May 23, 2016
On May 19, under a full moon in a cloudless sky, groups of parents–like sparks hopping from a fire–gathered outside Minneapolis’s Whittier International K-5 magnet school. The fire they were hopping from was a meeting called by Whittier parents and held inside the building’s library (the school, rebuilt in 1997, is one of Minneapolis’s first).
The meeting began at 6 p.m. and was supposed to last two hours; by 8:20, however, the library was still crowded with parents, kids and Minneapolis Public Schools staffers. Finally, a building engineer pushed the group outside, insisting that he had to close the building and get home for the night.
Whittier principal, Norma Gibbs, (in black jacket) talks with upset parents
The parents–mostly Latino–were there to defend a beloved Whittier employee who goes by an unlikely name–Nacho. “Nacho” is Jeff Carlson, a blond-haired jack-of-all-trades who speaks several languages–English, Spanish, Somali and perhaps some Swedish or Danish (the Nacho fan I spoke to wasn’t sure). He is a Whittier parent as well as a school employee, serving as a part-time family liaison. Carlson rounds out his day by also working at Whittier as a community education coordinator. (The school shares space with Whittier park on a hilly, green lot in south Minneapolis.)
Carlson was recently fired by Whittier’s new principal, Norma Gibbs, and this action unleashed a firestorm of outrage for Gibbs and Minneapolis Public Schools higher-ups, as well as a torrent of love for Carlson and Whittier.
Gibbs became principal of the school just three months ago, after the previous principal, Anne DePerry, was fired in 2015 for misusing school funds and, according to district officials, using inappropriate hiring practices. That backdrop framed administrator Lucilla Davila’s defense of Gibbs at the Whittier meeting (Davila is the district’s Associate Superintendent of Magnet Schools, and therefore Gibbs’s supervisor). “Your voices are extremely important,” she told the near-capacity crowd. But, she told them, she would not be firing Principal Gibbs any time soon–a demand brought forth by parents.
“There are a lot of layers to an onion,” Davila said, speaking in her native Spanish before translating her own words into English. The previous principal, DePerry, left a host of problems for Gibbs to tend to, Davila claimed, and DePerry’s past behavior–including, allegedly, hiring people who signed in while not actually at work–had caused Gibbs to have to turn over every stone at Whittier, to make sure there were no lingering troublemakers.
That was the explanation given to Whittier families and staff, but no one seemed to be buying it. Even Davila’s assurance that she had met with Gibbs recently, and that Carlson would be reinstated, did not quiet the crowd. Parents stood up and insisted on being heard, again, even though they had started the meeting by taking to the microphone to express their anger and disbelief.
“How do you justify the damage done?” one mother called out, while others demanded answers for what they said was Gibbs’s “lies about Jeff.” A group of mothers–eight, total–apparently went to Gibbs to defend Carlson when they heard his job was being threatened. They say they were told by Gibbs that Carlson was being fired because he is a “Caucasian man who doesn’t speak English well, that he is disrespectful, and doesn’t know anything about immigration,” among other things.
The Latina moms also said Gibbs told them, “If you are coming to ask about Jeff being fired, you’re wasting my time.” Meaning, they believed, that their input and ideas were not welcome.
That squares with Carlson’s own narrative about the situation. In a typed letter, available at the meeting, Carlson said he was fired for approaching Gibbs about another employee, Chris Sanville, who Gibbs had also let go, shortly after becoming principal.
Tense times at Whittier International School
“On March 8th, our After School Bike/Nordic ski instructor Chris Sanville approached me with the news that Norma (Gibbs) had opted not to renew his contract for the following year,” Carlson’s letter read. “This was sad to me, given that Mr. Sanville had been one of the most amazing After School leaders that I had ever seen.”
Carlson says he then went to Gibbs about Sanville, deciding to share with her his “positive experience” working with him. That’s when trouble hit, according to Carlson. Instead of reinstating Sanville, Carlson’s timeline indicates he was then targeted: “Shortly after this conversation I was copied on an email to my Community Education supervisors citing several concerns about my work in After School: disorganization, lack of proper student supervision, messes in bathrooms during after school hours.”
Carlson says he did what he could to address Gibbs’s concerns, and then went to her again, to try to repair their relationship. He says Gibbs gave him nothing but “ultimatums” before shooing him out of her office with these words: “You will never, ever, challenge my staffing decisions. Those decisions are mine and mine alone.”
Gibbs herself took the mic at the May 19 meeting, after Davila tried to calm the crowd. “My first apology is to Jeff and his family,” she said, before promising to spend time “trying to figure out all of the excellent things he does” and how to replicate, or reinstate, them.
Gibbs did her best to walk the packed and restless room through her thought process regarding Carlson’s firing. “I found myself in fear,” she said, at the thought of losing another employee, whom she referred to as Beth. “I wanted Jeff to take her job. He couldn’t. I panicked.”
Carlson stood nearby, seemingly in tears and surrounded by a throng of devoted Whittier parents. Perhaps as a peace-offering, Gibbs promised that Carlson would be rewarded for his willingness to “go forward,” telling the crowd that,”In the fall, his hours will be increased.”
This gesture did little to settle tensions. One woman, later identified as Carlson’s wife, Monica Mesa, stood up and said, “Wow. What a show. I commend you for that.” Many parents and staff nodded in agreement with Mesa’s rebuke of Davila and Gibbs’s apologies and explanations.
“What’s in your heart? That is my question,” Mesa emphatically asked, before everyone was shuttled out of the building by school staff.
Outside, no one seemed to want to leave. Even Gibbs stayed on, squaring off–unintentionally, no doubt–with a group of parents, some with babies snuggled close to their chests. Carlson’s wife, Mesa, acted as the group’s spokesperson and translator, continuing to press Gibbs about her swift actions at Whittier.
Others present outside the school insisted the issues at Whittier were about more than Carlson’s firing. A woman who works at the school, but says she is leaving along with many other upset staffers, offered a laundry list of complaints about Gibbs’s leadership:
- People’s credentials and licenses were being combed over in an intimidating manner.
- Gibbs has given staff and families the feeling that Whittier is “her school,” and that she will spend money how she sees fit.
- Special education buses now pick students up in an alley, instead of the circular drive in front of the school, supposedly to reduce traffic on 27th street, on the south side of Whittier. “We have to end class twenty minutes early now, to line these students up and get them to their buses.”
Gibbs may just be out of her league. A district employee familiar with Gibbs’s pre-Whittier work called her a “lovely person,” and said she is “very knowledgeable about English learners who also qualify for special ed.” But, this employee cautioned, Gibbs has never been a building administrator before, and was reportedly placed in the Whittier job by her supervisor, Lucilla Davila.
Many parents lingering outside the school said they want Gibbs gone. If she is indeed removed from her Whittier post, the school will join a growing list of Minneapolis sites–including Northrup, Hmong International Academy, Keewaydin, Sheridan, and Ramsey–going through principal unrest.
Perhaps there is something rotten in the state of principal training, mentorship, and expectations in the Minneapolis Public Schools.
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