.
Reaction at first was quiet as Mt. Woodson employees and parents absorbed what Lopez had said. Then came applause, some tears, and thanks.
Comments such as “thank you for listening” and “now that was an effective meeting” were heard as they individually thanked the trustees and Graeff.
During the nearly 90-minute closed session, those who remained drank water that Ramona Teachers Association President Donna Braye-Romero got from her car, they ate snacks from the vending machine, and they talked about why they attended the meeting, without Grace’s knowledge.
“She even picks up the trash in the cafeteria,” said Debbie Morton, Mt. Woodson’s lead kitchen manager, munching on Goldfish crackers.
“She’s a phenomenal leader, she’s one of the best,” Trustee Rodger Dohm said of Grace as everyone left, adding, “We want to make sure that both schools are sitting good for the kids.”
“In an effort to support the requests of the local school community, the board agreed that Mrs. Grace’s continued presence on that campus would be in the best interest of the district,” Graeff wrote in an email to district employees early the next morning.
The board authorized Graeff to advertise in and out of the district for Appleman’s replacement. Applications for the job, with an annual salary range of $99,335 to $118,080, will be accepted until 3 p.m. on Friday, April 20, according to the district website.