Laguna Blanca’s high school student body turned out almost in its entirety for an all-day protest against the dismissal, come June, of two popular history teachers. On the same day, Friday, March 20, the faculty of the exclusive, 75-year-old private school delivered a vote of no-confidence in Headmaster Doug Jessup, who has been at Laguna Blanca since 1998. Hiring and firing decisions are made by the headmaster.
Communications Director Tara Broucqsault would not say why the decision was made not to renew the teachers’ year-to-year contracts-nor the contracts of two administrators-but she said finances had nothing to do with it. Others in the administration also said that no positions are being eliminated; the employees are to be replaced.
Student Body President Willy Chotzen-Freund estimated that 180 students participated in the sit-in at Laguna Blanca’s Hope Ranch campus, out of a high school population of a little over 200, though some middle-school students also came. A petition that began circulating in the early afternoon, urging that the teachers be retained, was signed by 158 students, he said, and there would have been more signatures but some students had already for vacation, Friday being the last day of school before the spring break.
“Any management must make decisions that are sometimes very unpopular,” commented Alixe Mattingly, chair of Laguna Blanca School’s 19-member board of trustees. “We are a close-knit, passionate, intellectual community, and we will be an even better one as a result of this process.” Jessup’s decisions about contract renewals this year may be the topic of continued review and discussion.
The teachers who received notices are Athethea Tyner Paradis, a UCSB graduate who has been with the school since 2001, and Kevin Shertzer, a Yale graduate who has been there since 2002. She advises the Amnesty International Club; he is the boys’ soccer coach. Director of College Counseling Gwen Bergman and Director of Student Affairs Chelsea Dullea, hired in 2007, are also being let go.
The firings have given rise to speculation among the general public, but, among the protesting students, not even a rumor as to why the four were let go. “I have no idea,” said Student Body President Willy Chotzen-Freund. School board members strongly refuted public speculation that the teachers or other employees were accused of wrongdoing of any any kind. Bergman, for one, said the reason her contract was not renewed was not shared with her. “One would hope that would be done with some kind of procedure, but it doesn’t have to be,” she said, under the terms of the school’s year-to-year employment contracts.
“The reason the protests were so strong on Friday is because the students have such a strong bond with their teachers,” said Chotzen-Freund. He attributed that partly to high school class sizes of 12 to 15 students, and the fact that there is no quarter or semester system; the classes last all year. Chotzen-Freund’s evaluation was echoed by Broucqsault, who said, on the day of the protest, “Today is a day that many upper school students are quietly and respectfully showing their love and support for their teachers. We are very proud of them.”
Chotzen-Freund added, “I feel that the process needs to be improved in the sense that the administrators had never sat in on their classes, and there’s no sort of student evaluation, or parent evaluation, or peer evaluation in place so it’s really hard for them to know who are the good teachers.” Laguna Blanca senior Spencer Klavan added that both of the dismissed teachers are “incredibly engaging in their lectures, very connected to their students; they use a lot of modern examples to illustrate important points-they’re just very inspiring.” For example, Paradis and Shertzer led a field trip last year to Vietnam. “I hope the administration considers our point of view very carefully,” Klavan said.
An email Jessup sent to parents on the day before the sit-in did little to cast light on why the teachers and other employees are being dismissed. “I would ask that our families have faith that the administration is using its best discretion to make decisions based on information that is clearly not known by all.”