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Patrick Williams doesn't look like a decorated high school teacher who speaks seven languages, has taken his students abroad, and has earned prodigious praise from school board brass. He wears a gray-and-white camouflage wife-beater, yellow-and-blue surf shorts, and white sneakers with no socks. His teeth are capped in gold, and he sports long dreadlocks tucked into a brown headwrap.
But when he talks, you understand why many of his students and their parents love him. "When I see my students succeed, and know I was a genuine part of that success, it gives me great joy," he says. "And it's more than that. I feel I have a vested interest in seeing them grow up."
The teacher's banishment to administrative duty is an example of how some school administrators quash dissent, says Shawn Beightol, a chemistry teacher and union steward who went through a similar ordeal. "There is a culture of coercion and fear to quell teachers from speaking up. Patrick is an amazing teacher. How are you going to pull him out of a classroom when you can't get someone else with half his qualifications? What the principal is doing to him looks pretty vindictive."
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Williams moved to Miami in 1982 when he was 16 years old. Two years later he graduated from South Dade Senior High in Homestead, where he overcame childhood dyslexia and won an honorable mention for the Miami Herald Silver Knight Award in foreign language, as well as a partial scholarship to attend Florida International University. In 1998 he earned a master's degree in education from Florida Atlantic University.
He has worked at some of the area's most difficult schools, regularly earning praise from his bosses. In 1990 Williams landed his first assignment, teaching Spanish and French at Westview Elementary School and Westview Middle School in Opa-locka.
On December 11, 1991, Westview Middle School Principal Darrel Berteux wrote Williams a thank-you note: "Please allow me to express my appreciation for your participation in last evening's PTA meeting musical presentation. The time and effort you exhibited are truly indicative of your continued support."
After five years, Williams transferred to Miami Central Senior High, where he taught Spanish until taking a sabbatical in 2003 to work on his Ph.D. at the University of Miami. He has also held adjunct professorships at Florida Atlantic University, Florida Memorial College, and the University of Miami. "Mr. Williams encourages his students to work to their full potential. His enthusiasm and dedication have been keys to their success," wrote Central's principal, Charles Bethel, in a recommendation letter.
When the teacher returned from sabbatical in 2005, the school district placed him at Ammons Middle School in Quail Heights. A month later Williams, who earns $56,000 a year, transferred to Turner because the district added Spanish to the curriculum and the school was closer to his house.
Turner is a Title 1 school with 1800 students, primarily black and Hispanic teenagers from lower-income families. In addition to regular classes, Turner also provides training in several technical fields. The school even includes a working farm with chickens, goats, and peacocks.
Rhoden, a 34-year school system veteran who wears crisp business suits and her curly auburn hair shoulder-length, took over as principal there in 1993. Prior to that, she was Turner's vice principal for adult education. Rhoden, who earns an annual $103,446, declined to comment for this story.
About a year after his arrival, Williams and Rhoden began knocking heads over his physical appearance. On April 22, 2005, she ordered him to go home after he showed up for teacher planning day wearing a tank top, according to a memo he wrote her a month later.
He responded in a letter to the principal dated May 19, 2005, claiming Rhoden had never admonished female employees who wear tank tops to work. "Your action towards me has been discriminatory," Williams wrote. "If the attire I wear is inappropriate, then it is inappropriate for everyone, both men and women."
Williams didn't let the disagreement with Rhoden get in the way of his work. He was assigned to teach a regular Spanish class, but won approval from district officials and his 18 students to teach an advanced-placement-level curriculum. "I wanted to give them a challenge," Williams explains.
And when there weren't textbooks for the course, he purchased his own teaching materials, including six books, at $15 to $20 each. "I found activities online by Googling 'Spanish AP,'" he says. "I would write assignments and lessons on the blackboard."
On September 22, 2006, Miami-Dade Public Schools Administrative Director Verdell King sent Williams a letter commending him on a job well done. It noted that 16 of his 18 students had passed their advanced placement exams the preceding spring. Williams says the number was unique because, of the 187 Turner students who took AP exams in different subjects, only 22 passed. "It is an achievement sought by many but achieved by few," King wrote. "Hats off to you!"
In spring 2006, all 18 students passed the exam, again without the aid of textbooks.
And it seemed his relationship with Rhoden had improved. On February 23, she sent Williams a handwritten note thanking him for inviting her to his classroom to see the kids perform an FCAT rap song. "I love you," she wrote.
But then, on March 19, Williams called the school's regional district office to report that six of his students had complained their cell phones had been stolen. The office sent a school police officer to take statements and file a report. A month later, Rhoden reprimanded Williams because he did not report the alleged crime to her or one of the assistant principals.
On May 9, Rhoden admonished Williams again. This time she alleged he had bought sodas for his students from a vending machine in the faculty lounge. The principal reminded him about a school board policy that bans the sale of carbonated soft drinks to children on school grounds.
The next day, Williams sent a handwritten note to his union stewards. He griped that Rhoden had allowed students to drink soda at a gathering inside the school gym and attached photos of two-liter bottles of cola on a table and a female student pouring herself Sprite. "This is the hypocrisy I have to deal with," Williams says. He also says he had never given students soda before. It was a one-time thing.
At the beginning of the new school year, things were going smoothly for Williams — until September 12, when he began asking questions about a five-million-dollar grant for five years that Turner shares with nine other high schools. The school received $86,110 last year to send administrators and faculty members to five education conferences, explains Miami-Dade Public Schools spokesman John Schuster. According to a spreadsheet breaking down Turner's 2005-2006 budget, the school's grant allotment was running a deficit.
He informed Rhoden that he wanted to discuss the money at an advisory committee meeting of administrators, teachers, and parents. At the time, Williams was on the committee. "I wanted to know how the grant was benefiting the staff and students," he explains.
Later that day, according to the meeting minutes, Williams tried to ask about the grant, but Rhoden cut him off. "Right now is not the time or place for those questions," she said. When Williams pressed for an answer, Rhoden told him to respect her position as principal.
Four weeks later, Williams sent Rhoden an e-mail, again asking about the grant money. He received a response on October 16 from Regional Superintendent George Núñez: "The grant continues to be in place."
Two days later, Williams replied to Nuñez: "Your comment about the grant is vague. I request that the faculty be told about the grant, how Turner Tech and the community have benefited from it, and why monies from the grant are in the red.... Again I ask, is there some sort of coverup going on?"
The following afternoon, Williams was called into the school's administrative office, where an assistant principal informed him that Rhoden had filed a harassment complaint against him. He was removed from campus and is not allowed to speak to Turner Tech students, parents, or employees about the investigation.
One of Williams's colleagues says the whole thing is unjust and that Rhoden doesn't like it when teachers probe the school's finances or have her authority questioned. "That's the problem with some of these principals," she says. "You give them a little power, and they lose their minds." She did not want her identity revealed because she is trying to prevent her vocational program from getting cut. "As long as I'm friends with Patrick, I'm trouble," the woman says. "We assume [Rhoden] wants him gone."
"This is all about retaliating against me," Williams says. "She didn't want me asking questions about that grant."
News of the Spanish teacher's removal from Turner has outraged parents like Tressie Williams (no relation to Patrick). The 46-year-old mom and her son David were among 12 parents and students who this summer went on a 14-day European trip that Patrick organized. "We went to Barcelona, Monaco, and Millan," she says. "Patrick was our personal tour guide. He went everywhere with us."
Tressie says the dreadlocked educator loves children. "You see it in the way he teaches," she explains. "He teaches from his soul. And that's what really matters."