Students at Sacramento High School walk out, demand changes
Sacramento Charter High School’s top administrator has resigned just days after students left classes in protest, and she blasted St. Hope administrators for what she said was the school’s “sustained history of neglect from above” and their “reactionary finger-pointing” in their handling of the student walkout.
Christina Smith, in a strongly worded one-page letter dated Monday and obtained Wednesday by The Sacramento Bee, threw her support behind the students. She said the demonstrations — and the subsequent blame laid at Smith’s feet by leaders of St. Hope Public Schools, which runs the charter high school — were among the tipping points that led to her resignation as the school’s site lead.
Smith, the site lead for grades 10-12, was in the position for two months, said St. Hope officials.
“I’m resigning because I am frustrated that our upper leadership does not appreciate education as a collaborative enterprise. ... that our schools were reorganized with little planning and without staff and community consultation and that there is no accountability mechanism for addressing student, teacher and site lead concerns — and that St. Hope’s executives and board remain unresponsive to that fact.”
St. Hope Chief of Schools Kari Wehrly, who is in charge of overseeing academic alignment at St. Hope schools including Sac High, will assume Smith’s role on an interim basis, St. Hope officials announced in a statement Wednesday.
“It is unfortunate to lose Ms. Smith only three weeks into the school year and we recognize the concern this creates for scholars, staff and families,” the statement read in part. “We are currently developing a plan for additional staff realignment within St. Hope Public Schools to ensure Sac High is properly staffed for both teaching and administration.”
Some 100 students staged four days of walkouts, frustrated that student-led changes to the campus handbook approved at the end of the 2017-18 school year were set aside by St. Hope officials and that students were ordered by the officials to wear costly school-mandated uniforms.
“We feel like we’re being stripped of our voices,” said senior Keishay Swygert during Friday’s demonstration, part of four days of protest against St. Hope administrators. “We want our school back.”
Other students on Wednesday bemoaned a high teacher turnover rate, a lack of textbooks, arbitrary rule-making by school leaders and an environment that does not properly prepare its students for college.
Sac High, is “portrayed as a college-prep school, but there’s no system to help (students) get to college and no focus on keeping the students that are here,” said senior Andwele Fletcher. “As a freshman, I thought the seniors then were a lot more prepared to go to college than we are now.”
Student demonstrators, who have dubbed themselves “next-level advocates,” met with board representatives, including St. Hope’s chief director of schools and its CEO, Jake Mossawir, on Monday afternoon, said Berry Accius, leader of Sacramento community advocacy Voices of Youth, who joined the students.
Saying “change is never easy or comfortable,” St. Hope officials on Wednesday characterized the changes that ignited students’ ire as “adjustments to our staffing and classroom structures, while also working hard to bring new services, resources, and extracurricular opportunities to our campuses.”
In her letter, Smith lambasted administrators’ response to the protests, saying leaders “immediately interpreted their own students as a threat” and suggested the walkouts resulted from her leadership of the school.
“As if Sac High had no sustained history of neglect from above and as if protesting voices could be turned off like a faucet,” Smith wrote. Smith also called out failures in St. Hope’s leadership that she said has led to an exodus of talented teachers and staff, alienated community members and sowed resentments among its student body.
“Until St. Hope engages in an honest reckoning with its executive leadership failures, initiates an external evaluation and adopts best practice models for charter schools, the system will only frustrate our mission, intensify resentments and keep driving away the most dedicated teachers and staff,” she wrote.
The charter school operated by St. Hope had been in flux for months. School community members have criticized the school’s recent realignment, the loss of teachers and staff and perceived hard lines on policies governing students’ uniforms, cellphone use and how students enter and leave campus.
“Everything’s locked, the school’s just shut down” once instruction ends, one 10th-grade student said at an Aug. 11 meeting of parents, students and advocates, describing how the school’s 750-plus students were forced out one door at the end of the first day of school. The student likened the scene to herding cattle, but said she did not want her name disclosed fearing retribution from school officials. “They won’t even let kids go to the bathroom,” the student said.
The frustrations laid out in Smith’s Monday missive to St. Hope came to a head with the student protests, but had been simmering long before.
Parents, students and advocates at that Aug. 11 meeting sounded alarm bells about the first week of instruction at the Oak Park campus.
They ticked off grievances from class sizes (too large) to communication between Sac High and parents (nonexistent) to insufficient honors classes for high-achievers.
“After we had demanded that we wanted an honor course, they threw a title on an English 10 class and said, ‘Oh, here’s your honors course,’ ” the 10th-grade student said.
She added that the school did not adequately check student test scores.
“That’s why we have 40 kids in the honors class. They’re not supposed to be in there.”
Wehrly at the time disputed the accounts and defended the campus’ entrance-and-exit policy as a safety measure implemented after concerns raised by parents.
Reaction Wednesday to the news of Smith’s resignation was swift from parents allied with Smith and who see a school losing its way.
“She’s an excellent person, an excellent teacher and was becoming an excellent principal. She was always on the side of students,” said Ursula Yisrael, a member of the Black Parallel School Board, a community organization that advocates for low-income and minority students in the district. Yisrael is also a parent of a daughter who attends Oak Park Prep, the school Smith led before taking the Sac High job.
Yisrael said after the restructuring that led so many teachers and staff to leave the campus, she and other parents were hopeful that Smith would remain at the helm.
“I was excited to know that she would be around. We felt she would give the students a person they could rely on,” Yisrael said. Instead, with Smith’s departure and what Yisrael said was a “revolving door” of teachers at the school, “we’re reverting back to the same position we were in last year. It’s sad for the kids, but we won’t stop asking for what the kids deserve.”