Schoolhouse Knocks

Page 5 of 7

Katrina Wilson-Davis gestures at the cluttered classroom. The desks are piled with colorful boxes that scream with letters and numbers. Workbooks, posters, and other learning aids sit in recently opened boxes on the floor. “Our teachers are trying out new materials to see if they want to use them next year,” she says. “That's one of the great things for teachers here: the freedom to make those kinds of decisions.”

The Liberty City Charter School doesn't have a summer session, so the four-building complex is empty of children on this afternoon in late July. Last year the school held 240 students; this year that number could rise as high as 280. A few teachers and staff members are circulating around, though.

The 37-year-old principal has a winning smile and an infectious enthusiasm, which have served her well as a teacher and an administrator -- and as a high-school cheerleader. She also has an undeniable sense of style. Her bob haircut is coiffed just so; gold jewelry glints tastefully from her wrists, neck, and ears; a short-sleeve black top and leopard-print, knee-length skirt fit her snugly as her strappy gold sandals click across the linoleum floors of her school. “For me, coming straight from being a teacher, I didn't have a lot of expectations about what it was going to be,” Wilson-Davis says. “We were trying to impact on the performance of some children who had traditionally been underserviced, disadvantaged, in education here in Dade County, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

She says Jeb Bush and Tal Fair maintained a constant presence at the school, but they had little influence on its day-to-day operations. “Their visibility was very, very high,” Wilson-Davis explains. “They would spend time with the children, the teachers, attend school events. So I would say they were visible in the school on a daily basis.”

“She really had the [principal's] role down,” insists former consultant Pat Booth, who now works at the Barry University Charter School. “I thought she handled the segue from the classroom to administration very well, and she had a lot of support at the school.

“I remember Jeb doing some wonderful things with the kids, and I thought, Where's the media now?” Booth continues. “One time he showed up and played Santa Claus; the kids loved it. They knew who it was.”

“If Jeb got to be elected governor as a result of the school, I think he really got the short end of the stick,” Wilson-Davis declares. “It is the children who have benefited the most, and that's the honest-to-God truth. What they have gotten here, I feel, will take them through the rest of their lives.”

Still, some believe Wilson-Davis wasn't steering the ship. “After the first year, [Wilson-Davis] had totally lost focus.” Banuchi says. “There was a situation where a teacher was using corporal punishment. I let her know; she wouldn't do anything about it.” At the time of the school's founding, many of the parents involved had told the board members and Wilson-Davis that they would have wanted corporal punishment to be a disciplinary option at the Liberty City Charter School. “I would say the vast majority of them want corporal punishment,” Wilson-Davis says. “When the school initially started, they were going to ask for the right to corporally punish. However, they felt, in the interest of getting the contract through, it wouldn't fly that way, because it would have gone against district policy. So we've had to adopt the district's policy.”

Wilson-Davis says she remembers one incident of a teacher spanking a child “about three years ago.” She says she learned about it through a note in her mailbox. “I called the teacher in, and the teacher admitted that was what had happened,” Wilson-Davis recounts. “Then I notified the attorney. I held a meeting to go over the laws and statutes with the teacher.”

She chalks this incident up to the school's close ties with the community it serves. “One of our teachers had a personal relationship with a parent that was beyond the school, knew the family; they had been friends a long time,” she relates. “The child had been misbehaving, and the parent had told the teacher, if the child misbehaves, take care of it. And the teacher did, not realizing honestly, that he was acting in the role of a teacher, and not in the role of, “This is like my godson.'”

Since that episode Wilson-Davis says there have been no other incidents of corporal punishment “that I know of.”

But Alicia Banuchi says she would regularly see one teacher, Tashimba Andrews, seize children, shake them, and scream at them. One time, she says, she saw Andrews grab a child by the neck and slam him against a wall. Andrews could not be reached for comment.

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell