April 14, 2017
A handful of Minneapolis Public Schools administrators and school board members recently took a trip to Chicago, paid for by the deep pockets of Minnesota Comeback (a local “harbormaster” in the Education Cities sea of market-based reform) and the Minneapolis Foundation. The purpose? To see how “social-emotional learning” is being utilized in Chicago schools, and, perhaps, to convince philanthropists to throw dollars something other than test prep and charter schools.
Lingering in the background, however, are toxic situations in the Minneapolis Public Schools that seem impossible to manage. Take the story of Lor Vang, a Minneapolis school social worker. Until recently, Vang worked at the district’s Hmong International Academy, a K-8 in north Minneapolis. The school serves a high level of English language learners, as well as homeless/highly mobile kids, students living in poverty and those who qualify for special education services.
HIA is a troubled MPS site and has been for a while. Allegations of corruption, nepotism and an abusive working climate have been popping up for years, mostly in connection to HIA’s former principal, Halee Vang. While supported by some, Vang’s leadership at HIA has reportedly caused high staff turnover, a divided, “us against them” school climate and some shady operating procedures.
Halee Vang was forced out of HIA last fall, but at least two of her close associates (including one family member) remain in high level administrative positions at the school, as the Assistant Principal and as the site’s building manager. Lor Vang, who is not related to Hallee Vang, says he was not fully aware of this deeply entangled, troubled environment when he started working at HIA in 2015.
Still, Vang eagerly took the job and tried to focus on building positive relationships with students and families at HIA. Before long, he found himself unwittingly cast as “against” then-Principal Halee Vang, after nominating another staff member for an award. It turns out the nominated staff member was seen by Vang’s team as a troublemaker, which pushed Vang into HIA’s political minefield.
When school started this past fall, Halee Vang was still HIA’s principal. Vang says she asked to meet with him early in the school year, to express displeasure with his work. He felt, instead, that she was “attacking” him, and had him marked, now, as another troublemaker. Vang says he then turned to MPS’s special education administrators for support, but was told that it was up to him to “make it work” with his principal.
Then, Halee Vang was pushed out of HIA, and a new interim principal, from within MPS, was brought in. Vang wanted to do his part to improve HIA’s reputation; for him, making sure not to further antagonize families that were upset with the school was part of that. Along the way, Vang says he was pressured into rushing through a special education evaluation for a student–a move he feels was not only unethical, but sure to further anger the student’s family members.
When asked by current school administrators–including Halee Vang’s associates–to quickly write up a plan for the student in question, Vang insisted he could not do that. “We need data for any evaluation,” Vang says he told HJA administrators, “and we don’t have that.” In response, Vang says he was forced to log into his school laptop, which was then “grabbed” from him. Without Vang’s approval, the school’s interim principal allegedly entered inaccurate data about the student into his computer, in order to hurriedly prepare for an upcoming meeting.
Vang says he then emailed his supervisor in MPS to ask whether or not he was correct in wanting to properly build up a diagnosis for the student, instead of just quickly filling in information that could then be shown to the child’s family. He copied HIA’s current principal on the email. The district supervisor agreed with Vang, but the next day, he says the principal denied asking him to expedite the special education process.
Shortly thereafter, Vang was told he would not be “recommended for rehire”–not just at HIA, but throughout the district. He says he was told that his “lack of communication” was the reason, but he had been given no warning or due process regarding this allegation. Instead, he is sure it connects to not only Halee Vang’s legacy, but also the current situation at the school. (Last spring, there were several similar instances of MPS employees being retaliated against for speaking out or advocating for students or staff of color.)
Vang asked for a copy of the documents prepared against him, and was told to come back later. When he did, he says he was treated aggressively and told by the HIA building manager that he “can’t come in here demanding anything,” since she is his supervisor. The next day, he was fired and asked to leave the building immediately.
“It all happened in a bang, bang, fast, fast kind of way,” Vang recalls, believing that this was on purpose, so that he would not have time to organize his thoughts or seek adequate support. He feels he was “forced” to sign paperwork by the school’s assistant principal, who told him–when Vang said he didn’t feel comfortable signing it–that he could not leave the building without signing the paper.
Vang says he did seek help from his union (the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers), but was told that, because he doesn’t yet have tenure, he “doesn’t have a strong case.” Although pointing out that the school’s release paperwork for Vang was incorrectly filled out, the union rep told Vang that his best option was to resign rather than be fired.
I have been dedicated to my work at Hmong International Academy and have advocated for creating a positive environment in our building for our staff and students…I believe that I was wrongly let go from Hmong International Academy. I have been a positive part of the school and would love to continue to be a part of it.
–Lor Vang, on losing his job at HIA
A rally for the April 18 Minneapolis school board meeting is being planned by the Twin Cities Social Justice Education Movement, on behalf of not only Vang, but also what the group says is a troubling pattern of retaliation inside MPS. There is a Facebook event set up for the rally, which includes this message:
In the last month, our small network of social justice educators know six people, all but one staff of color and Northside educators, who are getting pushed out of MPS for advocating for students. This is unacceptable – and only what we’ve heard about, we’re in this fight together!
How’s that for social-emotional learning? Or, as Minneapolis Foundation president and neoliberal ed reform advocate R.T. Rybak recently observed, after heading to Chicago to catch social-emotional learning in action, “When adults come together in the name of doing better for our kids we can do big things.”
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