"Dear Mr. Amato," the letter began. "I think the assembly we had at school was not fair because she called us stupid and low-class."
Kaonta Jiles, who is in the fifth grade at Fisk-Howard, wrote that letter to Orleans Parish superintendent Anthony Amato after an assembly held on Wednesday, Nov. 19, two days before Thanksgiving break.
According to reports from students who were present, Fisk-Howard's principal, Eve Brannan, presided over an assembly during which third, fourth and fifth graders repeated the words "stupid and low-class" in response to Brannan's questions. Questions such as "What will people think if we are fighting?" and "What will people think if we don't pass the LEAP test?"
Brannan says that she would never do that. She simply told the kids how intelligent they are, she says.
If that was the case, asks parent Eva Brown, why would so many kids come home and tell their mothers and fathers about it? Brown has three kids at Fisk, two of whom were in the assembly that day. Those two, both sons, had very different reactions, she says. The assembly didn't phase Branden, her fourth-grader. "Branden pretty much knows that he's not stupid," Brown says. "He's an eager child, he loves the computer and loves reading, he makes As and Bs."
The comments did strike home with her fifth-grader, Harold. "His feelings are a bit different. He's a slower child. We work hard to keep his self-esteem up," says Brown. "He needs that one-on-one."
Last year, Brown says, she never had a problem with Harold attending school. This year is another story. That's because of Brannan, she believes. "Harold loves his teacher. But Dr. Brannan picks on him; she uses him as a prime example, tells him he's a candidate for special ed in front of all the kids in the cafeteria.
"It's to the point where this boy comes to me and says, 'I don't want to go to school,'" she says. "But this is his last year, and I don't want to swap him out to another school."
Brown goes to school during the day for mortuary science and works at night. But last year, she made time for Fisk-Howard nearly every school day. "Before that lady got there, I put in my time at that school, but now I don't want to go, because my temper may get the best of me," she says.
"It was unreal, I couldn't believe it," says Joyce Jiles when her fifth-grader, Kaonta, came home from Fisk on Wednesday afternoon and told her about the assembly. The next day, Jiles talked with Kaonta's teacher and then called the school board. She got no response. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish school district told Gambit Weekly that the district could not comment because the matter was under investigation.
The day after the assembly, Kaonta's teacher asked each of her pupils to write a letter, explaining how they felt. Kaonta wrote one in neat cursive, her lower-case i's dotted with a star. "Everyone is not able to do everything," she noted.
"To tell you the truth, I don't want to go to this school," she wrote in her letter's closing before signing, "Sincerely, Kaonta."
Kaonta had spent all summer studying for and then passing the LEAP test, which she had missed by one point last year, says Joyce Jiles, who thinks that her daughter's struggles with LEAP made her feel sad about the assembly. She told her mother, "Mama, it doesn't make sense. I try the best I can."
Kaonta says that, on Thursday, the previous day's assembly was a big topic of conversation for her fellow students. "They were saying that was wrong what the principal did," she says. "And they felt so bad."
On Friday, Joyce Jiles took a day off from work and walked over to Fisk-Howard Elementary School to speak with Brannan herself.
The yellow school buses have just finished dropping off kids at Fisk-Howard's back door when Joyce Jiles and Kaonta walk up to the school's front entrance on Lopez Street, two blocks south of Canal Street.
Jiles stops to speak with a few other mothers. Then a tall woman in a bright tartan blazer walks out to address them. "It really has been a totally misunderstanding about what happened in assembly," she says. "Not to cover up anything -- the children know what they heard. But they misinterpreted the words Dr. Brannan used." The woman will give neither her name nor her title except to say that she works in the principal's office, which is located just inside the Lopez Street door.
Jiles and another mother still want to speak to Brannan personally, and so they walk in the door and seat themselves in a short row of plastic chairs outside the principal's office.
"Kaonta did not want to come to school today," Jiles says. The other mother nods. "I tell my children not to talk back. 'You listen,' I tell them. But I don't want her telling my kids that they're low-class."
Brannan comes out of her office and hears the tail end of the conversation. "No, no," she says, walking quickly toward the two mothers, who stand up. "We were just talking about behaviors," says Brannan. "I told them we didn't want children to fight and gamble. I said, 'What do people think of you if you're fighting?'" It was the students, she contends, who said the words "stupid and low-class."
"I think you need to call a meeting and apologize," says Jiles.
Brannan doesn't respond to Jiles' comment. "I believe all of our children are intelligent," the principal says. "I simply said, 'If you are cursing, what do people think?'" Still, she adds, there will be a school assembly at 1 p.m. and she will speak to the topic then.
At 1 p.m. that day, Brannan says simply that she will soon be presiding over a Thanksgiving assembly. When asked whether she will address what the children heard at Wednesday's assembly, she says, "I am going to remind our children -- once again -- how intelligent and capable they are."
But will she address the topic, yes or no? She doesn't answer. "Please leave now," she says to the Gambit Weekly reporter, pointing toward the door. She's asked to verify whether she will address the topic with her students. "Will you please leave now?" Brannan asks again, then turns to the office and asks them to page "Mr. Malone" over the intercom. "Mr. Malone, please get Mr. Malone," she yells, in the direction of her office.
A man walking through the door says that Mr. Malone is a security guard.
Situations like this have the potential to spiral out of control rapidly, says Jo Blase, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Georgia who consults with schools in crisis.
Blase isn't familiar with the particulars of the Fisk-Howard case. But for 35 years, she and her university colleague and husband, Joseph Blase, have done consulting work for school districts and conducted research on what makes school leaders effective. Their books include Handbook of Instructional Leadership: How Really Good Principals Promote Teaching and Learning.
In a case like this, says Blase, the district office will try to determine whether this is an isolated incident or whether there's a pattern or culture of abuse in this school.
Some situations are innocent, she says. Others stem from abusive conduct, a topic the Blases tackle in their most recent book, Breaking the Silence: Overcoming the Problem of Principal Mistreatment of Teachers. Their research indicates that 10 to 20 percent of teachers work under principals who have a history of abusive criticism, mistreatment, lying and threats. "Principal abuse does exist," Blase says. Once again, the way to deal with that is through the district office.
While the district looks into the matter, the principal should take steps to bring the matter in hand. "Calling an assembly, that's a good idea," says Blase. "I think a good idea would be for that person to get with her faculty and have a frank session about what happened and the effects of what happened." Any discussions should also include parent representatives and also a third party, who can act as a neutral intermediary.
In that meeting, above all, the principal needs to listen. It's one of the main qualities that makes a principal effective, says Blase. Even the best of principals make mistakes, she emphasizes, but skilled administrators have learned to listen -- to their teachers, to the community, to parents, to students -- in order to access any damage and then make amends.
From Blase's experience, some key facets of a principal's work -- planning and instructional matters, for instance -- rarely provoke intense reactions. Most frequently, it's the principal's interpersonal skills -- or lack thereof -- that "can turn very ugly, very fast," she says.
Deft interpersonal skills may be even more important today, as schools begin to move away from the idea of the school principal as head bureaucrat -- what Blase calls "the 'I'm the boss, do what I say'" model. "We've realized that this doesn't work," she says. "The idea now is to work together, to build a community of leaders and learners, where teachers and parents participate in the leadership of the school."
As a result, she and her husband now train principals to work with groups of adults. "It's a hard transition," she says, especially because principals -- often former teachers -- are much more accustomed to working with groups of kids rather than adults.
Another thing they teach school administrators is that no one -- the district office, parent, teacher or principal -- should sit back and let a situation fester. "What you really want to do is diffuse it at this stage because it serves no one to have things go on like this," Blase says. "Because it always gets worse."
Often, that means getting the principal with the parents soon. "I would tell the parents to insist on a meeting," Blase says. In the end, that can help the principal. If there is a pattern of occasional mistreatment or if a principal has an approach that "is a little too hard for some people," the feedback itself can possibly make a difference, says Blase.
An apology to the kids should be part of that conversation. "Any principal should have the decency to consider that and talk to the parents about it openly." Together, they should determine whether an apology is necessary. "It might be that that principal needs to be big enough to stand up in front of an assembly and say, 'I apologize to you.' There's nothing wrong with that."
In the end, the perception has now become the reality, Blase says. "If she said, 'I did x,' and the witnesses said, 'You did y' and she says, 'No, here's a tape recording, I only said x,' the people there may still say, 'Well okay, but we interpreted that as y because of who we are.' Then the principal has to think about the implications of her behavior."
At first glance, this may seem like a minor situation, an argument over just a few words uttered within a short assembly. "But trust me," says Blase. "It's a small thing that can explode."