A sign-waving crowd gathered at the entrance to Connerton Elementary Tuesday afternoon, many wearing Hawaiian shirts.
But it was not a happy occasion.
The group assembled to call for the ousting of the school’s principal, Anna Falcone, and assistant principal, Wendy Carswell. A petition for removal based on the administrators' "negative leadership" has more than 100 signatures so far, organizer Peggy Lopez said.
The timing of Tuesday's demonstration coincided with a staff meeting at the school attended by Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, Lopez said. The group wanted to show support for two teachers attending that meeting who were unfairly targeted by Falcone, a practice they said is common to a woman some called a "bully."
One of those teachers, Tom Powers, began teaching at Sanders Elementary in 1984, then moved to Connerton in 2010. The popular fifth grade teacher has a reputation for his creativity and ability to reach children who need extra attention. Many parents requested him for next year because “he’s very out of the box,” former Connerton teacher Pam Jones said.
Among his trademarks: a laid-back wardrobe, which includes Hawaiian shirts.
Those gathered on Tuesday said Falcone's transfer of Powers to teaching first grade next year is a step toward focring him out of the classroom entirely.
A former student who asked not to be identified said that laid-back wardrobe made him a target. Now in sixth grade, she and a friend attended Tuesday's demonstration “to support our teachers who’ve been doing what they love and now they’re being forced out,” she said.
The district is listening, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Schools David Scanga said.
"We went out there yesterday with that intent," Scanga said. "We're looking for facts in terms of what's the reality."
It’s not the first time parents and former staff have taken issue with Connerton’s administration. Several demonstrators said they have written multiple letters to the school district detailing what they say boils down Falcone bullying teachers and stonewalling parents.
Jones was one of those teachers. She said Falcone threatened to write a negative review if she applied for a job at another school. Jones resigned—“with major encouragement”—at the beginning of the current school year.
The move to change the grade levels taught by Powers and fourth-grade teacher Dana Bunce is one of the tactics the administration uses to force teachers out of the school— and essentially out of teaching, Jones said.
“If she targets a teacher that she wants to be gone, she won’t let them interview at another school,” Jones said. “This is their lifelong career. They should not be treated this way.”
“I’ve had teachers crying in my driveway,” said Michele Grady, who identified herself as "a friend of Sanders Elementary."
Two parents at Tuesday's demonstration removed their children from Connerton Elementary because of the problems they encountered there.
Elizabeth Groves moved her two children out of the Pasco school district entirely because her experience at Connerton was so negative. The family moved to Valrico last July after deciding they could not face another year at the school.
“I was an actively involved parent” with more than 200 volunteer hours at the school, Groves said. Yet despite her commitment—and physician’s orders— she could not get the administration to provide the services her kindergartner with special needs required.
“I was told my physician was not an educator, we can’t go by what he says,” Groves said.
In addition, a student in her son’s kindergarten class was a constant disruption and a danger to others. She witnessed him throwing chairs, and at one point he had to be physically restrained on a field trip, she said. On that same field trip, the child hit Groves’ son in the face.
No incident report was filed to her knowledge, Groves said.
Though she lives in Valrico, she feels so strongly about the problems at Connerton she continues to be actively involved in the efforts to remove Falcone.
Tracy Gifford moved her two children to Learning Gate Community School in Lutz after her then-fourth grader was punched in the face at Connerton.
“She (Falcone) said ‘They’re in elementary school, what do you expect me to do?’,” Gifford said.
“You want your kids to go to a school where they feel comfortable and safe. You want them to be excited to learn,” Gifford said.
But her children were neither comfortable nor excited at Connerton.
When her then-fourth grader, Skyler, had to write about why he was proud to be a Connerton student, Gifford said she will never forget how she felt when she read his words: “I am proud to be a Connerton student because I don’t walk on the grass or touch the walls.”
“That’s what they drilled into them,” Gifford said. “It breaks my heart.”
When Falcone took over Sanders then opened Connerton, a district review of her performance called her “outstanding,” according to documents obtained by Lopez.
“But we don’t feel outstanding,” Lopez said.
Achievement results at Connerton are high, which is a tribute to those teachers as well as the administration, Scanga said.
And as for the letters the demonstrators said they have written to the district about Falcone, they don’t appear in her personnel file, Lopez said.
After a year, those letters are thrown away, a district official told her.
Scanga said policy prohibits the placement of those communications in an employee's file without due process.
"It might not be in the file, but it's being addressed," he said.
Scanga said he receives complaints from parents at all 46 of the district's elementary schools at the same rate as those received from Connerton, so it does not stand out as an "outlier."
The climate of a building is created by everybody in that building, and the climate overall needs to be one people feel comfortable in. As far as those who say the climate at Connerton is negative, "We always listen and try to respond to that," Scanga said.
Right now the district is in the information gathering stage, and that information is conflicting. The evidence shows students are performing well at Connerton, he said.
"My hope is that everyone involved at Connerton, whether you're a parent, teacher or administrator, you're going to reflect on how you can build on current successes," Scanga said.
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