For Lillian Ralph and her two sons, Norbert and Tyrin, this past school year began with lots of hope. Her husband had just rebuilt their flooded Village de l'Est home in eastern New Orleans with his own hands, and the school two blocks from their house, where the boys had gone since pre-kindergarten, was reopening as Einstein Charter Elementary School. Einstein was one of the first schools to reopen in that part of town, and it was a clear sign that the community was on its way back.
By the end of the school year, however, things had gone terribly wrong at the school.
In the wake of a nasty fight between the school's board and administrators, Einstein Charter's reputation -- and possibly its very existence -- remains uncertain just two months before the start of the next school year. The feud erupted after allegations of physical abuse, racial discrimination and general mismanagement, and it left many parents and students feeling caught in the crossfire.
When the fight went public last month, the school's top administrators were ousted, and several teachers who had been terminated were reinstated. But the fight is far from over. Parents are still trying to sort things out to determine if the school can be saved -- or if they should find another school for their kids.
"I feel like I have failed my children," says Ralph, "by allowing them to be in that kind of environment."
Things started out innocently enough when the Ralph family returned from a full school year in Robertsdale, Ala. Both boys often told their mother how much they enjoyed school there, and on the first day that Einstein opened, there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony amid much excitement in the Village de l'Est subdivision. "It was a school opening up the community. It was a big deal," says Ralph.
Not long after that, however, 9-year-old Tyrin came home each day to complain to his mother, saying, "Momma, the kids are bad." Ralph tried to assure him that things would smooth out. They never did.
Fights between eighth-grade Vietnamese and African-American boys were a major problem in the beginning of the school year. The school, with a majority Vietnamese population, was run by the husband-and-wife team of Ron and Alice Midkiff, who are white, as principal and school director, respectively. Dealing with student disputes of any kind is difficult, and when the disputes cut across racial lines, it's a virtual certainty that someone will be left feeling dissatisfied.
Even though Ron Midkiff and board president Cyndi Nguyen say direct altercations between Vietnamese and black students cooled as the year went on, the incidents left lingering tensions in the school community, several parents told Gambit Weekly.
For Ralph, the first real sign that things were not quite right was when her 12-year-old son Norbert got two F's in the first quarter -- in his gifted classes. That seemed strange to Ralph, because Norbert had always done well in school. Nevertheless, she went to Ron Midkiff and asked that Norbert be put in regular classes so he could learn at a more appropriate level. When Midkiff refused, Ralph complained to Cyndi Nguyen, president of the school's board of directors.
"It seemed satisfying enough at the time because one of the teachers was replaced," says Ralph.
What Ralph did not know was that her experience reflected a larger pattern among Einstein parents, many of whom had brought concerns to the Midkiff administration without getting what they considered satisfactory responses or results. Other parents, like Yvette Sims, say they brought complaints to Nguyen and received assurances that board action was being taken, but they later learned that, again, not much had changed. "Do something!" Sims screamed at an explosive board of directors meeting last month. "Just do something! You were well aware of what was happening at this school! This is nothing new!"
Nguyen responded by saying the board was trying to be fair in addressing very serious allegations. "As an educator, why would anyone want to harm the kids? I really believe that," says Nguyen. "I want to make sure that everyone receives a fair evaluation. It's a very sensitive issue."
After four suspended teachers claimed they had been hushed by the school's administration for speaking out against alleged abuses they claim to have witnessed, outraged parents and disgruntled faculty confronted the board. At the board's meeting last month, Sims and other parents complained loudly that serious allegations against the Midkiffs and their son, John Midkiff, who taught physical education at the school, had gone unresolved for months.
According to statements made at the meeting by parents, students and teachers -- and based on interviews conducted by Gambit Weekly after the meeting -- the accusations against John Midkiff included allegedly showing kids his gun while at school, using corporal punishment on some kids (such as making them get on their knees and hold heavy books while other kids flicked their ears when their arms fell), forcing them to stand outside in the rain and repeated verbal abuse of kids -- including alleged racial insults. Alice and Ron Midkiff were accused of punishing kids by making them clean the bathrooms and of being complicit in the actions of their son by allegedly attempting to cover up the things he did.
By the end of the meeting, all the Midkiffs had been terminated, and the previously fired teachers had been reinstated.
The Midkiffs were not present at the meeting, but during two subsequent phone conversations with Gambit Weekly, Ron Midkiff adamantly denied all of the allegations against them, saying they were "unfounded rumors" from a bitter contingent within the school community. No charges have been filed, and consequently there are no official documents supporting any of the claims made verbally at the board meeting. Several individuals involved in the dispute have threatened lawsuits, however.
"You have to realize, parents were stuck in this situation," says Ralph. "We didn't have any alternatives. You can scream, holler, complain all you want, but it's not like you could have pulled your child out of the school and put them somewhere else."
Allegations that John Midkiff called one student a "colored whore" arose in March, and after being unable to resolve the allegations with an internal investigation, the school's board hired Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, one of the nation's largest law firms, to look into the matter. That investigation is still ongoing, but some parents have become frustrated and have begun pulling their children out now that the school year is over.
Ron Midkiff, in addressing his dismissal, says the school's board and some disgruntled teachers conspired against him. "This was a lynch mob that was prepared and orchestrated by Miss Cyndi Nguyen," says Midkiff, referring to Einstein's board president. He says underhanded attempts by the board and teachers that were underperforming, including Nguyen's sister Lorna Hoang, led to the breakdown at the school. "They can claim anything they want, but I'm just telling you there's a faction. The allegations are totally incorrect and false."
Ron Midkiff did acknowledge two separate incidents involving accusations against his son, including allegedly hitting a child with a stick and calling an eighth grader a racial epithet, which led to the student trying to fight the teacher. "All I can say is that anything I saw inappropriate, I corrected it," says Midkiff. When asked to evaluate his son as a teacher, Midkiff responded by saying that it would be "inappropriate" to do so and referred specific questions in that regard to his son. When Gambit Weekly asked Midkiff for help getting in touch with his son, he initially said he didn't know his son's phone number, then refused to give any contact information and hung up. Attempts to reach John Midkiff were unsuccessful.
For parents like Ralph, the disputes between the board and the Midkiffs, as well as the unresolved allegations, trigger a difficult choice that they have to make for their children -- a choice that must be made soon. They can either try to revive Einstein or put their kids in another school.
"If we can get this school functional for a conducive learning environment for kids, I would feel much more comfortable with my kids going there as opposed to somewhere else," says Ralph, who remains active at board meetings even though she is trying to place her kids in another school. "I stay in this community. I have a third grader who is going to fourth grade. This school goes up to eighth grade. If we can make this school better, then my child can maybe go back to that school."
Reinventing Einstein won't be easy at this late date. Because it is a charter school, Einstein's independent board remains in control. The board is in the midst of leading a transition to a new administration. Meanwhile, the pending investigation by the Akin and Gump law firm will dictate what further action, if any, the school might take against the Midkiffs, according to Nguyen. Jennifer Johnson, a spokesperson for Akin and Gump, confirmed that the investigation is ongoing but had no further comment.
Administrators at the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), which granted the school its charter, say that so far there is no reason for them to get involved. "As long as is it is not a matter of compliance with the operating agreement and/or the academic component, then our board would normally take a hands-off position," says Joseph Peychaud, charter liaison for the OPSB. "I think they are handling the situation very professionally and they are allowing the due process to happen, and that's what they should do."
Not all parents are satisfied with that analysis, however.
"All of these things were going on and nobody was on top of this," says Ralph, obviously frustrated after attending the latest board of directors meeting. "Now the Midkiffs are gone and the board doesn't even have a clue of where to pick up from."
At that meeting, Nguyen urged patience and suggested that parents focus on the school's future, which she says is bright. "We are moving forward in the right direction," she said.
Meanwhile, larger powers that be have tried to use the school's difficulties to bolster their arguments in the ongoing debate over the efficacy of charter schools. The United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), the teachers union that no longer holds any collective bargaining agreement with New Orleans' public schools, has questioned charter schools' viability in such situations.
"The board knew about this stuff for months and didn't do anything," says Christian Roselund, a spokesman for UTNO who helped organize teachers and parents against the Midkiffs. "It wasn't until the teachers' union and the media got involved that anything happened."
Charter advocates have been quick to disagree, citing poor oversight by the OPSB and a weak board that shouldn't have gotten a charter in the first place. "I don't think it's any different from other abysmal schools in large urban districts," says Sarah Usdin, head of New Schools for New Orleans, which advised the board to hire the law firm to investigate the matter.
"Failed public schools exist in other governance structures. The difference here is there is a mechanism for changing them," says Usdin, referring to the board's action to reinstate the dismissed teachers quickly and respond to parents' concerns. Drawing a contrast to the Orleans Parish School Board, Usdin said, "To have a board meeting and some action taken the next day is pretty miraculous."
For the families in the Village de l'Est community, making Einstein a viable school is what matters most.
"I don't want another parent to have to go through what I went through," says Ralph.
- Einstein parent Yvette Sims (in floral blouse) confronts board president Cyndi Nguyen (right) at a board meeting last month, complaining that parents had brought problems to Nguyen's attention and had been assured they were being handled by the administration.