Failed School

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.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.