Photos by Carolyn de Berry
UPDATED (7/14/23): On June 16, parents received an email announcing that the school’s director, Tinisha Shaw, wasn’t going to be returning to the school the following school year.
Concerned parents whose children attended the Experiential School of Greensboro allege a pattern unjustified punishment and a lack of transparency at the social-justice centered charter school.
It was supposed to be a joke.
Monday, May 8 started like any other day for Kristen K.’s child, a sixth-grader who attends the Experiential School of Greensboro, a public charter school better known as TESG. They went to class, talked to friends, lamented about homework. During one conversation they complained about being stuck at school and joked with friends about pulling the fire alarm or putting something metal in the microwave to cause a distraction.
Two days later, Kristen’s child was suspended. Less than a week later, Kristen found out that the school had filed a police report against her child and that they had been formally kicked out of the school.
Kristen and her husband Seth K., who prefer to use just their last initials for privacy’s sake, are part of a growing number of parents who spoke to Triad City Beat about ongoing problems they say are taking place at TESG. Parents allege a complete disregard by the school’s administration and board of directors for the school’s original charter, which was formed with social justice at its core. Multiple suspensions without due process, a lack of communication with parents, disregard for students’ learning disabilities, staff turnover and now sudden expulsion are among the list of complaints by parents and a former staff member.
One parent filed a state-level complaint through Legal Aid NC after they say their child was unjustly suspended from the school. Another filed a complaint that resulted in an investigation that found the school didn’t address their child’s unique learning differences.
In addition to the mounting problems, parents say that a lack of oversight of the school because of its status as a public charter prevents any change or accountability. All of this has culminated in TESG abandoning its mission of being an inclusive, justice-oriented school, parents say.
“Their divergence from this commitment with my son’s education is not only astounding, it supports the relentless practice of funneling children like my son down the school-to-prison pipeline with an unjust swiftness and with zero mercy,” one parent said.
How TESG was founded
Kristen K. told TCB that the conversation their child was having with their friends was just light bantering by frustrated middle schoolers — “kids engaged in some stupid conversation,” as she called it. But other students who overheard told their teacher, who notified the director of the school, Tinisha Shaw. Kristen’s child was sent home for the remainder of the day and on the evening of May 10, she got a call from Shaw who told her that her child was suspended for five days, much to Kristen’s alarm. Less than a week later, Kristen and Seth were notified that their child was being “excluded” — the term used when charter schools remove a student from its school; they were speechless.
“This is the only time she has been in trouble,” Kristen said. “This is the only disciplinary record that they have for her, but they’re going for exclusion for her.”
According to NC state law, as well as TESG’s handbook, exclusion refers to when a student is removed from a charter school and is allowed to apply for enrollment in their neighborhood public school while expulsion is a term used by all schools. Expulsion is age-limited and prohibits the student from attending a traditional school in North Carolina.
On May 16, Kristen and Seth responded with a request to appeal to the school’s board of directors on the decision to exclude their child. The only problem is that the decision was made by a subcommittee of that same board.
“We are appealing to the same people who decided to exclude her,” Seth said. “It feels fairly draconian.”
An explanation of the complaint process for charter schools on the NC Dept. of Public Instruction website notes that parents should reach out to school administration and then appeal to the board of directors if their concerns aren’t resolved.
“Ultimately, the charter school board is responsible for all aspects of the school’s operations, including resolution of disputes or concerns brought forth by parents,” the process reads. “The decision of the nonprofit board, much like that of an elected school district board, is final.”
TESG would not answer questions we had for this story, citing students’ privacy concerns.
Kristen and Seth, who have two other children in the school, joined TESG in its first year in 2018, when the school was operating out of a church off of Highway NC-68. They, like many of the other parents who were drawn to TESG, said they joined because of the school’s progressive, social-justice mission. And as a social-justice focused school, punitive punishment was seen as a last resort for the school.
“Most schools have kind of a lip service to the emotional social learning thing,” said Kristen, who has a background in early childhood education as well as middle school mathematics. “It’s not something that is embedded in the curriculum, but at TESG they have that as part of the curriculum; it’s on the report card as a grade.”
The Experiential School of Greensboro, Inc. was incorporated on Sept. 8, 2016 as a nonprofit, according to articles of incorporation filed with the NC Secretary of State’s Office. The school officially opened as a public charter school for K-8th grade students in the fall of 2018. At a public charter school, parents apply to send their children and admission is free. If the number of applications exceeds the availability, a lottery takes place.
In terms of funding, TESG gets money from state and local tax dollars as a public charter school and as a nonprofit, all of TESG’s tax returns are public record. The most recent online tax return shows that TESG had a total revenue of $2.91 million for the fiscal year ending in June 2020. That number is an increase from the total revenue the school had as of June 2019, at $2.23 million. Almost all of the revenue comes from government grants while most of the expenses ($2.79 million in 2020 and $2.05 million for 2019) are for employees’ salaries and benefits.
Those who oppose charter schools say they divert funding away from traditional public schools. A December 2017 study found that charter schools can impact public school districts negatively by reducing spending capacity, number of students and budget flexibility.
According to data collected by the Office of Charter Schools, there are 204 charter schools in NC with more than 130,000 students; the number of schools and student enrollment has been growing over the last decade. The total revenue calculated for public charter schools in Guilford County amounted to $53.41 million dollars.
According to school documents and interviews with parents, TESG was founded in 2018 by Melissa Bocci, Heather Moore and Leila Villaverde. In the beginning, Bocci and Moore ran the school as co-directors while Villaverde sat on the school’s board of directors as president. To this day, Villaverde serves as board president while Bocci and Moore left the school in 2020.
TCB could not reach Villaverde, Bocci or Moore for comment.
“The Experiential School of Greensboro educates the whole child through a high quality, project-based, experiential curriculum,” the school’s charter application reads. “We are committed to an inclusive, open, experience-based learning environment that promotes the development of socially-aware citizens who are creative problem solvers and critical thinkers.”
The application delves into how TESG aimed to be different from public schools in the area. The lengthy response touches on the school’s commitment to experiential learning, in which students are respected as “equal partners in the development of their intelligence” and their needs are centered. Curriculums would be “progressive” and “hands-on,” with teachers allowed to co-construct lessons, policies and procedures.
The application notes how the school would be based downtown to capitalize on the cultural institutions in the immediate area as well as serve “families of all backgrounds.” The school is located off of Church Street across from the train station. The school also aimed to break the barriers of stringent grade levels by allowing students of varying ages to collaborate. Students who learned differently or had special needs would be welcomed, too.
“As our program strives to create inclusive classrooms where all students can be successful regardless of their unique challenges, we adhere to the principles of universal design for learning (UDL),” the application reads. “UDL is a neuroscience-based system for designing learning environments, methods, materials and assessments that promote differentiation so as to simultaneously serve all students without resorting to standardized, one-size-fits-all practices.”
As a person diagnosed with ADHD whose children also have ADHD, Kristen said the school’s mission seemed perfect for her family.
“Most schools do a disservice to kids with ADHD or kids who are neuro-atypical,” she said. “They label kids as bad, but then there’s this idea of a school that doesn’t label kids and also meets kids where they’re at; that is amazing. That is to me, the ideal situation.”
The big pull for many parents who spoke to TCB was the school’s commitment to social and restorative justice. While right-wing conservatives have taken aim at schools in recent years for discussing race, gender and other intersecting identities, TESG was attempting to create that kind of nuanced curriculum in 2016.
“Culturally-responsive pedagogy respects students home cultures and funds of knowledge and brings them into the curriculum, sees diversity as an asset, communicates high expectations for all students and centers equity,” the school’s application states.
All of the principles outlined in the school’s original charter application promised parents and students a singular educational experience.
“TESG’s unique program offers parents and students a true choice in style of schooling,” the application states. “There are no magnet, neighborhood or charter schools in the area offering this kind of educational opportunity.”
And that’s what strongly appealed to parents like Karen Obas.
“I was so excited to the point that I moved here for him to go to this school,” Obas said in an interview. “I just felt like this is where my son needs to be.”
Escalations in punishment?
When Kristen and Seth learned about their child’s suspension, they went to the school and met with Director Shaw, the school counselor and Board President Villaverde. That’s when they learned that the school had filed a police report against their child.
Despite asking the school multiple times for a copy of the report, Kristen and Seth said that they were never given one. Instead, they had to go down to the police station and request a public copy.
According to a copy of the report provided to TCB by the family, police were called to the school on May 10 after students had gone home due to a “threat of mass violence.”
“I’m mad,” Kristen said. “This is my child. I am mad that per the charter, what it says qualifies for long-term suspension, which is more than 10 days, expulsion or exclusion, I don’t consider what she did to fulfill those requirements.”
While the exclusion of Kristen and Seth’s child from TESG is a recent event, the apparent escalation of punishment by the school’s administration and board of directors is not new, parents say.
In September 2022, Karen Obas’ child Isaiah* was suspended from TESG after he superimposed a picture of his teacher’s head onto the body of Eddie Munson, a character from the Netflix series, “Stranger Things.” (*Editor’s note: Names of minors mentioned in this story have either been changed or omitted for privacy).
The popular image shows Munson posing in front of a car on fire and is often used by TikTok users as their profile picture. When a different teacher was made aware of the photo, Obas said Isaiah was called into Shaw’s office, sent home and subsequently suspended for five days.
Obas quickly became concerned.
Months later, those concerns are now outlined in a formal complaint that Legal Aid NC attorney Crystal Ingram filed against TESG on behalf of Obas and her son.
The complaint, filed with the Office of Charter Schools, a branch within the NC Dept. of Public Instruction, alleges that the school violated its charter agreement and its own policies, as well as a provision of state law.
Because the Office of Charter School no longer investigates complaints, the concerns were added to TESG’s physical file as a complaint letter as suggested by the office.
According to the complaint, Shaw suspended Isaiah for five days for violating the school’s “acceptable internet use policy.”
The policy states that the school provides internet access for education and that the access is a privilege, not a right. However, the complaint argues that Isaiah never intended to purposefully violate the policy and that the school violated state law by suspending Isaiah without “evidence of any willful violation.”
As a social justice-oriented school, TESG is detailed about its views on student conduct and discipline.
“TESG believes students should take an active role in creating and maintaining a safe, supportive school climate and relationships, and support services (for psychological, health, academic, and social welfare concerns) more effectively maintain discipline than zero tolerance or punitive policies,” the charter application states.
Both the school charter and the 2020 Handbook and Student Code of Conduct echoed similar policies on suspensions. The handbook that is currently on the website was updated in October 2022, but the suspension policy appears to be the same.
“TESG will not, except under these extreme circumstances, suspend, exclude or expel students:
- on-going emotional or physical abuse not resulting in injury requiring more than first aid of peers or teachers that does not respond to school interventions;
- serious one-time physical abuse resulting in injuries requiring more than first aid;
- any sexual abuse of peers or teachers; and
- serious, aggressive threats to the personal safety of others.”
Obas’ attorney makes the argument in the state complaint that Isaiah’s conduct did not meet any of the four extreme circumstances listed in TESG’s policy.
Parents told TCB that when conflicts arose in school, teachers and staff opted for a restorative-justice approach in which affected students would sit in a circle to recap events. The school’s website outlines additional details on the process.
“Restorative practices may be folded in if and when an incident occurs, students are guided through active reflection,” the website states. Cards showing a series of questions that students will use have been uploaded to the webpage.
“A key component of both responsive classrooms and restorative practices is the use of circles either to honor each student’s presence and/or manage conflict,” the webpage states. “These proactive circles lay the groundwork of community and trust. When issues arise, we also use circles to help those involved repair their relationships, community and trust. In these restorative circles, participants have the opportunity to talk about how they are feeling and thinking, explore their role in the incident, and make a plan for how to restore and move forward.”
Obas said that this didn’t take place for Isaiah. The complaint also argues that Isaiah wasn’t given due process because he wasn’t allowed to explain himself during a meeting with Director Shaw.
“Under [state law], Isaiah was entitled to a properly conducted informal hearing with TESG’s Executive Director,” the complaint states. “When Isaiah was informed of the alleged violations, the Executive Director was required to allow Isaiah to fully explain and defend his actions at an informal hearing. Instead, when she met with him upon learning of the photo, she continuously interrupted him and inserted her own beliefs about his actions.”
When Obas went back to the school to talk to Shaw directly about Isaiah’s suspension, she said Shaw told her: “Some things are beyond restoration.”
Obas recalled that Shaw argued the image created by her son qualified as harassment and cyberbullying, adding that, because of the nature of those instances, she wasn’t required to follow the disciplinary policies. Shaw said the decision was up to her discretion.
Obas tried to explain that Isaiah has a learning difference and asked whether Shaw had taken that into consideration. According to Obas, Isaiah has had an individualized education plan, or an IEP, since he was 6 years old. Students who have IEPs are covered by special education law, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees every child a free appropriate public education regardless of disability.
As a child, her son was diagnosed with combined type ADHD, which means he exhibits symptoms of both hyperactivity as well as inattention. Isaiah also suffered from anxiety at times and in fifth grade exhibited a regression in writing. That’s when Obas discovered that Isaiah also has sensory integration disorder, which means that he can become easily overwhelmed and is sensitive to external stimuli that can make it hard for him to start or finish tasks.
When Obas brought this up to Shaw, she said the director asked if Isaiah had an IEP.
“This is huge because she should have known before she called me,” Obas said.
Then Shaw told Obas that Isaiah’s IEP would be considered during an investigation into the incident.
To this day, Obas has not received a copy of the school’s investigation.
“What’s happening here is that they’re throwing out their own disciplinary policy and using punitive punishment,” said Obas.
Up until a few years ago, Isaiah had been enrolled in public schools in the Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County school system. But when the pandemic hit and Isaiah had to attend school remotely, Obas decided to look up alternatives for her son’s education. That’s when she came across TESG.
After Isaiah started attending the school in August 2021, things were bumpy for a while. Obas had to fight for the school to put her son on an IEP and recognize the unique challenges he faced, she said, because they weren’t as visible as some other students’ disabilities. She emailed the school repeatedly and wasn’t able to schedule an IEP meeting for Isaiah until June 2022, almost a year later. A few months after that was when Obas was called into the school because her son had created the image with Eddie Munson and that he needed to go home for the day.
“He was never suspended for anything,” Obas said. “I’ve often been told that he was a chatterbox in class because he’s learning impulse control.”
At the time, Obas had just had surgery for a herniated disc in her spine and couldn’t drive, so her partner had to pick Isaiah up.
“When he got home, he was sobbing hysterically,” Obas said. “He was mortified.”
Obas also pointed out the fact that her son is a mixed-race child, making this episode an example of how Black and Brown children are funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline.
“What bothered me so much was the assumption of ill intent and to assume this about a 12-year-old who has never had any disciplinary issues,” Obas said. “I wanted to make sure that the suspension was not going to stay on his record…. You’re putting him down a school-to-prison pipeline; this is the first step.”
According to Obas, the teacher who had been put on the image her son made wasn’t the one who circulated it and reported it to the director. It was another teacher, she said.
The school director “was trying to emphasize how dangerous it was,” Obas said. “She said the teacher felt threatened, but it wasn’t even the teacher that reported it.”
Ingram, the Legal Aid attorney wrote: “TESG tells students, families, and other stakeholders, ‘expulsions and suspensions do more harm than good for students and society,’ and declared in its charter school application that ‘it would not, except under extreme circumstances, expel or suspend students.’ Yet, in this case, TESG strayed heavily from those principles with an obvious disregard for the educational and emotional impact it would have on this student and his family. As such, there must be accountability for divergence from its founding principles and its advertised practices. Students at TESG deserve to be given the education their parents were promised they would receive.”
Last December, Isaiah was suspended a second time from TESG. According to the complaint, Shaw alleges that Isaiah became physically and verbally aggressive towards his classmates after becoming upset in class. The letter states that Isaiah used profanity and lunged at a student, ultimately hitting one with his elbow when they tried to calm him down.
The complaint by Legal Aid NC argues that, despite Isaiah’s outburst, the incident did not meet the school’s standards for suspension because it did not involve “on-going emotional or physical abuse not resulting in injury requiring more than first aid of peers or teachers….”
Of the second suspension, Obas said that afterwards, her son entered a regressed state of mind and began talking to her like a 5-year-old.
“He was checked out from reality; he didn’t remember what happened,” Obas said.
Isaiah was suspended for three days in January 2023.
On Jan. 12, Obas pulled Isaiah out of TESG.
A lack of oversight?
Shortly after Obas’ complaint was sent to the Office of Charter Schools in the NC Dept. of Public Instruction, Obas and Ingram were notified that the office is no longer accepting formal complaints.
“Our office no longer has a formal complaint process available,” Ashley Baquero, the state charter schools director, wrote in an email to Obas and Ingram. “My limited staff and the fact we are not a legal office prohibits us from completing the sort of investigations that formal complaints often require. I highly suggest proceeding with engaging the school and/or its attorney.”
Prior to filing the complaint, the NC Dept. of Public Instruction had a document on its website outlining the process for filing official grievances against charter schools. The Office of Charter Schools was listed as the place to send official complaints. However, Baquero said that the instructions on the site were outdated and that the process had changed.
“The method Legal Aid proclaimed to use was an old form we have tried removing from the DPI website for over a year now,” Baquero told TCB. “Apparently it was linked in several places and while we thought it was down, it was not. We have since updated the OCS webpage for ‘complaints’ and believe IT has taken the old referenced form off permanently.”
Baquero told TCB that formal complaints can be sent either to the Office of Civil Rights under the US Department of Education or the Office of Exceptional Children under the NC Dept. of Public Instruction. Although the complaint filed was not investigated due to capacity issues and internal regulations, the Office of Charter Schools still allows parents to submit concerns about a charter school which can be added to the school’s file.
Despite these alternative options, Obas said that she feels this is a “dangerous precedent for the Office of Charter Schools to have set.”
“I do feel that this explains why the TESG Board and administration feels and acts invincible,” she said to TCB. “If they know the OCS is too overwhelmed to even investigate complaints, they have license to neglect and abuse their own policies in the absence of checks and balances. This would also give them license to threaten parents, as they regularly have, with an inability to challenge their disciplinary policies, especially around short-term suspensions.”
While Obas, Kristen and Seth have been dealing with a lack of accountability more recently, another parent faced issues while their child was enrolled in TESG a few years ago.
In April 2021, a former TESG parent, who preferred to be referred to by initials only for privacy, filed a formal complaint against the school to the Office of Exceptional Children. As part of the complaint, HH asked the office to investigate whether TESG had violated five policies that related to their child’s IEP. In June 2021, the office completed its investigation, finding that the school had violated four out of the five policies.
The investigation document noted that TESG violated its policies regarding development, review and revision of the child’s IEP; its policies regarding parent participation, including providing them a copy of the IEP; its policy regarding prior written notice; and, lastly, did not implement the IEP. In response, the Office of Exceptional Children required TESG to follow corrective actions including completing additional training.
In an interview with TCB, HH said that like Obas, they followed the initial steps of trying to remediate the situation by reaching out directly to the school first.
On TESG’s website there is a grievance form that explains the process. But when HH filed a grievance with the board, they deflected, they said.
“I filed a grievance with TESG board, but they said I had to file a complaint directly with the special ed teacher,” HH said. “I knew that wasn’t going to go anywhere so I decided to file to the state.”
On the same day they filed the complaint, HH pulled their child out of TESG. What they wanted was for there to be a paper trail of TESG’s shortcomings and for the state to audit the school, they said.
“I didn’t feel like I was the only one having these issues,” they said.
At this point, Kristen and Seth are not planning to file a state-level complaint against the school. But they’re also not optimistic about getting due process for their child to return to TESG.
“All of the concerns with administration notwithstanding, we would want our child to return to the school,” Seth said. “If this was a normal school, expulsion would be handled by the superintendent of the school district and we could appeal to the school board. Public schools have due process, but this is a public charter.”
The parents told TCB that the other students involved in the jokes about putting something in the microwave have all returned to school after either short suspensions or no punishment at all. Theirs is the only one facing exclusion and no others were listed on the police report.
After requesting an appeal of the board of director’s decision, Kristen and Seth will have the opportunity to speak at a hearing for 10 minutes to make their case. The date for the hearing has not yet been set.
One of the main issues, according to the parents, is the change in administration and staff that has created what they say is a power vacuum in which the board of directors — and really board chair Villaverde — hold all of the power.
‘Four directors in five years’
Amy Romero’s daughter started at TESG during the 2021-22 school year as a fifth-grader. Originally her child went to Claxton Elementary in Guilford County Schools, but Romero decided to enroll her daughter at TESG because of the social-justice principles.
“I thought it would be great for a child that wasn’t fitting the mold of traditional schools and to bring more diversity into her life,” Romero told TCB.
When Romero’s child enrolled at TESG, the school was on its second director, Tracy Shaw — no relation to Tinisha Shaw, the current director. Tracy Shaw had been director since mid-2020, after Melissa Bocci and Heather Moore’s departure from the school.
Both Bocci and Moore had been running the school since its opening in 2018, while Villaverde chaired the school’s board. But somewhere along the way, communication and goals for the school between Villaverde and Bocci and Moore diverged. The school declined to renew Bocci and Moore’s contracts in 2020.
Sachiko Harding, who enrolled her child at TESG at the very beginning in 2018, said that when Bocci and Moore left the school there was no communication from administration or the school board on the reasons why.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Harding said, “but it was hard to see the forest through the trees during COVID.”
Afterwards, the school hired Tracy Shaw, who Romero said was “present, accountable and transparent” compared to the school’s current director.
Despite the staff changes, the presence of a longtime, beloved staff member instilled confidence in many of the parents.
Arthur Durham was hired when the school first started in 2018 as the office manager. He previously worked in New York City as a supervisor for an anti-gun violence program and in secondary education schools. He knew how to work with all students and de-escalate conflict.
The role at TESG sounded perfect for him; he quickly became the face of the school, more than the directors or any other teacher, he said.
“I greeted every child every day,” Durham said. “Every day they walked through the door, I knew everybody’s name, knew their situation, knew their parents. I always wanted to set the pace so everybody felt accepted, so they could feel like they could be safe. As an office manager, I was the face of the school; I took that as a responsibility to make these kids smile, to make sure parents feel they are safe while I’m there.”
Several parents told TCB how much they appreciated Durham being at the school.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful this man was,” said Harding. “He was just the glue of the school. He remembered every student, every parent, what we did for work. He cared so deeply.”
But then, after winter break in 2022, Durham announced that he was leaving to take a job with the city of Greensboro doing violence-prevention work. He left TESG simply because the job with the city was a better opportunity, Durham told TCB.
Durham said he was confused when he heard about Isaiah being suspended.
“I was thrown off,” Durham said. “Like, ‘What do you mean they’re suspending them?’ I would have raised hell before my kid was sent home if they were suspended for that type of infraction.”
He said it’s understandable that parents who were used to the restorative justice policies would be upset by the changes.
“I get the frustration,” Durham said.
Durham said that for most of the school’s history, suspensions were rare.
“Suspensions in our school weren’t things that just happened,” he said. “I was the main individual that administered resolutions. You don’t just get one infraction and they throw you out.”
Harding said her decision to pull her child out coincided with Durham’s departure.
Like other parents, she was initially drawn to the school because of its nontraditional nature. Her child, who is on the autism spectrum, has ADHD and suffers from anxiety, started third grade at TESG. She quickly integrated into the classrooms.
“I noticed an immediate difference in her,” Harding said. “She was a big reader; they read together everyday. She was accepted in that school. In general, this school had this vibe that being different was celebrated. In that environment, she was celebrated for being an individual rather than being beaten into submission and into compliance like everyone else; I think she felt seen.”
But then 2020 hit and everything changed. The school went remote, the original co-directors left and the new director — Tracy Shaw — was hired. Then, at the end of the 2021 school year, the board announced via email that Tracy wasn’t going to be returning. Similar to when Bocci and Moore left, there wasn’t a clear explanation of what happened.
“We got the sense that she was fired or let go,” Romero said. “It came as a shock. They did not give any explanation as to why.”
Harding pulled her child from TESG in December 2022.
For the 2022-23 school year, Tinisha Shaw was hired as the school’s new director. In the past few years, parents have become increasingly concerned about the turnover rate, not only for administration, but with teachers.
Like many other schools in the country, TESG has struggled with teacher turnover in the last few years.
Data analyzed by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization focusing on education, shows that across the US, turnover for educators has risen in the last few years. In North Carolina, nearly 5,500 more teachers left public schools between September 2021 and September 2022, compared to the year between September 2019 and September 2020, based on data analyzed by the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina.
In terms of teacher qualifications, TESG has a higher percentage of beginning teachers when compared to the rest of Guilford County and the state of NC as a whole, according to data collected by the NC Dept. of Public Instruction.
TESG’s school report card for the 2021-22 school years shows that beginning teachers made up 53.1 percent of educators compared to 19.1 and 16.7 percent for Guilford County and North Carolina as a whole, respectively.
Seth noted that since his child has been with the school, there has been a lot of teacher turnover and that many of the educational staff are young.
“We are in a teacher shortage,” he said. “They keep hiring really young teachers and they need support; they’re still learning.”
Durham said that the teacher turnover rate could be attributed to the kinds of students who were attracted to TESG. Many parents who sought out TESG did so because of their justice-oriented discipline policy and because their children had special needs. That sometimes led to an issue with keeping classes under control, Durham said.
“We had more cases like IEPs and 504s,” Durham said. “It was because TESG was considered a good school for kids to be in an environment where they could be themselves.”
Like IEPs, 504s are special accommodation plans for students with disabilities or impairments.
According to the school report card, children with disabilities scored a 20, or an “F” overall for their performance scores at TESG for the previous school year.
Durham also pointed out that the school had gone through four directors in five years. Even as the office manager, Durham was never privy to the inner workings of the board and why they fired or hired certain people.
“I don’t know what’s going on with that; I don’t talk to the board with that,” he said. “I know they wanted to ramp up the discipline, like there will be consequences for certain actions. It was necessary because teachers were leaving. They were saying kids are running rampant here.”
Despite the turnovers, many of the parents interviewed spoke highly of the teachers at the school. Romero said her child’s teachers have been “phenomenal,” while Seth said that his child’s teachers are “fantastic.”
“They understand the kids at a level that I rarely see teachers do at this age,” Seth said.” They have done such an amazing job. I think the problems are with administration.”
A board with too much power?
According to the parents TCB talked to, TESG’s current director has used a holdover policy from the pandemic to keep parents out of the school even when other schools were allowing people back into the buildings. Others said there has been a stark decline in communication between parents and school administration in the last few years.
Rachel Morton enrolled two of her children at TESG when it opened in 2018. Now, she has three children enrolled at the school. From the beginning, she fell in love with the teachers and the co-directors and the staff.
“Our kids felt comfortable and safe there,” she said.
Morton mentioned how both Bocci and Moore were personable and always around the school, checking in on the students and knew the parents on a first-name basis. They also created ample opportunities for the parents to stay engaged at the school, like a staff appreciation club and a book club, as well as family nights and other events at the school.
When 2020 came around and the parents heard from the board that Bocci and Moore weren’t returning, Morton and other parents wrote letters to the board asking them what happened and urging them to keep the co-founders.
“Certainly within our school there is a lack of communication because parents aren’t allowed to gather and the way the administration and board is so unapproachable has cut off that community as well,” Morton said.
According to Morton, the real issues began after the original co-directors left. She had been serving on C4, a kind of PTA group for TESG. When Tracy Shaw was hired as director, Morton said she appeared eager to be involved with C4 but that she kept saying she had to “check with the board.”
“She seemed kind of cut off at the knees,” Morton said. “It seemed like there was a lot more control happening by the board since the two directors left. A lot of us suspect that once they left, the board had a lot more power.”
On TESG’s website, there is a listing of the school’s board of directors. As mentioned before, Villaverde, one of the school’s original founders, serves as the board president. Her husband, Roy Carter, a professor and director of the visual arts and university galleries at NC A&T State University, also sits on the board. So too does Travis Laughlin, the past executive director of Elsewhere; Gregory Bush with Guilford County Social Services; Joanna Lower, an adjunct instructor at UNCG; Fred Adams, a district judge in Winston-Salem; and Carl Lashley, a professor of educational leadership. While the listing does not indicate this, many of the board members have ties to UNCG, including Lashley and Villaverde who both work for the school. Both Bocci and Moore are also UNCG alumni.
Kristen K. said parents have repeatedly asked to have more representation on the board.
“Right now they argue that there are parents on the board like Leila and Joanna, but these people are not representing our wants or our needs,” Kristen said. “And they are not opening communication to do so.”
Board members, including Villaverde, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from TCB for this story. In an email labeled “Office Manager,” the school said that as a public charter school, TESG “does not respond to requests for information about personnel or students, as such information is protected by privacy laws,” but the school did not respond to additional questions about issues that do not have to do with specific children, including changes in parental volunteer opportunities, building access and staff turnover.
When Tracy Shaw left and Tinisha Shaw was hired in 2022, Morton said that the C4, along with other avenues for parents to be involved, were taken away. Then, Morton and other parents say, they were told by administration that a different kind of parent group called the Sunshine Committee would be started to let parents’ voices be heard. However, Morton told TCB that the committee is currently made up only of administrators.
“There are no staff or parents on the committee any longer,” Morton said. “They dissolved our involvement and canceled our Staff Appreciation Week plans, then made their own so that parent involvement would not be necessary.”
Some of the parents told TCB that Tinisha Shaw started virtual “Tea with ED” meetings to answer questions from parents. The last “Tea with ED,” according to school newsletters posted on the school’s Facebook page, was scheduled for March 23. In addition to the changes in parental involvement, one of the biggest items of contention for parents is lack of access to the school.
“The only way I’m allowed in the school is if I’m picking her up late,” Romero said. “I can’t drop off her lunch; we can’t eat lunch with them.”
Morton said she’s not sure why the culture of the school has changed so drastically, adding that she doesn’t know if the rules comes from the director or the board.
“To go into this year with such a loss of community without having a strong director present felt like something really drastic had changed,” she said. “We felt like we were not welcome.”
When parents speak at the virtual school board meetings, Morton said that board members don’t respond or address speakers’ concerns.
“Your questions are never answered; your points are never addressed or followed up,” she said. “Although many people have tried, it really feels pointless.”
In November, parents were finally welcomed back into the school for a family night three months into the school year. Morton said it’s not enough.
“I think the biggest problem is a lack of community,” Morton said. “We started out so strong but now it seems like we’re very closed off.”
Kristen echoed Morton and Romero’s concerns. She said she believes most of the issues at the school stem from the way the board is running TESG.
“I think it’s the board,” Kristen said. “I think Leila Villaverde has trickled down and has control of the board and control of the director, which has led to a place where we are not allowed to ask questions; we are not allowed to be involved.”
‘[T]he community has a right to know’
Nearly four months later, Isaiah is set to attend a new school soon. According to Obas, her son is excited to get back to school after several months of being homeschooled.
“The most important thing to me is that he is safe now,” Obas said. “I know that he will continue to bounce back…. Isaiah is doing much better than he was when he was in the TESG building every day, that is for sure.”
He was awarded an opportunity scholarship a few weeks ago that will cover tuition for his new school.
For other parents who pulled their children out of TESG and especially those whose children are still there, they say they don’t want the school to close down. They want the school to return to its mission of social justice, transparency and community.
“I want to support the school; the original ideology was so fantastic,” said Harding, whose child is returning to Guilford County Schools. “I don’t want to damage the school; I want it to return the school to what it was set out to be.”
Harding said she’s concerned about the teachers who remain and said that she pulled her child because when she voiced her concerns, no one seemed to listen.
“We were made out to be these crazy parents; I’m not that person,” Harding said. “When I had a valid concern and came to present it, I was met with not only an invitation to withdraw my child but complete disrespect, complete disregard.”
Morton, who still has children enrolled at the school, said that she wants the opportunities for parents to be involved to come back. That could help teachers who are struggling too.
“I wish that moving forward we would find a path where parents could be more involved again, that felt like such a positive thing,” she said. “If parents were more involved, there would be less staff turnover, that would have less impact on the students as well. It all comes back to making our school safer, a better place to learn, and right now there’s not that consistency because there isn’t that support.”
Harding said if the school were to improve, that she would consider sending her child back to TESG.
“I hope that the school can get back to its original framework, if it does, I’m there,” she said.
Kristen and Seth, who still have two other children in the school, also said that they want the school to welcome its parents back into the fold.
“I wish they could see parents as an ally working towards the betterment of the whole school rather than an obstacle,” Kristen said.
As for Obas, she hopes that her complaint as well as the stories of the other parents send a message to school administration and board that they can no longer ignore parents’ concerns.
“I feel the community has a right to know that charter schools essentially have no system of checks and balances in North Carolina,” she said. “I feel like as much as I want it to be over, I will remain committed to this until a path to accountability is clear.”
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