The following letter was sent from retired Harford County Public Schools Principal Jeanette Jennings to Superintendent Barbara Canavan, Executive Director Elementary School Instruction and Performance Angela Morton, Director of Special Education Dr. Susan Austin, and the Board of Education. A copy was provided to The Dagger for publication.
Dear Mrs. Canavan, Mrs. Morton and Dr. Austin,
I woke up the morning of July 1 and felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I also had a song in my heart; it went like this: “I’m free; praise the Lord I’m free, no longer bound, no more chains holding me. My soul is resting, Lord it’s a blessing. Praise the Lord, hallelujah I’m free”. It was a sad and disappointing ending to a 31 year career in a system that I once loved, but sadly no longer recognized. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work under a wonderful Superintendent, Dr. Jackie Haas and wonderful Executive Director, Pat Skebeck. Certainly long gone were those glory days and I’m sure that Dr. Haas has to be turning over in her grave over what HCPS has become.
I don’t think that you ladies understand that administrators, teachers and staff alike depend on people in your positions to demonstrate some integrity as you carry out your responsibilities. I have no doubt that the majority of those would agree that you greatly disappoint them.
In April 2014 when a teacher with the autism program at Hickory Elementary used poor judgment in her attempt to minimize undesirable behavior of a student, as the Principal, I followed the chain of command to address this issue. From that moment forward, you ladies made decisions on how to address this incident. What followed was a sad display of sloppy, careless ineptitude. As this situation spiraled out of control the three of you felt comfortable bullying and demeaning people who have devoted their lives to working with special needs students. You also sent the message to my colleagues that it would serve them well to sweep any concerns under the carpet because they certainly will not receive support from either of you.
I have always been a transparent educational leader. I feel that when you make sound decisions, you don’t have to hide. I wanted to meet with the parents of all the students in this class. I was told that I could not. In the absence of facts, people make up their own. That is exactly what you ladies allowed to happen. Parents needed answers, they needed facts, they needed to know that someone was willing to be honest with them and they needed to know that someone cared about their children. When you refused to meet with parents, all sorts of accusations and innuendos surfaced. Seeking answers, the parents filed a complaint with the Maryland Disabilities Law Center (MDLC); all of a sudden, the sky was the limit.
Every year that I was at Hickory, my concerns were:
– The facility itself was inadequate and the program needed to be relocated
– The enrollment in the program was too large; during my six years at Hickory the program went from 10 students in two classrooms to 28 students in 4 classrooms; keep in mind that this was one of the most overcrowded elementary schools in the county
– Staffing was inadequate to meet the needs of students; there was a need for a speech/language pathologist, psychologist, autism specialist and behavior specialist exclusively for the program
– Relevant professional development needed to be ongoing, intentional, and timely and more importantly it needed to be facilitated by qualified professionals
It never ceases to amaze me that year after year, I was told there was no funding; but the minute the complaint is filed with the MDLC, funds are found to add the components that could have made this a very successful regional autism program during years past. The amount of money HCPS is currently spending for nonpublic services for many of these students is appalling. If HCPS would be more proactive in funding these programs instead of being reactive, money could definitely be spent more wisely. This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed, or you will repeatedly find yourself in this situation.
You ladies turned Hickory upside down as you threw everyone under the bus. If this resulted in students getting the services they deserve, I don’t mind being sacrificed. What I do mind is my reputation being tarnished. The show of support from my colleagues, teachers with whom I work and with whom I once worked, and parents was a reminder that the work I’ve done speaks for itself. Those who know me know that I gave 110% during my 31 years with HCPS. My highly effective evaluations are evidence of that! All of the students were important to me. I advocated as aggressively as I could; but my professional opinions meant nothing to those of you who made the decisions on where to place regional programs, what funding would be allocated, what resources would be funded and who would provide relevant professional development for the staff. Because you were so careless in your decision making, talented special educators left the program – willingly and unwillingly, extremely gifted and dedicated support staff who genuinely enjoyed working with this population of students became weary; and staff was reassigned. What is even more saddening is that Ms. Canavan, you never stepped foot in the autism program; not one member of the Board of Education cared enough to inquire of anyone who worked closely with the program or to visit; and there was no regard for the fact that Hickory was and continues to be an excellent school.
Ms. Canavan, Mrs. Morton and Dr. Austin, your actions, decision making and leadership over HCPS fosters an environment of distrust and fear amongst those who depend on you for support. Watching HCPS disintegrate over the past couple of years has been disheartening. If you ladies haven’t noticed, there is a mass exodus at all levels from HCPS; and I would venture to say that the venom you ladies spew is directly related to that. Nonetheless, my heart goes out to you. I think that you, Ms. Canavan and Dr. Austin, have got to be the most unhappy people in the world and further that you gain satisfaction from making others miserable. To you, Mrs. Morton, the depth of your soul must be troubled. For too long, HCPS has relied on the dedication of gifted teachers, support staff and administrators who have answered a calling to serve the youth of their community. Many of them are losing their desire to practice their craft in HCPS. Sadly, HCPS will continue to lose talented educators to nearby jurisdictions. Until teachers and administrators are given the support, respect and appreciation they sincerely deserve, it is the students who will suffer. Until HCPS is rid of you ladies, it will never be the thriving, successful system it once was.
Retired Harford County Public Schools’ Principal