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Huntsville City Board of Education v. Jacobs

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

December 19, 2014

Huntsville City Board of Education
Norma Jacobs

ALSDE No. 2013114


THOMAS, Judge.

The opinion of September 26, 2014, is withdrawn, and the following is substituted therefor.

The Huntsville City Board of Education ("the Board") appeals a hearing officer's reversal of its decision to terminate the employment of Norma Jacobs, a tenured sixth-grade teacher at Westlawn Middle School ("Westlawn"), pursuant to the Students First Act ("the SFA"), codified at Ala. Code 1975, § 16-24C-1 et seq.[1] The record of the hearing before the Board reveals the following facts.

Jacobs was employed as a sixth-grade teacher for the 2012-2013 school year. She was assigned to Westlawn, which had been awarded a School Improvement Grant ("the SIG") to improve the standardized test scores of the students attending the school over a three-year period. As its principal, Lynnette Alexander, explained, Westlawn was considered a "turn-around school." Westlawn had been in the bottom 10% of schools statewide for the eight years preceding the 2012-2013 school year. As a condition of the SIG, Westlawn was required to provide significant amounts of professional development to its teachers, including a week-long workshop before the school year began and one hour each day of the school year.

As part of its professional-development program, Westlawn performed weekly "walk-throughs" of classes, during which the walk-through team would evaluate the teachers. During the walk-through, the team members would document their observations, and meetings were later held with the teachers to discuss the evaluations and to suggest ways to improve classroom instruction. Notes were made of the walk-through observations, and the record contains several of the walkthrough notes pertaining to observations of Jacobs's class; those notes were not provided to Jacobs or any other teacher. After the meetings, each teacher would receive a document, referred to as a "grows and glows" document, which would highlight the positive aspects of the observation of that teacher, list the issues identified by the team, and suggest ways to improve classroom instruction. The "grows and glows" documents and are not contained in the walk-through notes.

Alexander testified that four observations of Jacobs's class had yielded concerns about Jacobs's teaching methods. Specifically, Alexander testified that the documentation concerning the October 24, 2012, walk-through of Jacobs's class indicated that the students were confused about what they were supposed to be doing; that the lesson plan, strategies on "the board, " and student activity did not match; and that Jacobs had been "combative" with her students. The documentation from the November 7, 2012, walk-through indicated that Jacobs's class suffered from a lack of student engagement, that Jacobs was not checking for understanding as students were reading, that Jacobs remained seated during the observation and failed to monitor student learning, and that Jacobs's lesson plans were not up-to-date and did not reflect what was happening in the classroom. On November 19, 2012, the walk-through team stated that Jacobs was appropriately displaying student work but that "there is no evidence of strategic teaching."

Finally, on January 10, 2013, the walk-through documentation indicated that Linda Mason, from the State Board of Education, had been a part of the team. The concerns noted by Mason included questioning whether Jacobs was properly following the discipline plan because she was having a student write a sentence 300 times as discipline; noting that, during a 35-minute visit to the class, no instruction was given; commenting that the students were permitted to use instructional time to telephone their parents; and complaining that it took too long for the students to get their computers out and begin class work. Mason also noted that no student work was displayed in the classroom; that one student was left unsupervised while the class went to the bathroom; and that students, when questioned about what they were going to do in class that afternoon, responded with "Who knows?"

The recommendation of the walk-through team on October 24, 2012, had been to provide instructional coaching to Jacobs. Lacey Lupo was assigned to provide that instructional coaching to Jacobs. According to Lupo, one main focus of professional development at Westlawn was to have the teachers learn and use strategic-teaching methods. According to Alexander, "[s]trategic teaching is a before, during, and after strategy, and it allows the teachers to check for understanding throughout the lesson." She explained that a teacher should not teach the lesson without checking to see that the students are learning the skill at least three times during the lesson. Alexander further noted that Westlawn had "a lot of at-risk students. At the end of the period, the important thing is mastery and that they're gaining knowledge of that skill."

In addition, Lupo explained, Westlawn utilized a five-step discipline plan, which did not include requiring a student to write a sentence 300 times during instructional time or sending students to the office routinely. Instead, that plan required a teacher to institute classroom consequences and to progress to parent involvement before referring a student to the office. Alexander testified that Jacobs had the highest number of office referrals, in-school suspensions, and out-of-school suspensions in the sixth grade.

Lupo testified that instructional coaching required her to plan lessons together with the teacher she was coaching, to model teaching strategies for that teacher, to co-teach with that teacher, and to observe that teacher to see if the techniques modeled were being utilized. Lupo said that Jacobs seemed resistant to being coached at first; according to Lupo, it seemed as if Jacobs did not see a need for instructional coaching. Lupo said that her early observations of Jacobs revealed a lack of student engagement, strategic teaching, and "best practices." Based on the November 7, 2012, evaluation, Lupo said, Jacobs had failed to incorporate the techniques imparted during coaching. Failing to use strategic teaching, opined Lupo, was not competent teaching.

Mason's observation of Jacobs's class on January 10, 2013, was performed as a part of her assignment to provide assistance to Westlawn in complying with the SIG requirements. She testified at the hearing before the Board that the teaching she observed in Jacobs's class on January 10, 2013, was not up to "standard." Mason said that she observed Jacobs's class for 30 to 35 minutes, during which time, Mason testified, no instruction was provided to the students. Instead, Mason said, "the students were up doing pretty much as they wanted to." Mason contrasted the lack of instruction and classroom discipline in Jacobs's class with other classes she observed that day, stating that "[i]n other classrooms ... students were engaged. They were in small groups or they were working in whole groups."

On January 14, 2013, Alexander and Lupo had a meeting regarding the January 10, 2013, walk-through evaluation with Jacobs; that meeting was transcribed, and the transcript of that meeting was offered into evidence before the Board. According to the transcript, Alexander explained in the January 14, 2013, meeting that she was concerned that Jacobs was not implementing the teaching strategies Lupo had been coaching. Alexander stated that Lupo would need to move on to another teacher who needed coaching, and Lupo expressed her concern that the coaching had not resulted in changes in Jacobs's teaching techniques. Specifically, Alexander commented that she was "not seeing the progression [of Jacobs's skills]" and that she did not see Jacobs "willing to change and try these new things"; she also stated that Jacobs's failure to adapt her teaching style was "damaging to Westlawn." Jacobs said that teaching at Westlawn was "very different from [her former school] where I was just managing behavior." Alexander agreed to allow Jacobs to observe another teacher, Ms. Nevlous, but stated that she would no longer be providing one-on-one coaching through Lupo until she saw Jacobs implementing some of the techniques modeled by Lupo.

Alexander had another meeting with Jacobs on February 25, 2013. That meeting was also transcribed, and the transcript was offered into evidence before the Board. The February 25, 2013, meeting was prompted by complaints Alexander had received from parents, including one parent complaining that her child "hate[d Jacobs's] class so [much] that he is discussing suicide." Alexander informed Jacobs that, based on the evaluations and the complaints, Alexander would be dissolving Jacobs's class and redistributing the students between the other sixth-grade classes. Alexander explained that Jacobs would be assigned to perform math intervention to assist students who had had continuing difficulty mastering math concepts.

In the February 25, 2013, meeting, Alexander explained to Jacobs that, in Alexander's opinion, Jacobs was "a very traditional teacher, and there is not a lot of moving around in your class. There is not a lot of creativity in your work." Further, Alexander stated that parents had complained that "once you get a hold on a child with behavior problems then you don't let it go. You don't give them chances."

When Jacobs said that she "just want[ed] to know what she was doing wrong, " Alexander said: "[D]o you not see how ... Lupo modeled the strategies and you did ...

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