FEW SCHOOL PRINCIPALS can claim cadres of supporters and detractors as vocal as those of Dan Barton, principal of West Seattle's Gatewood Elementary School.
Since taking over at the start of the 1993-94 academic year, Barton has focused on improving the teaching staff while implementing a cutting-edge curriculum of learning for the 21st century. He's attracted a core group of young teachers devoted to implementing the changes he espouses.
He's also made plenty of enemies who charge him with everything from sexual harassment to a vindictive management style to an uncontrollable temper.
The two sides squared off this February when West Seattle Herald writer Tim St. Clair published a long piece on Barton. The furor continued over the next two months as most every issue of the community newspaper included at least one letter either supporting or blasting the embattled educator.
The controversy over Barton comes at a time when the importance of principals is paramount in the Seattle School District. Under the late Superintendent John Stanford's initiative, more power has devolved to individual principals, who are seen as the CEOs of their schools. While many criticized Stanford for his failure to demote principals who didn't produce results, Joseph Olchefske, his successor, signaled in May that he isn't a get-along, go-along administrator. Superintendent Olchefske demoted four principals, the first such demotions in more than a decade. Barton, however, appears to enjoy Olchefske's support.
"There's no question there's a lot of controversy here," admits the 44-year-old Barton. "What we're trying to do is unbelievably challenging."
As a doctoral student, Barton says he was struck by two pieces of educational research. The first was the prediction that, due to advancing technology, about 80 percent of today's kindergarten students will end up working at jobs that didn't exist when they entered school. The second was an estimate that these same students will change careers at least four times during their lives. Thus, the principal reasoned, the educator's job isn't just to teach students, it's to teach students how to learn.
While teachers have long realized that students learn in different ways (educational theorist Howard Gardner identifies nine types of intelligence), efforts have previously focused on showing teachers how to teach in multiple ways, thus enabling them to connect with each student on their own level. Now, the leading edge of educational theory promotes teaching students to learn using all the multiple intelligences. "We need to now focus on children as independent learners," Barton says.
Gatewood students are grouped in dual-grade classes (K-1, 2-3, and 4-5) that are team-taught by a trio of teachers. Instead of removing students from the classroom for separate classes on art, music, and physical education, these topics are integrated into the regular classroom work.
The Gatewood curriculum is supported by four pillars—invariably referred to as the "The Big Four"—cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, technology, and critical thinking. Computer literacy has become as important as literacy in our information-driven society, argues Barton. And, as the Internet continues to bring more and more information of varying accuracy into our homes, teaching kids the skills needed to sift through it all becomes an imperative duty, he believes.
For many current Gatewood teachers, the chance to work at the school makes them feel like they've died and gone to heaven—and discovered that heaven looks a lot like grad school.
Christi Kessler was excited enough about Barton's views to move from Portland last year to take a job at Gatewood. "It's incredible to have a principal who is so knowledgeable and is working to put the theory into practice," she says.
Second-year teacher Jeff Rettig says he envisioned himself as the young educational maverick pushing the classroom traditionalists. "I expected to be a person challenging most of the traditional things here and saying, 'Why can't we do this?'" he recalls. Instead, he says he has joined a faculty and principal devoted to turning educational theory into classroom reality.
Sumiko Huff, a first-year teacher who recently graduated from the Seattle University master's program, says the concepts Barton espouses are well-known to educators, but can be a hard sell to parents. From the outside, "it's tough to see how these reform efforts work," she says, "especially since a lot of these parents weren't taught in [this] way."
BARTON'S DETRACTORS are a diverse group, ranging from teachers he pushed out of Gatewood to unhappy parents. Parent Susan Hannibal praises Barton's intentions, but questions his follow-through. "We liked what he said—how he articulated a vision for children in the 21st century," she says. "But after seven years, I would expect more."
This year Hannibal investigated rumors of an official reprimand against Barton and hit pay dirt. She obtained a copy of the September 13, 1999, reprimand through a public disclosure request and distributed it to other parents.
The reprimand, issued by Seattle School District's personnel director Michael Jones, begins by scolding Barton for some minor transgressions (a few public uses of the word "bitch" and a middle-school-caliber sexist joke), then cites the larger issue of a breakdown of professional boundaries between the principal and staff members. According to the reprimand, Barton inappropriately discussed his failing marriage with teachers and attempted to socialize with staff members, including two teachers who complained of being invited for one-on-one sailing trips on the principal's boat.
Barton says he has apologized to his staff and the PTA for his actions. "I acknowledged my mistakes and we, as a faculty, have moved on," he says. Teachers and PTA members confirm that Barton fully disclosed his errors, answered questions about the situation, and invited individuals to question him about the situation either in private or in the presence of his supervisor or another teacher. He and his staff have completed the sexual harassment training mandated by the reprimand. The two complaining female teachers have since transferred to other schools.
Hannibal says she was surprised by the seriousness of the charges and the lack of punishment meted out by the district. "My main complaint was that their sanctions against someone who had committed such outrageous behavior were nothing," she says. "It's led people to ask: 'Is he untouchable for some reason?'"
NEW PRINCIPALS SOMETIMES work hardest on making a good impression, but from all accounts, Dan Barton started his career at Gatewood determined to make changes. After evaluating his staff, he quickly identified two teachers whom he felt were substandard—a veteran teacher, Laura Webb, and her comparatively inexperienced colleague, Nancy Dobrin. A 26-year teaching veteran, Webb was stunned when the new principal made it clear he intended to have her fired. "He started harassing me as a professional at the end of September," she says. "He started sitting in my classroom all the time, taking notes on his laptop computer."
Barton says he was just following district rules. Unlike the private sector, in which a firing requires only a decision by the boss, to get rid of a public school teacher a principal must extensively document substandard teaching and continue this supervision after he or she has given the teacher an initial evaluation of "unsatisfactory." Of course, district policies assume that a principal's goal is to help unsatisfactory teachers improve and stay in the classroom, which wasn't the case here, says Webb.
Dobrin, who declined to comment for this story, took a more aggressive approach, actually applying for an antiharassment order against her boss. Barton calls the move strictly tactical. "What she was trying to do was prevent me from going into her classroom and do observations," he says. District lawyers intervened and the case was promptly dismissed. Eventually, Webb was fired and Dobrin was allowed to transfer to another school.
Barton confirms that he gave unsatisfactory evaluations to several other teachers. The principal says he refuses to play the game of threatening teachers with an unsatisfactory evaluation in hopes of getting them to initiate transfer proceedings. By taking action against poor teachers, he was living up to his "moral and ethical obligations" as a principal, he says.
Some teachers agree. Nancy Carney, one of a few staff members who has been at Gatewood throughout Barton's tenure, defends the principal's actions. "There were several teachers here who really needed to not be teaching," she says. "I think it takes a lot of courage to come into a school and do a lot of housecleaning." Still, she says it was "heart wrenching" to watch longtime teachers struggling to save their jobs.
Some of Barton's other early reforms ran into problems. He is an outspoken proponent of inclusion, or taking special education students from separate programs and returning them to regular classrooms. But when he immediately implemented this policy, some teachers were overwhelmed by the addition of behavior-challenged students. "The special education classes were broken up and inclusion was going to be the rule," recalls Anna Wilde, a former Gatewood staffer. "The behavior problems went through the ceiling." Wilde, a former PTA president and school volunteer, supervised the "time-out" room implemented for misbehaving students. During Barton's first year as principal, she says, almost one-third of the school's students made at least one visit to the time-out room. "That was also the year I pulled my kids out of the school," she says.
Seattle's return to a neighborhood school-based assignment system may have buoyed the enthusiasm of some parents for public schooling and also made principals' lives a bit harder. Even if critical parents transfer their kids to another school, the family is still living right in the neighborhood, often eager to tell the world of their unhappy dealings with the local principal.
Take Rob Shepherd, a parent who was required by the district to seek permission before entering school grounds after an angry confrontation with Barton. Four years after the incident and long after his child had moved to another school, Shepherd sued Barton in King County Superior Court (the suit was dismissed). "It appears that the principal there is still doing all sorts of bizarre stuff," says Shepherd. "That makes me want—for the kids' sake and for the parents' sake—to do something."
Many of the other complaints against Barton point to a man with little tolerance for criticism and an explosive temper. Pat Forest, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Gatewood, says Barton was full of praise at first, but was put off by her willingness to question his reforms. Forest says she simply gave up attending staff meetings after being ignored or belittled by the principal. "He made my life just horrendous—a stressful, antagonistic environment," she says. She requested a transfer and continues to teach in Seattle public schools.
Shawn Berinato considered herself a Barton fan when she took the job of PTA copresident three years ago. However, she agreed with other PTA members that the principal could be intimidating. When Barton announced his intention to seek $3,000 in PTA funds for teacher training, she agreed to switch the vote from a show of hands to a secret ballot. The day of the vote, Barton requested a meeting with PTA officers. Berinato said she was shocked when the principal began loudly berating her for trying to undermine him. "He started yelling and jabbing his finger in our faces. He was extremely rude and unprofessional," says Berinato, who immediately resigned her position in protest, then moved her children to another school at the end of the year.
Is Barton's temper a problem? "It's a hard question to answer," says assistant principal Tim Moynihan. Although he's personally never seen his boss yell at anyone, some people have obviously taken offense at the principal's intense, no-nonsense style.
"I have seen him be angry at people," confirms longtime Gatewood teacher Carney, who says Barton's passionate beliefs sometimes get him in trouble. But she also says Barton realized early in his tenure that his temper needs to be reined in and has worked hard to improve.
DESPITE THE CONTROVERSIES, has Barton achieved results at Gatewood? Many current parents think so. Lois Schipper, who will serve as PTA copresident next year and volunteered at the school about once a week this year, says, "I think there's been a critical transformation" at the school. Tawny Hallan says her first-year experience at the school was so positive that her son will continue to attend Gatewood next year even through the family is relocating to Bellevue. Pam Schwartz, another parent, says her daughter has had a great experience at Gatewood. "I'm in the class every week and I see what goes on," she says, "and I love what I see."
Test numbers for Gatewood show dramatic improvement in the direct writing assessment numbers for fifth-graders since 1997-98; third-graders showed similar writing gains until this year, when scores dipped sharply. Gatewood students have traditionally scored below the district average on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (and this year's numbers reflect the general district-wide dip in ITBS scores). However, these numbers are significantly better than Gatewood's mid-1990s test scores.
Charlene Butler, a 30-year Seattle Schools veteran who worked as a substitute teacher at Gatewood this year, says the principal's staff-building work has been an undeniable success. "I've never seen a group of teachers as committed to a single goal as I've seen here," she says. "Schools are not places that are easily led. At most schools teachers have tenure and can wait out [a reformist principal]."
Even some of those who have clashed with Barton acknowledge that he has built an excellent staff. Kay Fiddler, who is looking to send the three foster children in her care to a different school, says the quality of teaching is very good. "Even without the proper resources, even without administrative support, they do a great job," she says.
The principal has been aided by three-year-old changes to Seattle's teacher contract. Individual schools can now hire teachers without regard to seniority in order to meet the needs of their curriculum. He also appears to have the confidence of his employers. Superintendent Joseph Olchefske has told complaining parents that he has faith in his reform principal and his program. The district is encouraged by the changes Barton is making at Gatewood, and "no one is without their critics,"says Olchefske.
When you consider the other problems with principals Olchefske may have, it doesn't seem Barton is likely to become a top priority anytime soon. After resigning in early 1998, district personnel director Tom Weeks told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that one-quarter of the 96 Seattle school principals are "quite weak." Yet former Superintendent John Stanford refused to make any demotions, preferring instead to shuffle good principals to weak schools (a move which also arguably saddled well-run schools with new, weak principals). As an administrator who has worked to improve his staff, weed out poor teachers, and implement a new, ambitious curriculum, Barton easily outshines Seattle's weaker principals.
And reform-minded teachers such as Butler argue that Barton's future is an important indicator for principals who want to make changes. "If people [who] are willing to make things change get their neck lopped off, you just know what that's going to do to the Seattle school system."