Anna Falcone: 'Connerton is Like My Third Child'
The elementary school principal at the center of recent controversy says there are always people who don't like some steps a leader takes.
She’s been called a bully, had threats made against her in public forums and faces a group of opponents who say they won’t stop speaking out until she is removed from her position.
But the principal of Connerton Elementary School isn’t going anywhere, according to district officials. And rather than dwell too much on the ongoing hostilities, Anna Falcone is looking forward to good things to come in the fall.
Falcone, who has two children of her own at the school, said Connerton "is like my third child.”
Now, along with new vice principal, Claudia Steinacher, Falcone is ready to begin the mending process “so our kids can feel proud of where they come to school,” she said.
Falcone has found herself at the center of a public firestorm since May when she attempted to move two popular veteran teachers to different grade levels for the 2012-13 school year.
"That was really the catalyst,” Falcone said.
Before those changes were announced, Falcone said she administered surveys to assess the climate of the school. “Up until those grade level changes, it was very positive,” she said.
Moving teachers to fill grade-level needs happens everywhere because the student population fluctuates every year, Pasco Schools spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said. “That’s why they have K through sixth certification.”
Falcone said she felt strongly that both teachers would have excelled in the move.
“Strong teachers that have good qualities can teach at any grade level,” Falcone said.
Still, Falcone's announcement that the two would be moved spurred a group of former employees and parents into action. The group already had gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition calling for Falcone's removal before holding a demonstration to support keeping those teachers in their positions.
“While we try to please everyone, there are always people who don’t like the steps a leader takes,” Falcone said.
Two of Falcone’s most vocal opponents, Peggy Lopez and Cathy Brown, have been disgruntled for a long time, Romagnoli said. They also never taught at Connerton.
Though she could not comment specifically, Romagnoli said there were personnel issues with both when they worked at Sanders Elementary.
Lopez organized the May 29 demonstration at Connerton. And both Lopez and Brown have addressed the Pasco school board on multiple occasions, accusing Falcone of using bully tactics to manage her staff.
In a recent interview, Brown said she feels Falcone has a “mean girl” mentality, supporting teachers who have a certain look, who fit a certain profile: young, cute and well-dressed.
“And if you didn’t fit that profile, she didn’t have time for you,” Brown said.
When asked to respond to that accusation, at first Falcone said she was speechless.
“That is absolutely false,” Falcone said. “I want every child here to get the best education possible, I don’t care what you look like.”
Evaluations of teachers are based on several factors, she said: “Does your passion come out when I interview you? Do you have knowledge of our core values?”
There is a “huge diversity” in Connerton’s staff, Falcone said.
Some of Falcone’s opponents also have said that teachers come to them crying on a regular basis because of mistreatment by Falcone.
“I’ve had teachers crying in my driveway,” said Michele Grady, who identified herself in a previous Patch interview as "a friend of Sanders Elementary."
Those teachers don’t speak out for fear of losing their jobs, Brown said. “They cry out to us because they’re stuck there.”
But Connerton third-grade teacher Sheila Nero said that is far from the truth.
Falcone sets the bar high for teachers, and offers constructive criticism in the best interest of the students, she said.
She has seen teachers shed tears after a meeting, but “sometimes hearing the truth is hard,” Nero said. “Telling you if you’re not doing your job is not bullying.”
Teaching requires planning, and the Connerton administration expects teachers to know their standards and know their students, both of which drive instruction, Nero said.
"If a teacher is going to walk in on a Monday morning and teach from the margins of a book, they are not going to last at Connerton," Nero said. And if teachers speak to students in a disrespectful manner—something she has witnessed—that is not going to be tolerated either, she added.
“That’s not bullying, that’s holding us to the standards I’d hope the county would want us to have, the state would want us to have and parents would want us to have,” Nero said.
Falcone acknowledges that healing is needed at Connerton, but said her decisions are grounded in what's best for the students, and that's not going to change.
“I think the reason they are upset is that some of the decisions I was making in the best interest of the kids were not what they agreed with,” Falcone said.
But the students in the classroom come first, she said.
“I would like to make everyone happy but I have to do what’s best for the kids,” Falcone said.
In the wake of all the negative publicity, Romagnoli said the district received a number of emails from parents saying they are very happy with the Connerton administration, and are disturbed by the way the school and its leaders have been portrayed in the media.
The number of people who are unhappy is very small compared to those that are happy, Falcone said.
“I love teaching, it’s my passion and I love teaching at Connerton,” Nero said.
As for the negative publicity, “It’s been very sad to see us portrayed that way,” Nero said. “I truly feel from going there every day for two years that’s not the way it is.”
Falcone said as leader, she would never want to foster a negative environment for her staff or students. “It’s important that you like to come to work and you like the people you work with.”
In addition to the media coverage, a very public argument has brewed in the comments on some of the stories, and as the situation becomes more emotionally charged, some of those comments have turned to what can be construed as threats against Falcone’s family, Romagnoli said.
“There are people who’ve jumped on the bandwagon based on emotion and not the facts,” Nero said. "There are two sides to every story and unfortunately it’s the negative you most often see in the papers.”
Nero said that she has expressed her support for Falcone in some online forums, only to be attacked. "I'm not going to get into that type of conversation, if that's the level they're going to go to."
"I'm putting a bullseye on my back" by publicly expressing support for Falcone for this story, Nero said. "If that's what it takes to get the truth out, I'm strong enough."
Falcone said she tries to avoid reading the articles and the comments that go along with them.
“As a human being, they upset me and sadden me that people think that’s how we solve problems,” Falcone said. “It also has made me reflect on what is being said and how we move forward.”
Is a miscommunication at the heart of the problems at Connerton? Falcone says she is willing to sit down with the disgruntled former employees calling for her removal if that helps bring them closure. Read more.
See also: Issues at Connerton Elementary
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