Editor’s Note: An interim co-assistant principal at Amherst Regional Middle School, Alicia Lopez, submitted a letter (below) last week to the district’s School Equity Task Force and the regional school committee, in support of ARMS Interim Principal Patty Bode. Lopez, a Latina, is a longtime educator in Amherst and her letter follows the controversy which arose in recent weeks over Bode’s lack of administrative licensure, and questions about the district’s overall commitment to racial and ethnic diversification of its employees. An April 11 article is here.
In summary, a committee involved in identifying a permanent principal for ARMS recommended three finalists – not including Bode, who is serving as principal on a state waiver – to Superintendent Michael Morris in March. On April 2, Morris sent a letter to the ARMS community stating that based on finalists’ background experiences, he couldn’t support any of those proposed for the permanent post. Morris said he was reappointing Bode as interim principal, and would work with her to obtain proper licensure.
At an April 10 regional school committee meeting, there was an outcry from some on the principal screening committee and the public, who said the finalists put forward were licensed as principals, and included a Black man and a Latina woman, although the finalists’ identities were not made public. Questions were raised about whether the district is truly committed to hiring people of color, and Bode was also criticized for the suspension and “expulsion” of some students. The state’s data on discipline reported by school districts shows 19 suspensions at ARMS for the 2016-2017 school year. The data does not list any expulsions, and can be seen here. The Amherst Spectator will attempt to get further details about disciplinary actions at ARMS under Massachusetts Public Records Law.
The day after the school committee meeting – April 11 – Bode withdrew her acceptance of the interim post for the 2018-2019 school year, and so will not be present in the fall, when Morris has said that another search for a permanent principal will begin.
In Lopez’s letter, which she has revised slightly for publication here, she cites extensive efforts by Bode to make ARMS a welcoming and supportive place for all students, and defends Morris’ actions.
April 17, 2018
Dear members of Equity Task Force,
I am writing this letter to Task Force members similar to one I have recently sent to Dr. Morris and the Amherst Regional School Committee. I am writing with deep concerns and a great deal of sadness about recent events.
I am a teacher, and this year, I have been also acting as co-interim assistant principal at ARMS along with David Ranen. I have been working at ARMS for 14 years, first as a world language teacher, and in the last 7 years, as an ELL teacher. In an effort to be transparent, I want to acknowledge what many people know: I have known Dr. Bode for many years, and she is co-author with my mother, Dr. Sonia Nieto, of the last three editions of the book, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education.
A recent conversation with a friend helped me understand the perspective of the Equity Task Force about transparency, racism, and social justice in our district, as well as screening practices for potential hires. As a Latina, I definitely share some of the same concerns, and I feel strongly about opening up opportunities for staff of color. We need to actively recruit and retain staff of color, and we need to keep getting better at doing this. I would also argue that there are staff of color who feel genuinely supported and a part of the community at all of Amherst’s schools. Nevertheless, I truly understand and empathize with your perspective. I want to also share another perspective – the perspective of most teachers at ARMS.
There are deep, trickle-down consequences for our school and for the greater community of losing Dr. Bode as our principal for the 2018-19 school year. For one, ARMS has not had steady leadership for many, many years. You may have already heard teachers talk about this.
I have been at ARMS since 2004, and in that time, we have had 7 principals. This averages out to a new principal every 2 years. Such rapid change in leadership is detrimental to our school and its vision and progress, as well as to the well-being and morale of our teachers. Last year, however, a principal was hired who we finally felt would stay with us, support us as teachers, give us back our voice, and help push the Middle School forward in many great ways.
As a teacher, when Dr. Bode was hired, I sighed a sigh of relief. Her work at ARMS, in two short years, is already evident in many ways, although some more visible than others.
For instance, the Connecticut River Valley mural which adorns two long hallways on the second floor of ARMS, is a beautiful product of months of work in collaboration with our Art and Social Studies teachers and students, as well as art teachers from the community.
In another example, our all-school sings are a place of joy and community. Our culture of guiding students to make the right decisions and being more community-oriented are palpable everywhere.
Our Soup for Puerto Rico evening was a great community event demonstrating solidarity with Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and we raised $2,000 to donate to the cause.
Our teach-in on the gun control movement on March 14 was an example of how we can give ALL students voice, regardless of their political leanings, religion, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. For two years in a row, Dr. Bode organized all school (even the administrative staff) field trips to see the movies “Hidden Figures” last year, and “Wonder” this year. Both times, teachers taught advisory lessons about the movies. And finally, Dr.Bode made ARMS the first public school in the country to host the Family Diversity Projects, Inc. photo/text exhibit “Pioneering Voices: Portraits of Transgender People.”
Dr. Bode’s life’s work has been dedicated to learning and teaching about multicultural education. Her research spans the gamut from art as a civil right to the school-to-prison pipeline. As a white woman, she is consciously aware of her biases. She agonizes over every single decision she makes about kids’ lives, but especially when they are students of color, because she is keenly aware of the repercussions. At the same time, Dr. Bode is responsible for keeping our students safe.
She has had to make a few decisions that were not popular with some people, a dilemma which all principals are faced with many times each year. However, as Amherst’s population of Latino and economically disadvantaged students increases rapidly, Amherst Regional Middle School needs a leader like Dr. Bode who brings a true understanding and research background in multicultural teaching practices.
She imparts this knowledge to the faculty, and she pushes teachers, and other professionals in our school, as well as paraprofessionals to be aware of their biases. She is committed to bringing back our “Becoming a Multicultural School” philosophy from many years ago. This is real multicultural and anti-racist education that teachers, finally feeling supported in their work, will be more open to understanding and adopting in their classrooms.
While all of the work I describe above has been very visible, there are also less visible but no less significant actions Dr. Bode takes every day that impact our students. Her creative solutions for those who do not fit “in the box” have provided many students with a chance to be more successful in their education. For example, Dr. Bode helped to create a schedule that included intensive bilingual tutoring every day for one of our students who had had interrupted schooling in his country, and had not learned to read and write in his native language.
In other example, during a unit I was teaching about identity, Dr. Bode came to my class to teach my ELL students about skin color in a thought-provoking lesson. How many principals visit class to teach a lesson? Yet Dr.Bode can be seen often with her artist’s apron on, hands speckled with paint, happily coming out of yet another classroom where she helped teach.
In an example that is invisible to the public, Dr.Bode provided a bagel breakfast every morning for two weeks to encourage a student to arrive early to school substance-free. This student has been able to change his lifestyle and is more focused on his school work and sports. He knows that she cares deeply about him and his future because she tells him often. He is a student of color from one of our most marginalized communities in Amherst.
Dr. Bode is truly our instructional leader, and she has taught our staff in numerous ways. We have adopted a culture of visual thinking at school. Students are familiar with the questions, “What do you notice, what do you wonder?” She has taught different groups at school, through modeling, how to effectively run a meeting. In Child Study Team, we do not criticize the work of teachers but instead try to find solutions for helping our students; it has become a place of thinking and collaboration.
Our faculty meetings are often led by teachers, because Dr. Bode knows that the best teacher professional development is led by teachers. This is also why our inquiry groups, which had been missing for several years, resurfaced at ARMS when she took over. Curriculum leaders’ meetings are also a space for sharing thoughts and ideas and thinking about the big picture in terms of curriculum at ARMS.
In addition, I feel that I can speak for many of our teachers when I say that we have been more unified as a faculty than I remember in all my years here.
When teachers are unified, and their own social-emotional needs are attended to, they can focus more on their students and their teaching practice. All of this is now in jeopardy, as we face having to find a new administrative team all over again. Teachers are weary and disappointed, as well as worried about the future of ARMS.
As a teacher at heart herself, Dr.Bode supports teacher’s work. Thanks to Dr. Bode’s support, this year I developed a fully integrated English Language Arts and social studies unit about immigration spanning half the school year. Dr. Bode was instrumental in helping me write and receive a grant from the Amherst Education Foundation. My students have been able to delve deeply into issues of immigration, including immigration push-and-pull factors from their own countries, refugee crises around the world, and their identities as immigrants.
A space has been created for them to feel pride in their backgrounds instead of shame. By writing their immigration narratives and interviewing their families, they have been able to appreciate their families’ decisions in a more conscious way. Moreover, they have learned interview and photography skills, and have been through an extensive process of self, peer and group editing of their writing. All of this was made possible because of Dr. Bode’s support, encouragement, and belief in my idea. I have never felt such wholehearted validation of my work as teacher.
While I have heard many people say that what is happening at ARMS is not a personal attack on Dr. Bode, ultimately it is. In addition, another of the perhaps unintended consequences of the recent events is that ARMS will lose its Latina, bilingual/bicultural assistant principal. Along with Dr. Bode and Mr.Ranen, I have worked hard to reach out in less traditional ways (text, home visits, visits to workplaces, meetings late in the day to accommodate work schedules) to our families, working in collaboration with them to ensure they and their children have a voice and a place at ARMS. This change in administration represents a loss to these families, many of whom express their gratitude to me in Spanish.
One parent with whom I communicate almost daily texted me one day, “Que camine con Dios”, or “May she walk with God”, in gratitude for something Dr. Bode had done for her child. This parent will not likely attend a school committee meeting to support Dr. Bode – but her words do.
I cannot say enough about how Dr. Bode has changed the middle school, influenced our school culture, and helped us be better, not to mention how much she means to me and others as a teacher leader and administrative mentor. No principal is perfect or necessarily well-liked by everyone; every leader has flaws. However, Dr. Bode has done an impressive job, bringing issues of diversity and equity to the forefront and uniting our staff after a very difficult period. I think it is a huge error to change our leadership once more, and for our district to lose Dr. Bode is a travesty. Our faculty deserves better. Our students deserve better.
Representation matters, and I agree that we need more transparency about the process of searching for a principal. I myself would like to gain more clarity about how people were chosen to be on the screening committee. In addition to wanting representation and diverse staff and leadership, we want aware and proven leaders with an honest commitment to multicultural, anti-racist education, and in Dr. Bode we have that.
Lastly, I would like to invite members of the committee to come see firsthand the amazing work being done in our school, thanks in part to the innovative leadership we have had.