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Major is asked what her position is at the school. "I'm just a lonely teacher, an old reporter, that's all," she says. "I'm trying to help everybody's kid, trying to make peace. You can just say ... somebody who is on assignment with the administration. A teacher who is on special assignment."
"Aren't you the administrative assistant?" queries area resident Sonia Hitchman, standing nearby.
"I don't know about that," Major muses. "I just assist where I can ... I work in administration, whether it's on special duty, or what you'd call administrative assistant. It doesn't bother me what I am."
But the question of what Doreen Major is -- and is not -- has proved extremely bothersome to Norland students and parents. And it is Carroll Williams's mishandling of Major's classroom assignments that stands as an example of his shortcomings as principal.
Major began working at Norland as a substitute teacher in 1996. For the 1997-98 school year, Carroll Williams's first as principal of Norland, she served as a "pool sub," a substitute who was in one classroom or another most days, filling in as needed.
Major has a temporary certificate, valid until June 2000, permitting her to teach middle school- and high school-level English. Yet Williams hired her full-time in June 1998, assigning her a class load packed with government and current-events classes.
How could Major teach social studies when she isn't licensed to do so? Simple: All of her classes were designated part of the Student At Risk Program (SARP). It is a dropout-prevention safety net for kids with poor attendance, discipline problems, bad grades, or who are from troubled homes. Because schools have a tough time finding teachers to take on such difficult assignments, at-risk classes can be taught by teachers "out-of-field"; as long as a teacher holds any valid teaching certificate, he or she can teach any subject to at-risk students. Usually guidance counselors and administrators designate students as at-risk while they are in middle school; but high school administrators have that option as well.
There is a catch. Placement in at-risk classes is strictly voluntary: A child's parents must agree to have their children placed in such a class. Schools often mail parents consent forms over the summer, or at the very least send slips home with the children early in the school year. A parent must be notified one way or another, and can always decline.
Doreen Major and at least one other teacher at Norland seem to have missed that point. When the school year began in August 1998, none of her students knew they were in at-risk social studies classes. Nor did their parents.
"We were in a crowded regular economics class," recalls Tamilla Mullings, a 17-year-old junior who wound up in Major's class. "They said they were taking us out because the class was too full. I was like, 'Okay, no problem.' Then maybe in November, I heard rumors that it's an at-risk class. I came to find out, yes, it is an at-risk class, and I was in there for half a year!"
Mullings thinks she didn't belong there. "I know I'm not the brightest student in the world, but my GPA is like 2.5, 2.6." When interviewed for this story in early March, Mullings notes that she "just got out" of the class.
Major's was not the only questionable class. Peter Meyers, who came to work at Norland this year as the head wrestling coach and assistant football coach, found himself teaching ninth-grade general science classes. Meyers is only certified to teach physical education. He says he knew these classes had to be at-risk.
"It turned out that the paperwork was not squared away," Meyers says. "Sometime around January, an administrator came up to my class with all this paperwork, urging me to send these forms home with the kids and get their parents to sign them." The children had been incorrectly placed in his class for five months.
When they finally received the forms, many of those parents refused to sign, he says. He adds that some parents asked to have their children removed from his classes, but many were still there as late as March.
Indeed, since word got out that roughly 300 kids had been designated at-risk without their parents' permission, many parents have been in an uproar. "I was unaware that [my daughter] was even in an at-risk class," says Cheryl Hunter, whose daughter, senior Tamika Williams, was in one of Major's social studies classes. "Tamika didn't even know she was in an at-risk class until [early February]. I made an appointment to speak to her counselor, but it was difficult to get a straight answer."
Sharon Mathis, whose son Norman Williams was one of Major's students, also was flabbergasted. "I said, 'Norman, how you can be in at-risk?' He said, 'Mama, I don't know.' The school told me that if I wanted to come out there and change his class, I could. [The guidance counselor] didn't comment on why they put him in that class."
Hunter says she still hasn't been able to clear up who put her daughter in an at-risk class. "Using 'clarify' and 'Norland' in the same sentence is an oxymoron," Hunter snipes. "Tamika's counselor couldn't tell me who designated those kids at-risk. Everybody blames somebody else."