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January 2011



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First Published Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Alex Barton
Alex Barton

ST. LUCIE COUNTY – Morningside Elementary teacher Wendy Portillo said she hopes to return to teaching after a unanimous vote by the School Board let her keep her professional contract with the county school district and the tenure protection it affords.

The School Board’s vote Wednesday came more than one year after Portillo led her kindergarten students to vote classmate Alex Barton, then 5, out of class for disruptive behavior. The child was in the process of being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, at the time.

“I’m overjoyed,” Portillo said after an emotional 90-minute hearing in which more than a dozen teachers and parents urged the School Board to relent in punishing her. “I’m happy that I’ll be able to go back to doing what I love to do.”

Portillo still must complete a one-year unpaid suspension that began last November. It was recommended by Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon and upheld by an administrative law judge who heard Portillo’s case in February.

Both Lannon and the judge also recommended that she lose the employment protection of a professional services contract and instead be placed on an annual contract. Such annual employees may or may not be invited back to work each year and many such teachers already have lost jobs amid current budget cuts.

Wednesday’s hearing was interrupted by applause after each of 13 speakers finished their testimony in favor of Portillo. They included her sons, Zayd and Zak, Morningside colleagues and parents whose children were Portillo’s students during her 12-year local career.

For many, Alex became a symbol of how children with autism are mistreated and misunderstood. The child reportedly has not returned to school since the May 21, 2008, incident, which evoked heated public debate. Portillo’s treatment of the boy was the topic of blogs, national television and radio programs.

“This became an emotional fire storm that crucified everybody,” board member Kathryn Hensley said. “We had people coming up to us and threatening us on the street.”

Apparently absent from Wednesday’s event was Melissa Barton, Alex’s mother. No one rose at the public hearing to state the family’s case.

Barton could not be reached by phone Wednesday evening, nor could her attorneys.

Asked what she would say to Barton, Portillo said she wishes her well.

“I hope they find the help they need,” she said.

Many who spoke Wednesday said the incident was isolated and not characteristic of Portillo’s service as a teacher.

Queen Townsend said she is a former Morningside Elementary principal and that the incident might not have happened if school officials had proper backup for teachers.

“We must ensure that the disruptions that [teachers] can’t handle will be handled by someone else, so they are free to teach,” Townsend said. “[The incident] should not have occurred and it must be made so it never happens again.”

Carol Sheldon, a retired teacher of 34 years, agreed that the school must have lacked adequate behavioral support that day.

“You obviously didn’t have a means of communication so you could get somebody into that classroom to help her,” Sheldon said.

Susan Kline, mother of two former Morningside students, said her oldest son was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and has gone on to success in high school.

Kline said she was familiar with behaviors such as throwing objects, kicking chairs and other manifestations of the disability. She urged any parent with such a child to communicate and work closely with teachers.

“It’s not convenient having an Asperger child,” Kline said, “But it is what it is.

“I don’t necessarily agree with what Mrs. Portillo did that day,” she added. “But I can understand it.”

Source:   http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/breakingnews/sfl-student-voted-out-bn061109,0,6421556.story

All children deserve only the best teachers

Arlene C. Ackerman is superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia

Teachers are the bedrock of our schools and the single most important key to student success. To achieve great results, every student needs a great teacher, and every teacher deserves a fair and accurate evaluation that enhances their capacity to grow and improve without fear that the process will threaten their position or their professional standing.

To put the best interests of our children front and center, the School District of Philadelphia is determined to do everything in its power to recruit the best, brightest, and most dedicated teachers; to encourage, reward, and retain our highest performers; to provide meaningful assistance and support for teachers who are struggling to be successful and effective; and to create a comprehensive system that provides all instructional staff with ongoing opportunities for career and talent development.

We stand with President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in placing an aggressive and unrelenting focus on teacher effectiveness as a critical factor in creating better public schools. If we are committed to student success, then it is up to all of us – teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and legislators – to make a commitment that all of our teachers will have the skills they need to be successful educators and that all will be equitably placed where their talents are most needed.

We are morally obligated and collectively responsible to ensure that anyone entrusted with the education of our children is capable of doing a great job, is recognized for the excellence of their performance, and is justly rewarded for results. If we care about the success of our students, we must also care about the success of their teachers and treat them as the professionals they are.

Recently, the New Teacher Project released a report on “the nation’s failure to assess teacher effectiveness, treating teachers as interchangeable parts.” The two-year study describes a “widget effect” that has prevented schools and school districts from “recognizing excellence, providing support, or removing ineffective teachers.”

The study, available at www.widgeteffect.org, describes a “national failure to acknowledge and act on differences in teacher effectiveness” and faults teacher-evaluation systems that codify the “widget effect” by allowing excellence to go unrecognized and the need for improvement to go unaddressed. The authors noted that less than 1 percent of 40,000 teachers in the study were ever rated unsatisfactory.

The Philadelphia story is no different. Out of a teaching force of more than 10,000 in the district, only 13 received unsatisfactory ratings, and only five were removed from the classroom. Because struggling teachers who are performing below an acceptable level of effectiveness were not identified, they could not be appropriately assisted and supported and given an opportunity to improve.

We cannot hope to close the opportunity and achievement gap that exists in our school district, help students from all backgrounds achieve at high standards, and realize the goals of our district’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan without putting great teachers in the places where students need them the most. To meet the needs of children and schools fairly, our district needs greater flexibility to assign staff to schools that best match the talents of teachers with regard to subject, site, and area needs.

Some Philadelphia public school students do have access to great teachers, effective principals, and excellent programs. However, “some but not all” is not an acceptable standard. All of Philadelphia’s children deserve a chance to dream and succeed, and all need skillful classroom teachers able to provide them with love and limits as they strive to learn.

As we end this school year and prepare for the next, let us commit that our school district staff, parents, and community leaders will work together to guarantee that neither students nor teachers will suffer from a “widget effect” in Philadelphia’s public schools.

Source:   http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20090614_All_children_deserve_only_the_best_teachers.html

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