Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Anna Shin protests at Cambridge’s Graham & Parks School on Wednesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A relatively new and controversial principal whose contract is up for renewal at Cambridge’s Graham & Parks School is being investigated by the school district after complaints from the community and accounts of a “toxic work environment” at a previous workplace.

Fifty members of the Graham & Parks Caregiver Coalition turned to filing a public record requests that triggered the investigation into the school’s principal, Kathleen Smith. As the investigation reportedly began Monday, some are calling the district’s overall hiring practices into question and asking the School Committee to monitor the situation.

Smith was hired as the principal of the Graham & Parks elementary school in spring 2022, after longtime G&P teacher and administrator Claudie Jean-Baptiste stepped down as interim principal. The school at 44 Linnaean St., Neighborhood 9, opened in 1981 on Upton Street, formed out of the Cambridge Alternative Public School and more traditional Webster School. It now has approximately 370 students.

Coalition members, who said they did not want to reveal their names due for fear that Smith will retaliate against their children, said that caregivers gave Smith time to acclimate to Graham & Parks during her first year. Tensions surfaced in the fall of 2023 as many caregivers became increasingly concerned that her decisions did not serve the school’s mission and her leadership style was bad for educators, caregivers and students.

A Sept. 29, 2022, school council meeting at the Graham & Parks School, several months after the arrival of principal Kathleen Smith, center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The coalition circulated a petition in late November signed by 116 caregivers asking Smith to “follow the democratic practices” at the “heart and soul” of G&P school culture, including transparent communication, community inclusion in decision-making and including caregiver and educator input in hiring decisions. It was sent to Smith and the School Committee on Dec. 4. Letters to Smith and to the committee about the lack of trust within the G&P community followed the next day and later grew to 130 signatures; Sujata Wycoff, the district’s director of communications, called the group “small yet vocal.”

Tensions increased that month when the coalition was told of issues during Smith’s prior employment at Newton Public Schools, leading the coalition to file a public records request about Smith’s time at its Underwood elementary school. 

Among the papers the coalition received was a complaint filed in February 2019 by the president of the Newton Teachers Association on “behalf of many current and former teachers” at Underwood to then-district superintendent David Fleishman. 

According to the complaint, the principal created an “intimidating and hostile work environment” at Underwood by engaging in a “pattern of severe, persistent and pervasive behavior” that interfered with and limited the ability of teachers and staff to do their jobs during the previous 15 months. Other documents described similar behavior as early as 2012.

The letter described harassment, intimidation and retaliation against “staff members who disagree with her,” including explicit or implicit threats, inappropriate language and “unequal and disparate treatment” that sowed division among staff members, leading to multiple staff resignations.

Based on these allegations, the Newton district conducted an internal investigation and in June 2019 determined that while there was no evidence of a “hostile working environment from a discriminatory perspective,” the principal had created a “toxic work environment.” It recommended new leadership for the school. 

Smith was the principal of the Underwood school for eight years but left NPS within weeks of the report, accepting a principal position in the Lawrence Public Schools.

Trust decays, tensions rise

The coalition followed up with a second letter to the committee Jan. 2, referring to the Newton documents and requesting an investigation into the allegations against Smith. They asked that Smith be put on administrative leave until the investigation is complete as “many parents do not feel safe” because of Smith’s “track record of retaliation.” 

The district was contacted Jan. 12 for information and comment from officials. Wycoff answered all questions with a flat statement: “The district does not comment on personnel matters.” A final call to welcome the administration’s point of view was placed Wednesday, when a message was left for Smith with an assistant.

On Wednesday, Wycoff sent an expanded statement:

The district has contracted with an impartial external review of all the concerns raised and allegations made by this small yet vocal group of parents. The district does not, has not and will not comment or respond to inquiries involving personnel matters. Following the completion of the confidential review, the matter will be addressed in a manner that aligns with the appropriate employment laws and district policies and procedures.

According to publicly available documents, Cambridge superintendent Victoria Greer replied to the coalition’s concerns Jan. 5 with assurances the district was conducting a “thorough review” of the situation, including engaging a law firm to review concerns “related to school climate and a toxic work environment” as well as “concerns raised regarding the hiring process for Dr. Smith.”

The coalitions’ concerns “will be a top priority in our upcoming discussions” and the district will “work diligently to ensure the safety and well-being” of the school community, and the district values the coalition’s “partnership in addressing this critical matter,” Greer wrote.

The Graham & Parks School on Linnaean Street in Cambridge’s Neighborhood 9 on Wednesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The coalition wrote to Greer on Jan. 12, grateful for the decision to investigate but expressing concerns that Smith remained as principal with authority for staff reviews. It cited the Newton schools’ finding that Smith had a “history of retaliation.” The coalition asked for assurances that staff would be protected, and for information on how the investigation is being conducted.

Other questions: the scope of the investigation, its timeline and whether the results will be considered during Smith’s contract review. 

Greer replied Jan. 17, reiterating that the law firm was retained after consultation with the city solicitor and the investigation is underway. Greer wrote that while the district cannot comment on personnel matters, it was taking the coalition’s concerns seriously and “retaliation against individuals who participate or assist in any type of review or investigation” was prohibited.

Six days later the coalition, stating “lack of trust in the district’s ability to protect staff and teachers through the investigation” asked the School Committee to oversee the investigation, according to a post on a caregiver email group Jan. 23.

The Graham & Parks conflict follows controversy over the Cambridge Public Schools’ new chief strategy officer, a 25-year-old named Skyler Nash with little direct experience in a role earning more than $153,000 annually.

The gray zone

The Cambridge Education Association, the city’s teacher union, is a watchful bystander as the drama unfolds.

Association president Dan Monahan described the gray area when trust in a community is lost even though nothing illegal is alleged.

“Trust cannot be mediated, as it is not really a dispute,” Monahan said, adding that while the association is not obligated to act, a lack of trust is “deeply concerning.”

“I have heard from members who have experienced retaliation and retribution, and I have heard from members who have had positive experiences with the principal,” Monahan said. The lack of unanimity makes collective action hard.

“The district has launched an investigation at this point, so there is no need for a class-action complaint from the CEA,” Monahan said. He was taking a step back on the school’s situation, he said.

“I support the concept of an outside law firm, however, I am awaiting information from the superintendent about the scope and process before I can make any judgment about the efficacy of the investigation.”

Much of this article was written by a reporter who decided before publication that they didn’t want their name used.