COLUMNS

DeWayne's World - Shipp off course

DeWayne Bartels

Opinions vary.

District 150 interim superintendent Norm Durflinger recently told me Glen Oak School in the East Bluff, whose principal is North Peorian Velda Shipp, has gone from a “zoo” to a “pocket of excellence.”

I wrote that.

One respondent to the article referred to the school as “hell on the hill.”

Who would have thought you could find a pocket of excellence in hell? 

“My goal is to make this a better community, not just a better school,” Shipp told me when I recently interviewed her. “We need a sense of community here. That’s my goal. It’s a process.”

Teachers, who unleashed fury on me following the story about Shipp, said there is a sense of community at the school — one akin to Moscow under Stalin.

Shipp told me she came into the school like a drill sergeant. Being liked, Shipp said, was not on her agenda as she took the school’s reins. She has apparently had great success in that area. 

One teacher, who wished not to be named, told me she recently won an out-of-court settlement against Shipp based on a grievance.

The grievance, dated March 18, 2009, said Shipp violated the contract provision covering evaluation of teachers “resulting from a hostile working environment, documented mental anguish, pain, suffering and violation of her First Amendment rights, as a result of Mrs. Shipp’s leadership and treatment.”

And, that was only the tip of the iceberg concerning comments about Shipp.

“I did not leave Glen Oak because I didn’t want to work hard. I stayed for one year and found (Shipp) to be a bully who rarely, if ever, left her office ... She yells at teachers/staff and humiliates them in front of their students, offers no help to new teachers (she just fires them),” one teacher wrote.

“I am considering a lawsuit against her for hostile work environment ... She is a menace to this district and everyone on Wisconsin Avenue is well aware of her antics. She does not lead by example, she is a bully who enjoys removing one’s self-esteem publicly.”

Another wrote, “A former teacher at Glen Oak who will remain anonymous had to take a sick leave because of a nervous breakdown she had after the principal was very violent to her in front of her whole class. This was not the first time that Velda was violent to this teacher. Velda continued to bring suffering upon this teacher, and it was discrimination. No one deserves to go through what this teacher went through, and I mean no one.”

Another teacher wrote, “Glen Oak is all about appearances — looks pretty on the outside but is very, very ugly and disturbed on the inside!”

These same teachers are very, very angry with me.

But, one teacher was concerned about me. 

“I am praying for you that do not have a heart attack when you find out the truth about Ms. Shipp. That is if you go looking for it. Oh, isn’t that your job as a reporter, to report the truth?”

Another said, “Forget journalist of the year, you could probably win a Pulitzer for reporting about a topic that no man before you dared to go, and I know about 100 teachers that would nominate you for that award!”

Well, I don’t know about a Pulitzer resulting from this column because I do not intend to attack Shipp. The teachers have done a pretty good job of that.

However, I am left with a question. If Shipp is as bad as she is made out to be, is she the beginning and end of problems at District 150, or just a symptom? I took that question to Hedy Elliot-Gardner, vice president and head of grievances for the Peoria Federation of Teachers. She was the only person I could find willing to speak on the record about any issues within District 150 with her name attached.

But, even Elliott-Gardner would not speak specifically about Shipp. She would say only that Shipp is a symptom of a larger issue in District 150.

That issue, she said, is ineffective principals and the school district’s failure to deal with them.

“(Leadership) is something I’m really big on. I’m for a strong leader in a school, one providing morale,” she said.

Elliott-Gardner said a strong principal is one who motivates low-performing teachers to do better through encouragement, not intimidation and humiliation.

“In my view, if we had better leaders in our schools, we’d have a better school district,” she said.

Elliott-Gardner would not name those principals she feels are failing by name for the record.

“Everybody in a leadership role isn’t a leader. Without a strong leader in a school, even with 100 percent excellent teachers, you won’t have a strong school,” Elliott-Gardner said.

She said District 150’s administration is well aware of problem principals.

“The problem is acknowledged to a point, but there’s no action being taken,” she said. “This has been a problem for the past two decades. I don’t understand it. It’s easy to get rid of a principal. They don’t have tenure. They don’t have a union. They just don’t do it.”

This lack of action, Elliott-Gardner said, has built up a huge reservoir of resentment among teachers.

“Morale at some schools,” she said, “is at rock-bottom.”  

Elliott-Gardner makes sense when she says better principals will create a better school district.

But, we, the public, are largely in the dark about who falls in the category of good and bad principals.

So, I’m issuing a challenge to the teachers of District 150. If what Elliott-Gardner says is true, we need to know what category principals fall into. I’ll listen even if the administration does not.

Contact me by phone at 686-3130, or by e-mail at dbartels@timestoday.com and tell me about the principal at your school and what category they fall into and why.

I’ll apply the pressure apparently so sorely lacking, but teachers have to provide the ammunition.

Is anyone up to that assignment?