Failed School

In Allapattah, kids threaten teachers, and bosses look the other way.

She attended Augustana College in Illinois on a partial creative writing scholarship, followed by graduate studies in English secondary education at Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe.

After graduating from Sierra Nevada in 1998, Selig landed her first teaching gig in one of the most dangerous, poverty-stricken places in America: Compton, California, where she taught fifth-grade English at McKinley Elementary for two years.

"It was no paradise," Selig says. "But my students and I, we had a good time as much as possible. It felt rewarding to rise above all the lack of materials and supplies, all the poverty and abuse these children faced."

During her first year at McKinley, Selig had 42 students and 30 desks. She had no books, pencils, or paper. "We were rationed 250 photocopies a month," she recalls. "My mom sent me books that my sisters and I read growing up." She and another teacher set up a weekly reading exchange in which fifth- and first-graders would be paired with each other to read books.

"It was probably the most difficult experience I've ever had — until Allapattah," says Selig. "At least at McKinley, my principal was very responsive and open to discussion of problems. She never turned her back on her teachers or resented them for being honest, whereas Costa and his assistant principals didn't help any teachers."

In 2000, she took a two-year hiatus from teaching, living in Chicago and working as a sales associate for a scholastic book company. In 2002, she returned to the classroom when the Broward County School Board hired her as a 10th- and 11th-grade English instructor at Northeast High School in Fort Lauderdale. During the initial three months of her first year at Northeast, Selig shared a classroom with Amy Varo-Hauv, who is now the school's magnet coordinator. "She had a great relationship with the kids she mentored," Varo-Hauv recalls. "If a student was struggling, she would work with them during lunch or after school." She says Selig was not afraid to voice her opinion either. "If she saw something she didn't agree with, she would speak up."

In 2006, Selig went to work for a charter school in Miami-Dade but resigned after 18 months because she didn't get along with the principal. This past November, Miami-Dade County Public Schools hired Selig to replace Dionne Sterling, who quit after a year and a half as one of Allapattah's English teachers. "Sterling couldn't take it anymore," Selig says. Sterling warned her that eighth period was a tough group. "She had refused to teach the class until she had spoken to their parents," says Selig. "Every child in eighth period was out of control."

Sterling, who now teaches at a middle school in Pembroke Pines, declined to comment for this story.

Students in Selig's other classes at Allapattah have also caused trouble. In January, a girl named Susan walked out of class with the bathroom pass and was gone for 40 minutes. Four days later, another student — Diane — called Selig a "damn white lady" before storming out of the room without permission. Selig got little support from Costa. "He tried to make it look like I was crazy," she says. "He even told me to my face that I seemed very angry and that I was not happy at Allapattah."

By the time Selig reported the January 17 incident involving Catharine, the English teacher had worn out her welcome with Costa. But that didn't faze her. In an e-mail to the principal January 28, several hours after he had suggested that she reconsider her position at Allapattah, Selig let him have it: "If you just want to blame me and tell me off, then please don't bother me, and just let me try to teach as best I can and for as long as I can stand it in this less than pleasant situation."

The tension escalated February 12, the day Michelle allegedly threatened to cap her. After reporting the student to the principal's office, Selig sent an e-mail to eight teachers, Costa, and Lewis, complaining about the kids running around the hallways making noise, pounding on doors, and creating constant distractions throughout the day. "Let's stop talking about this FCAT and focus on the real problem here at Allapattah," Selig wrote, "and start talking about the BEHAVIOR and need for more security and support in the hallways."

The following afternoon, Selig fired off another e-mail to the same people plus another 20 folks who work in the main building's second floor, including security staff. She asked for a group meeting to address the unruly behavior in the halls. "Maybe we can contact the Zone and see if they can come up with some money to give us the security we need and deserve," Selig suggested. "If they really want to improve the Zone, let's see if they can back up our needs.... To have this problem ignored or put off until next year is a slap in the face to all of us."

On February 15 at 4:30 p.m., guidance counselor Sonia Alvarez informed Selig that she would be covering her eighth-period class; Costa wanted to see Selig in his office. He also requested that union steward Glover Rogers, who declined to comment on the record, be present at the meeting. "I quickly found out this was not a meeting to discuss any real education or discipline issues," Selig recollects. "It was all about him trying to pin something on me and make me seem as if, as he put it, 'You're not performing to our standards.'"

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