Since the start of the 2019-2020 school year at Ed W. Clark High School, a series of school policies implemented by our new principal have altered how our school functions. With a change in administration, new policies are common. However, as we near the end of the first semester, the question is raised: have these policies changed Clark for the better or worse? With a school as successful as Clark — a community with a diverse student body, nationally competitive programs, and the highest number of National Merit Semifinalists in the state — the answer to this question impacts students, parents, teachers, alumni, and the rest of Clark County.
Rael’s controversial policies incite immediate backlash
The new administration, headed by Principal Antonio Rael and Assistant Principal Christina Bentheim, has installed a variety of new policy changes at Clark, many of which were called into question by parents and students at a CCSD public forum on December 5th.
The school year began with restrictions placed on school entrances to limit people unaffiliated with Clark from entering campus. Soon after, club funding was significantly decreased because the sale of food that failed to meet federal nutrition guidelines was prohibited. These changes incited a near-immediate response from students, who released a petition which received over eight-hundred signatures within two weeks of the first day of the semester.
Some policies have since been reversed, including parts of the re-branding attempt by Rael to promote the “Gold Standard of Conduct.” One section of the Gold Standard, which concerned dress code, had to be rephrased after students and teachers alike complained about its perceived sexist wording. Another change, a series of highly restrictive after-school policies in the hallways and library, was delayed and revised after a significant backlash from students.
These policies have been felt significantly by teachers, and many are considering leaving Clark, according to an anonymous survey conducted by the Charger Chant over the past month. According to many respondents, Clark’s teachers have been voicing issues with Rael since the beginning of the school year.
Change began when a committee of teachers called Clark 9.0 met over the summer with the intention of discussing and approving Rael’s new policies. At the beginning of the school year, they were shocked to realize some policies were implemented without their opinion being taken into account. Meanwhile, their approval was still being used as justification in response to the complaints of other staff. After scheduling another meeting with Rael where the members of Clark 9.0 voiced their concerns, one teacher in this group felt that their opinion had been ignored.
“If he doesn’t like what he’s hearing from students, he’ll just form a new committee. And that’s exactly what he’s doing with teachers,” explains an anonymous teacher. This teacher went on to inform us that after the meeting where Clark 9.0 voiced concerns to Rael over new policy implementation without their approval, Clark 9.0 was never asked to meet again.
Parents and teachers voice concerns to CCSD board of trustees
In response to these concerns, teachers began contacting Dr. Scavella, the School Associate Superintendent, whose jurisdiction includes Clark High School. However, after teachers felt these efforts were limited in success, they began a letter-writing campaign to the teacher’s union voicing concerns over the new policies and explaining they would leave Clark if conditions were not changed.
Teachers were looking into the Decker Rule, a series of steps the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), the union representing CCSD teachers, can take when administrators are deemed to be ineffective at a school. Under the Decker Rule, if there are complaints to the CCEA, they will get involved by investigating the complaint and determining if there is a legitimate problem. If they determine a problem exists and working with the administrator to resolve these complaints is ineffective, they will attempt to resolve the issue with the principal’s superior. If this also does not work, they will continue to pursue the issue and, according to the union’s website, “will not end the campaign until the administrator is removed.”
One teacher estimated that about twenty letters have been sent, and this campaign is still ongoing. Staff members we spoke to expressed that they hope action will be taken before February of next year, when teachers’ employment options open up and decisions of whether to continue teaching at Clark for the following year are made. To mobilize the union, however, many more staff need to send letters.
The letters already sent included numerous complaints about Rael and his methodology in running the school.
“The way teachers and administrators were treating [us]… he would belittle [certain people] in staff meetings. He would call [them] out in front of the entire staff and that’s just not professional,” explains an anonymous staff member. “He shifted so many administrators in the beginning of the year and that just created chaos.”
Teachers speak out: Survey finds Clark staff feel dissatisfied and disrespected
These issues are not just felt by a select few teachers. Our team conducted an anonymous survey of Clark teachers that received received responses from approximately one third of teachers. This survey had responses almost evenly split amongst teachers of both zone and magnet surveys, and the survey results were shocking; when asked if the new administration values and respects Clark’s teachers and faculty, only 32% agreed.
80% of teachers disagreed with the statement “Teacher morale is high,” and approximately 60% agreed that the new policies have made teaching at Clark more challenging. Half of the teachers said new policies have damaged relationships with students.
Many worry that a “mass exodus”, as one parent puts it, is likely to happen next year. Many have expressed that such an exodus would cause Clark to lose the people who made it the special place that it is. While teachers feel school administration has a vision for Clark that, according to our survey, 60% of teachers don’t share, Clark staff members are losing their incentives to stay.
These worries over the loss of teachers aren’t unfounded: 35% of our respondents said they are actively looking for job opportunities outside of Clark in light of this year’s changes. Just over half of the responses from our survey say that if they were offered a similar job for an equivalent salary in CCSD for the 2020-2021 school year, they would feel inclined to take it.
Meanwhile, these same disgruntled teachers reported having a lack of a forum in which to express their concerns. Many more reported feeling pressured and threatened by school administration. Teachers answering our anonymous survey had concerns about responding; almost a third of respondents reported having felt uncomfortable answering one or more of our questions, and 50% of those who felt uncomfortable said that it was because they feared retaliation. Barely a quarter of teachers who responded to our survey said they felt comfortable voicing opinions on school policies.
One anonymous staff member even took to pinning posters in the teacher’s lounge to make their voice heard. These posters, which have since been taken down, criticize Rael’s leadership style and his new administration. One poster mocks the rhyming phrases promoted as part of the new Gold Standard, while another reads “‘You’re all getting 2’s on your evaluations’” and “‘Get onboard or get out!’”.
According to one anonymous teacher, these quotes may be referring to possible threats made by the administration to school counselors, as evidenced by the uncharacteristic departure of multiple counselors and administrators that occurred before Thanksgiving Break; staffers who have moved to different schools this semester include former magnet coordinator Michele Hernandez and longtime assistant principals Jennifer Drum and Gena Reagh. Members of the counseling department that we spoke to refused to comment on whether or not this theory is accurate.
The reception of these changes is just as important as the changes themselves. Student and parent opinions and perspectives on their school affects not only the quality of education for students currently at Clark, but may also reduce the number of incoming freshman applications. At the end of the day, parents have the power to make the final decision over where their children attend high school.
Following a CCSD board of trustees meeting last Thursday evening, parents met with members of the Superintendent’s Office, including Dr. Scavella. During this meeting, parents shared numerous concerns over the state of Clark High School. According to parents involved, the December 7th meeting, while covering a wide array of concerns, focused on two main issues: the possible mass exodus of teachers, and how the Superintendent’s Office could encourage teachers to stay.
“It’s about a culture of extremely high and ambitious learning and teaching that is at risk of walking out the door in April. [It’s about] what took decades to build,” said one concerned parent after the meeting. “It’s about doing something from central administration that says to teachers, ‘We’ve got your back’. Clark is going to be the Clark you came to teach in. [Otherwise], you’re not going to have that next year. It’s going to happen that fast.”
Parents also discussed with administration other concerns.
“Some of the main concerns are communication … campus access and restrictions … [and] recent issues causing greater concern with staff … taking other opportunities,” started Dr. Scavella. “[There’s also] a concern about [Rael] hiring church members. We have heard that and are definitely looking into that, as well as the SOT organization, how it was formed, selections, reporting how it’s operating … those are things we have … looked into and are continuing to look into.”
One parent speculated on how widespread negative teacher sentiments really are. “Teachers [I’ve emailed] say that fifty to sixty of the teachers are going to leave, and I hope that my sophomore will be able to make it through to his senior year. It’s so disappointing that we are sitting here.”
The departure of such a significant proportion of Clark’s staff would be difficult for the administration to recover from; one parent estimated that it could take years to rehire the number of lost staff. Attempting to mitigate the chances of such a situation, parents called for the Superintendent to remove Rael or place him on administrative leave in order to make teachers feel safer and more willing to come forward about their concerns.
“[If you] can even consider administrative leave [for Rael] until you resolve the issue … that is a serious message … the teachers might come to your office if his presence is physically away,” said another speaker at the parent meeting.
Students were also present at the public forum following the trustees’ meeting. According to one student attendee, their primary concerns with Rael’s policies are the administration’s lack of clear communication, strange and belittling wording, harsh consequences, and impact on student learning.
According to Katherine Van Voorhis, a member of the student advisory board created by Rael, more concerning to students than the actual policies has been the way school administration has treated teachers, especially when it comes to the possible exodus of many staff.
“Teachers leaving doesn’t hurt just AMSAT, or just AOF, or just TEACH, or just zone. The best, most driven, and most kind teachers leaving lowers the quality of education that every single student in the halls of Clark receives. Every time one of my teachers privately tells me that they’re not coming back, I’m happy for them, but scared for the many student lives they would’ve otherwise improved here.
According to a letter Rael sent on December 10th to all Clark students, one of his main hopes for Clark High School is to bridge the achievement gap between magnet and non-magnet students.
“… simply put, our school lacks many of the core structures for which schools that educate children of poverty need to be successful,” wrote Rael. “We can, and must, do better by our children. And of course, we cannot continue to do the same things and expect different results.”
“I’m both magnet and zone. I live about a mile from Clark … what makes Clark so unique is that, unlike magnet schools, it provides resources for [everyone]. When I got here, I found a welcoming community that didn’t care all too much about what program you were in,” said van Voorhis. “Within just a couple months of Principal Rael’s tenure, things changed. Fights became more frequent and more violent. Fire alarms got pulled more often. Nasty Facebook comments become more commonplace. None of these changes can be traced back to a particular policy, but the new administration has caused an irrefutable sense of unrest among the student body, largely because it doesn’t value each and every student the way it used to.”
In light of the unrest at Clark, alumni have begun to speak out. At the parent meeting, a member of the class of 2019 had a letter read on their behalf. Another letter, signed by almost 350 members of the Clark community, contends that the “recent actions of Clark High School’s newly instated principal, Mr. Antonio Rael, are putting the well-loved and fundamental community at Clark High School in jeopardy.” The letter continues to say that Clark is “facing the repercussions of Clark High School’s diminishing staff” and that they “believe that Rael is currently not an ideal fit as the principal of Clark High School.”
“The good, kind, driven teachers Clark has to offer deserve better treatment than Principal Rael provides,” says Van Voorhis. “They deserve to find [better treatment] elsewhere. Unless serious changes are made at the administrative level, Clark cannot and will not achieve the level of excellence it has in prior years.”
This article is continuing to evolve, and as we receive more information and await Rael’s responses to our comments, we will update the article.