By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Inside Room 222 on the second floor of Allapattah Middle School this past January 17, around 4:30 p.m., the 15 students in Erika Selig's eighth-period academic improvement class are sitting at their desks, working on algebra exercises. The walls of the classroom are decorated with large, colorful phrases explaining the essentials of reading and writing. In the back of the room, eight desktop computers sit idle. Despite being an English teacher who has provided no math instruction in her 10-year career, Selig is charged with helping her students increase their FCAT math scores. And that means algebra.
Minutes before the final bell sounds at the northwest Miami school, Selig catches 13-year-old seventh-grader Catharine* listening to her iPod. She asks the girl three times to put away the music player, but the student ignores Selig. The teacher walks over to the chubby Hispanic girl's desk. "Look, I don't want to take it away from you," Selig warns, "so please put it away."
As the 35-year-old sits back in her chair at the front of the room, Catharine, sporting a menacing pout, approaches. She cocks her hand in her pocket as if holding a pistol. "Look, bitch," the girl hisses. "You're gonna have to say hello to my little friend, bitch."
A dumbfounded Selig can't muster a response. The bell rings and Catharine bolts out the door. Selig immediately reports the incident to her bosses, Principal Adolfo Costa and Assistant Principal Jacqueline Lewis, but they do nothing to discipline the teen. For more than 10 days, they ignore Selig's pleas to have the child removed from her class.
During a meeting in his office January 28, according to Selig, Costa asked, "Do you think you're the only teacher who has been threatened by a student?" Before ending their meeting, he suggested that Selig "look in the mirror and think hard about whether she fit in" at Allapattah Middle. "I was almost in tears," Selig recalls. "I didn't feel safe."
Not until Selig contacted Mark Zaher, the school district's operations chief in charge of conduct, did Principal Costa relent and relocate Catharine to another classroom. But that wasn't the last time Selig was threatened by one of the seventh-graders in her eighth-period class. On February 12, while Selig explained to her students that they would fail if they did not do their algebra assignments, a Hispanic girl named Michelle screamed, "I'll shoot you if you give me an F!"
Two days later, Costa removed Michelle from the class, but she was not punished. Selig was undeterred, hounding Costa and his assistant principals to do something about unruly students — children fighting on the second floor of the main building, banging on classroom doors, screaming racially charged obscenities — as well as the low morale among Allapattah teachers that stemmed from the lack of discipline at the school.
When the administrators ignored her, Selig went above them, reporting the problems to the school board. She even reached out to Superintendent Rudolph "Rudy" Crew, who was recently named national superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators. Crew has spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to fix schools such as Allapattah, without producing any meaningful results.
Selig's complaints achieved little, other than to motivate Costa to silence her for exposing Allapattah's hostile work environment. Her whole experience illustrates how Crew condones a culture that rewards inaction and blind obedience over critical thinking and whistleblowing.
Despite several attempts to interview Costa and Crew, both declined to comment for this article. In addition, Costa, as well as schools spokesman John Schuster, did not respond to a list of 47 questions New Times e-mailed both of them.
"They wanted to make me look like a bad guy," Selig says. "The principal made my job so much more difficult by not backing me up and believing in me."
Located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, Allapattah is among the county's worst middle schools. Only 20 percent of its 643 students are likely to graduate high school.
Some of Allapattah's children suffer from social ills far beyond the control of school officials. For instance, Michelle — one of the girls who threatened Selig — had to move in with a friend because her mother has been in and out of the hospital after suffering two strokes late last year. This past February 23, one of Michelle's teachers, in an e-mail to the girl's guidance counselor, reported that the girl had carved her name on the skin of her left forearm.
Other neighborhood kids don't even make it to secondary school alive. This past April 3, during spring break, 14-year-old eighth-grader Deandre Anderson was behind the wheel of a maroon compact car with a friend. He didn't have a driver's license and it was not his car, according to police. As he drove north on NW Seventh Avenue near 112th Street, Anderson struck a gray Nineties Ford Thunderbird, damaging the driver's side. The boy fled, but the driver of the Thunderbird chased him. When Anderson's ride broke down at the intersection of NW 114th Street and 11th Avenue, he and his friend bailed on foot.
Anderson didn't make the getaway. Someone in the gray car pulled a gun and opened fire, killing him six houses down from where the car had conked out.
In 2005, the year after he was named superintendent, Crew put Allapattah, along with 38 other schools, in his School Improvement Zone. The goal of his initiative was to dramatically turn around chronically failing schools.
As a zone school, Allapattah operates on an extended school year, with 10 extra days and an extra hour added each day, except Wednesday. During the extra period, students practice for the FCAT, grappling with deficiencies in literacy, mathematics, and science. Teachers in the zone receive a 20 percent bump in annual salary. Selig, for example, saw her yearly base pay of $36,000 jump to $42,000 because she taught at Allapattah.
The school went from an F in 2004 to a D in 2005, followed by a C in 2006. Last year, however, the school flunked again, prompting Crew to replace Principal Brian Hamilton with Costa, a 15-year district veteran whose career includes nine years as an assistant principal at Miami Southridge Senior High.
Costa, a potbellied man with thick black hair and a bushy goatee, spent last year as the district supervisor overseeing Miami Edison Senior High School's corrective action plan, and he is credited with helping the school raise its grade from an F to a D. According to operations chief Zaher, Costa is a competent administrator. "He's pretty responsible," Zaher says. "He is on top of things."
Zaher insists he has never received a complaint from parents or teachers about an excessive lack of discipline at Allapattah. "I've never heard anything," he says. And what about Costa and his assistant principals routinely ignoring the code of conduct? "I've never had one allegation."
Yet Selig and several other Allapattah educators question Costa's fitness for the job. "He is ineffective and inconsistent," Selig says. "Anybody who knows anything about education knows that you can't expect students to learn if they do not have discipline."
Selig says Costa's decision to ignore student misconduct is even more alarming given that some kids attending Allapattah don't feel safe there. According to Allapattah's 2006-2007 school climate survey, 68 percent of 105 students polled believe violence is a problem. The same survey polled 30 of the 64 teachers and revealed that 53 percent "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" that Allapattah used "adequate disciplinary measures" to "deal with disruptive behavior."
Even sadder is that most of the parents who send their children to Allapattah don't seem to care. In 2005, the school sent surveys to 473 parents. Only 60 people responded. For the 2006-2007 school year, Allapattah distributed forms to 765 households and heard back from 73 parents. Survey participation had declined from 12 to 9 percent in two years.
Six other Allapattah teachers, who did not want to disclose their identities for fear of retaliation, agree with Selig's assessment. One teacher describes being inadvertently tackled and punched by children horse-playing in the halls between periods. "They didn't get suspended at all," the instructor says. "I saw them the next day. The kids run the school."
Such encounters are relatively benign, compared to some of the more violent offenses that also go unpunished, including the time one boy beat another with a broom handle so hard that it broke into three pieces, says the teacher. "Then there was the kid whose head was thrown into the wall," she adds. "In both cases, the administration pleaded with the parents not to press charges."
On another occasion, the teacher continues, she caught four girls spray-painting a wall on school grounds. "It was like they were writing an essay," she says. "Costa did punish them — by making them buy the paint and cover up the graffiti."
There was just one problem with the punishment: Costa made the girls paint during school hours, rather than making them do it after school or on a weekend. "Keep in mind these are children who already enjoy skipping class," the teacher says. "So they were having a fantastic time being out of class, having fun painting the walls."
Two sources say Costa, following a districtwide order from Crew, ended all detentions and suspensions. "Before winter break, kids were getting detention for not wearing their school uniforms, talking back, and turning in incomplete assignments," one says. "That stopped when we came back. The result has been total chaos, with every teacher fending for themselves."
Now Allapattah's problem students routinely disobey the district's code of conduct. "The kids know that we aren't going to do anything to them," says another teacher. "It is absolutely disheartening and frustrating."
One source informs New Times that several instructors have left Allapattah because Costa and Lewis, the assistant principal in charge of conduct, refuse to punish students who disrespect and threaten their educators. "One teacher left three months into the school year," says the source. "Kids were calling her a 'bitch whore,' yet the administration did nothing."
In person, Selig doesn't look like the pugnacious type. She is petite and attractive, with fair skin and soft hazel eyes, and speaks in an animated, bubbly voice. An F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, Selig was born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Naperville, an affluent city in Illinois that was voted the second-best place to live in the United States by Money magazine in 2006.
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.'"
During the conference, Costa noted Selig had missed several days and had not submitted a doctor's note to justify her absences. She reminded Costa she'd been hospitalized for two days with walking pneumonia, and noted he hadn't requested proof. Nevertheless, Costa warned her that she needed a doctor's note the next time she missed work.
It didn't end there. Costa also filled out an employee referral form for Selig to receive counseling for erratic behavior. On the sheet, Costa wrote he had noticed Selig had "changes in mood" and "altercations" with other school employees. Selig denies his accusations. Before the meeting concluded, Costa suggested Selig consider resigning.
Instead Selig fought back. On February 16, she sent an e-mail to Costa, carbon-copying all of Allapattah's employees, Costa's immediate bosses, school board members, Crew and members of his cabinet, and several media outlets, including New Times. She wrote, "I know this is all about your frustration with me for writing referrals, trying to open up communication and be proactive about the severe hallway discipline problems at Allapattah, and simply not being quiet.... Play your game, keep a file on me, write me up, try to intimidate me."
On February 20, Selig appealed to Zaher for help. Zaher's response: "I spoke with Mr. Costa and you really need to work through the school on this matter."
In a recent interview, Zaher says he really didn't need to prompt Costa to take action. When Selig had called him the first time regarding Catharine, Zaher says, the principal was already taking steps to remove the child from the teacher's eighth period. He adds it wasn't his job to field her complaints. "I really couldn't help her," Zaher says. "It had to be handled either by the principal or the school's regional officer, which is one of the places I referred her to."
Selig was on her own.
It's a crisp afternoon on February 26, and Selig has invited me to visit her third-period class and talk to her students about their educational environment. After signing in with a security guard stationed near the front entrance of the school, I walk unescorted into the main building. Instead of stopping by the principal's office to obtain a visitor's pass, I go directly to Selig's second-floor classroom.
A young black male security guard sitting in a chair near the door lets me in. He doesn't ask the purpose of my visit or whether I checked in at the principal's office.
Selig introduces me to 10 sixth-graders who have just completed a quiz on Latin root words. Tanya, a chubby and gregarious black girl with a pretty smile, informs me that she is averaging a D in the class. "There is still time to change that," Selig interjects. Asked how she would improve Allapattah, Tanya says, "I'd start with the bathrooms. They are nasty."
David, a lanky boy with hazel eyes and caramel skin, chimes in, "Yeah, they stink real bad. People leave their feces in the toilet."
I ask them about security at the school. "It's pretty bad," says Tommy, a small 13-year-old boy with a squeaky voice. "The security guards curse at the kids. When you go tell them someone is bothering you, they call you a sissy for not fighting back." He says security looks the other way when "the eighth-graders be jumping people." Adds Tanya: "They [the security guards] call kids 'bitches' and 'hos.'"
"Kids are always fighting and running in the hallways," says David, "but nothing happens to them." He complains that the "principals, teachers, and security let it happen. They let it get bad. But you can't be hitting people. These days that's called assault and battery."
Peer pressure is another major problem, according to Tommy. "They make you feel soft if you don't fight," he says. "They boost you up."
Amy, a petite Hispanic girl with long, black hair, claims some of the students are racist, recalling an incident during the week the school celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month. "There were two fights that week involving black boys versus Hispanic boys," she says.
Tommy agrees: "The same month, I saw all these black boys gang up on this one Hispanic boy in the hallway out here."
Kevin, a dark-skinned boy sitting behind Tommy, adds, "Most of the kids are prejudiced. One time after Saturday school, there was a group of black boys who slammed a Hispanic boy to the floor. And he was just minding his own business."
All the children agree there are no consequences for such misbehavior at Allapattah. "They don't do anything," David says, referring to the principal's office. "They need to pay for more security and for someone with a Taser to shock the bad kids."
When the bell rings, the hallways explode with activity and noise. Kids yell at and shove each other as they move from classroom to classroom. The school is supposed to be on high alert because of the rolling blackout that has knocked out electrical grids throughout the state. Even though Costa and Lewis spot me, they don't stop me to find out why I am there. And they don't ask Tanya why she is tagging along instead of reporting to her class.
Before ending my field trip to Allapattah, I wander into a classroom where a math tutor is having a difficult time controlling six children who don't speak English. One boy is zipping from one end of the classroom to the other on a swivel desk chair. Two girls are pummeling another boy, who won't stop teasing them. On my way out, I pop back into Selig's classroom. She says, "Now you got a feel for what I have to deal with."
Early in the afternoon on February 28, during third period, two students wandering the halls bang on Selig's classroom door eight times. During the last pounding, one of them screams, "Open the door, white bitch!" Upset, Selig fires off another e-mail to Costa and Lewis: "I'd appreciate if you could do something to keep the halls clear of students who should be in class or lunch. My students don't deserve these constant interruptions."
The following day, Selig hears from another teacher that Costa is going to replace her with Jeffrey Farrell, a first-year teaching intern. Around 4 p.m., Selig is called into Costa's office. Assistant Principal Jeanette Sierra and union representative Rogers are present. Costa informs Selig he is recommending that she be terminated before her 97-day probationary period ends. Costa explains that since their last conference, Selig has been tardy eight times. Selig laughs at him, telling him she has not missed a day of work and has not been late to any of her classes since their last conference, on February 15.
Costa tells her he will allow her to resign and asks her to sign some papers. Selig refuses and storms out of the meeting. She leaves the school and drives to the United Teachers of Dade building on Biscayne Boulevard, where she discusses her situation with the school district's staff recruitment specialists, Peter Shulman and Cindy Soell (who both declined to comment for this article). The union can do nothing to stop Costa. According to school board policy, Costa does not need a reason to fire Selig during her probationary period.
She stays at Allapattah until March 4. Two weeks later, she receives a letter from the district stating she has been fired and that her last day was March 5. By now, Selig has already found another job, teaching at a private school in northeast Miami-Dade.
During a conversation at the Aventura Mall food court, Selig appears happier and upbeat. "Allapattah was the most unprofessional experience I ever had," she reflects. "I reached out to so many people at the district and everyone looked the other way. They don't want to draw a line of what is acceptable student behavior and what is not. They acted like I was a crazy white lady making a big deal."
Selig is among four teachers who have left Allapattah in the past year because of the lack of student discipline. "I can handle the poor behavior, the craziness, and psychological repercussions of children who grow up in poverty and in gang- and drug-infested neighborhoods," she says. "Allapattah is filled with good people and kids who work their butts off. I just couldn't deal with Costa."
Three weeks later, Selig reflects further on her experience with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. District leaders such as Crew and Costa "only care about one thing," she says: "The FCAT and making everyone think they are doing a good job. I never saw the politics and power-play bullshit at McKinley or any other school like what I saw at Allapattah and all over Miami-Dade public schools. They really don't care about their students' safety or their education."
*Students' names have been changed to protect their privacy.