A decision to terminate North County Charter Elementary School (NCCS) Principal Dr. Jessica Keaton has many parents outraged in Sebastian.
The NCCS school held a board member meeting last Thursday where it voted to fire Keaton, citing years of declining student performance with the school and falling from a first place ranking to nearly last among elementary schools in Indian River County.
We reached out to Keaton for comment and will update this article with any responses we receive.
Nicole Rodriquez, a local resident, told Sebastian Daily that she is horrified, heartbroken, and disappointed.
“Dr. Keaton was the heart and the backbone of that school. I feel that the decision to terminate was based more on personal feelings and issues than the cited reason: the school dropping to a C grade,” she said.
Many parents blame Shawn Frost, NCCS board president, and Ken Miller, NCCS finance director, for ignoring repeated requests by Keaton to accommodate students.
“Dr. Keaton repeatedly requested additional ESE staff and was denied time and time again. We personally know of students who need ESE accommodations and could not get them because NCCS wasn’t adequately staffed to support those needs. What Ken Milller and the board did is reprehensible,” Rodriquez told Sebastian Daily.
According to Frost, the principal was terminated because her overall school grade dropped.
Frost told Sebastian Daily they took the first in a series of actions to return the school to an “A” rated school. Frost said the tests administered in grades three and five are the primary drivers of the overall school grade and indicators of academic achievement.
Parents say the entire first-grade and third-grade teams have now quit the school. But Frost says he hasn’t received their official letters, and the board “hasn’t voted to accept resignations, but we are working on filling vacancies.” He said the departure of teachers in third and fifth grades will allow them to focus on “increasing instructional quality in the key grades.”
“We are replacing the third grade and fifth-grade teachers with internal and external candidates committed to ensuring our students can read and do math with proficiency and fluency,” Frost said.
Despite the nationwide and local teacher shortage, Frost said they are working to fill their last few vacancies and will be open at full operating capacity in better shape than they opened last year.
But firing Keaton has upset a lot of people in the community. Keaton grew up in Sebastian and attended schools within the School District of Indian River County. She was a teacher, assistant principal, and principal and was employed in many other important and vital positions in education in our county.
Angry parents are blaming the NCCS board for not investing in better materials and failing to provide children with mandated services.
Julie Villars is a long-time resident, a parent of five children, and an advocate for educators, administrators, parents, and students. She attended the school board meeting and argued that no parent representative was on the board.
“The school, through the board members, needs to be held responsible and accountable. The actions of the board directly caused harm to students and families,” Villars told Sebastian Daily.
Villars said Keaton was terminated based upon the school grade dropping from a “B” to a “C.” The previous grade was “B” in 2019, then “A” in 2018, then “B” in 2017. The school had never dropped to a grade “C” until this year, but several factors could have impacted the grade, including the 2020-2021 pandemic.
“I understand why they are angry, and if I’d heard the stories they’ve heard, I would probably be angry too. The fact is, we are a school of choice, and it is an unsustainable model to have parents drive past better rated schools to drop their children off at the second to last rated school in the county,” Frost told Sebastian Daily.
According to Frost, the board sought to call the meeting weeks earlier, when Rendell’s investigation was complete, but he said Dr. Keaton went on vacation rather than addressing the report and the teacher vacancies.
Villars said the school administration, educators, and parents repeatedly requested services for challenged students and that no action was taken.
“Special needs students were intentionally denied education services mandated by state and federal law. Over and over again. There is evidence to substantiate this statement. It is unlawful to not provide student services to those who require such services. This is unacceptable,” she said.
According to Villars, students who were denied such services developed frustration, and unfortunately, students do not utilize oral communication skills like adults do when they are frustrated or upset.
“The intentional lack of student services provided to NCCS students had a direct result on student test scores, the school grade, and student discipline,” Villars said.
On Thursday, the school took recommendations contained in Dr. Mark Rendell’s report as a method to improve teacher morale and performance and make the NCCS board more engaged and accessible to teachers and parents.
Parents allege the report is biased and that Rendell failed to recognize that the NCSS board members do not reflect the parents or the student body since no parents or teachers are on the board.
Many parents believe the principal’s termination is unjustified and merely a display of bullying by the NCCS board members. They believe that the decision to terminate Keaton was decided on prior to the board meeting.
“The current Board has failed the school and community. The members are self-serving and financially destructive. The data evaluation report merely wasted resources in an attempt to justify terminating the principal,” Villars said.
She says the board denied services to students, which resulted in lower test scores.
“How can an administrator be terminated for any infractions if those infractions are not the fault of the principal’s duties? The unprofessional and illegal actions of the board members at NCCS, have now been exposed to parents, community members, area leaders, and the administrators at the SDIRC,” Villars said.
Rodriguez said there has yet to be any communication to parents. She believes it’s reckless and irresponsible.
“The impact on our amazing school community has been devastating. Kids splitting up and going to other schools due to no teachers for entire grade levels at NCCS. This decision was made with little regard for the kids and the families that make North County the amazing community that it was,” she told Sebastian Daily.
School Visioning and Changes
Frost said that it’s never fun to terminate employees but also finds it terrible that Keaton had chosen “to grandstand instead of negotiating a departure” when the NCCS board suggested she resign. He said Keaton made a spectacle and put the school through drama.
“I think any reasonable person who reviews the data and summary of employee interviews contained in that report will understand why it was nearly unanimous despite her packing the room with 20 or so supporters,” Frost told Sebastian Daily.
As of Tuesday, Frost said the ESE position has been filled.
“The students and teachers deserved a better leader. One who cares about students and makes sure they can meet proficiency standards. Permissive leaders are often beloved but don’t always best serve those they are charged to lead,” he added.
Frost said North County Elementary School is a choice school, and he and the NCCS board are committed to being top-rated again. He hopes parents will embrace the vision and changes to the school.
“It’s not okay to pass along students who feel good about themselves but can’t read or do math proficiently. Many schools today are focused on feelings at the detriment of academics. We are committed to both,” Frost said.
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