By Trevor Bach
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By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
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Entering his senior year at William H. Turner Technical Arts High School, Miami Gardens teenager Julio Gonzalez was looking forward to his third-period AP Spanish class this past August 20. Since 2005, the course has been taught by a popular dreadlocked, gold-toothed educator named Patrick Williams, who is fluent in seven languages. In the past two years, 68 of 70 Turner students who took Williams's class passed their advanced placement exams, a feat the Jamaican-born teacher accomplished without any textbooks for his pupils.
"He is an awesome guy," says the deep-voiced 17-year-old. "He may not portray the typical suit-and-tie professor, but his charisma, persona, and excellence go beyond that of many teachers."
Gonzalez and his classmates won't be seeing Williams again anytime soon, though. The 41-year-old Kingston native was abruptly removed from his classroom October 19, when Turner Principal Valmarie Rhoden accused him of harassing her. The charge is being investigated by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Civilian Investigative Unit, an agency that looks into administrative complaints against school district employees. Exactly what Williams did to badger Rhoden remains a mystery, as does the duration of his exile from Turner. MDCPS officials, including Rhoden, will not comment, says school district spokesman John Schuster.
Williams denies Rhoden's accusation. He claims the principal — whom one former colleague calls "a horrible" administrator — is retaliating because he questioned how she was spending Turner's share of a five-year, $5 million grant awarded to 10 high schools. Williams is reporting to a desk job at the school district's Region III office in Miami Springs. "I just sit in the break room doing nothing except talk to other people or watch DVDs on my laptop," he says.
Meanwhile Gonzalez and his classmates have been subjected to a revolving door of substitute teachers and given no explanation about what happened to their favorite instructor — until it was reported by New Times ("Good Teacher, Bad Principal," November 8). The class has come to a standstill. "We just sit there and talk," says AP Spanish student Natalie Piñeda.
Gonzalez and Piñeda are among 55 former and current students and Turner employees who on New Times' website voiced support for Williams while objecting to Rhoden's actions. "I want to organize a rally for his return," Gonzalez said recently. "I'm losing more than whatever Ms. Rhoden is gaining, and I am not going to tolerate it."
Leotha Fleming III, who was a sophomore when he took Williams's regular Spanish class in 2006, is joining Gonzalez's effort to bring Williams back. The soft-spoken 12th-grader says he used to chat with Williams at least three times a week. "He taught me that it is better for one person to change the world than it is for the world to change one person," Fleming relates. "I wish I could contact him so we could still hang out."
Piñeda, an 11th-grader, says the substitute teachers simply hand out worksheets, and that the class has been without a lesson plan since Williams was ousted. "Some people don't even do the worksheets," she says. "They just don't care because we don't have someone who's going to give us a grade."
Her sister Ana Maria, a recent Turner graduate who scored a 5 — the highest grade possible — on the AP Spanish exam, sent an e-mail November 13 to the nine members on the Miami-Dade School Board, pleading for Williams's return to the classroom. Ana Maria says Williams helped her not only with Spanish but also with other AP courses. "He would print out practice lessons for my AP math classes from the Internet," she says. "He would do this for me and other students. You could go up to him and he would always help you."
Wilbert Santa Leon, another 2007 alumnus, says he and his friends filmed a documentary last year about the fight waged by the teachers union to increase salaries. "Mr. Williams was one of the people we interviewed," Santa Leon says. "He is a very intelligent man." The 18-year-old Miami Dade College film student says the problem is Rhoden. "She is a very thin-skinned woman," Santa Leon grumbles. "She is a horrible principal."
Santa Leon's comments are echoed by Gerrard Nembhard, an auto mechanics instructor at Hialeah Senior High who taught at Turner for more than 10 years, until 2003. Nembhard headed the school's defunct diesel mechanics vocational program. He says Turner established partnerships with private companies and public agencies to provide students with internships. The school was sending students to places like Miami-Dade Transit, Kelly Tractor, and Detroit Diesel to get on-the-job training. "She closed it down over foolishness," Nembhard says of Rhoden. "She always looked down on the vocational program because she has the notion that everyone will go to college." According to Turner's 2008 school improvement plan, 28 percent of last year's seniors did not continue with postsecondary education.
During a staff meeting in the first semester of 2003, Nembhard challenged Rhoden's assertion that his program was underenrolled, he says. That was the end of him. "She closed the program and switched me to night school," he claims. "She could have waited until June, but she was so vindictive she had to close it right then and there." Although Nembhard filed a grievance against Rhoden, the school district did not investigate the complaint. Again, the district spokesman declined comment.