Catherine Brown Demotion Completes Admin Overhaul at Cleveland and Franklin High Schools

by Ari Robin McKenna

The end of this school year is bringing continued uncertainty for two South End schools. Franklin High School will begin next school year without the principal and vice principals who guided them through this tumultuous year. And there will be no members left of Cleveland STEM High School’s administrative “dream team” in charge when the pandemic began. 

Students, educators, and parents say these moves mean they face a lack of continuity in leadership and the loss of administrators who kept them safe during a school year marked by threats of violence and COVID-19 spikes. Many are criticizing Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) existing process and rationale for hiring and firing, which seem to consider the needs of students and teachers only sporadically. And some Franklin educators say the district was retaliating for stances they’ve taken regarding safety, in light of multiple gun threats and climbing COVID-19 cases.

This concern was particularly prevalent with the removal of Cleveland Principal Catherine Brown who was newly promoted last year to preserve what many considered positive momentum at the school, after two well-known administrators left for other positions.

At a May 20 walkout in support of Brown, well over 100 students stood in front of the district headquarters chanting, “Don’t be a clown; bring back Brown,” and “Brown back in town.” The highly respected, longtime assistant principal was removed from her role after less than one year. A district investigation found her “insubordinate” for sending a letter warning her community about potential changes to the school’s contact-tracing policy during the height of the omicron variant surge, after district officials had expressly told her not to.

At the end of last school year, Cleveland Assistant Principal Ray Garcia-Morales accepted a position to lead Chief Sealth International High School in the neighborhood he grew up in, and longtime Principal George Breland reportedly accepted a role with the district. Joined by assistants Trent Pollard and Megan Claus, this left the newly promoted Brown to continue the legacy of an admin team that had been together since 2015 and was referred to by some in the community and beyond as “the dream team.”

Morales, Breland, and Brown claimed the district’s highest graduation rate in 2017 and the highest FAFSA completion rate in the state in 2018. This admin team’s intentional hiring practices also led to them joining Rainier Beach High School as the only other comprehensive high school with at least 30% teachers of color. Cleveland also dedicates almost a week before each school year to paid racial equity training, and their student climate surveys have consistently been among the best in the district.

And yet, on the day before the week the omicron surge peaked, Brown was accused of being insubordinate to district officials and was eventually suspended, demoted, and will be reassigned, ending this era at Cleveland.

Current Principal Hiring Process

The current process for replacing principals, valid from 2019 to 2024, was bargained for in 2018 with the Principals Association Of Seattle Schools (PASS). It involves the executive director of Schools (Dr. Michael Starosky) and other directors of Schools, recommending candidates to the superintendent (Dr. Brent Jones). 

The superintendent then either makes an appointment or the SPS Human Resources department posts the position publicly, and the school’s principal forms a robust hiring team — which often includes parents and community members. Once formed, the school’s principal, Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and Building Leadership Team (BLT) co-author school-specific questions for the application process, and the hiring team then makes another round of recommendations before Jones gets the final call.

Of the four high schools changing principals, Jones chose to appoint the principals at Franklin, Cleveland, and Roosevelt, and a hiring team has been put together at Ballard — presumably because of the conflict surrounding their former principal’s removal.

Complete Admin Turnover at Franklin 

When Franklin Vice Principal Ericka Pollard and Principal Drew O’Connell both decided to leave for other positions, there was hope among Franklin staff and students that Assistant Principal Jeffrey Lam might stay on as principal. As Franklin Associated Student Body (ASB) Vice President Delano Cordova says, “A complete turnover is just scary, you know? There’s a lot of uncertainties.”

Cordova says the three administrators worked well in tandem, and he qualified that each brought something different, and special. O’Connell, a Franklin alum, was a “stickler for the rules,” but “making sure we were on the right track was just one of the ways he showed love for the Franklin community.” Cordova describes Pollard’s presence as being “playful” and “observant,” and said she interacted frequently with students and could suss out those who might be struggling with their mental health. Cordova says Lam was the necessary “midpoint” between Pollard and O’Connell. “Mr. Lam definitely saw every single student. He knew what they needed, how they needed help, how to connect them with resources if they weren’t getting the help that they needed.”

There was a lot of support for Lam among staff too, and many had a desire to be a part of the hiring process after a harrowing year. Spanish teacher and Seattle Educator Association (SEA) representative Stefanie Skiljan said teachers were “very upset that the process is involving losing Jeff.”

When Franklin educators did receive an email from SPS Chief Human Resources Officer Noel Treat, it was a form letter saying they were using, “a multi-stage selective hiring and placement process to match principal candidates’ competencies and attributes with our school needs.” Yet educators, parents, and students would not be consulted as to what those needs might be. As if to underscore this disconnect, the second half of the email mistakenly addressed educators from Daniel Bagley Elementary School, not Franklin educators.

“The Human Factor”

While Skiljan appreciates Jones’ appointment of Franklin High School’s new principal Dr. Joseph Williams, she feels distinctly frustrated at what some of those making decisions within the district headquarters keep botching: “the human factor.” “There’s no planning or no thinking about actual human behavior,” she said.

For example, she cites that in December 2021, the district discovered an active shooter threat made against specific Franklin students. The district quickly canceled school — for students. Staff were told to report to work and received an email from Pollard stating the district’s policy: “If you choose to stay home, you will be required to use Personal Leave.” After an hour and a half, their principal, O’Connell, sent the following via email: “After advocating for our staff and your physical and emotional safety, we have received authorization for staff to work from home today. Feel free to leave if you’d like to. I will be in touch with additional information as it becomes available.”

Skiljan said the general staff interpretation of the district’s initial decision was, “Well, you gotta stay in your job, even though there’s an active gun threat against your workplace. We don’t trust you enough to just go work at home, even though there’s no students to teach.”

She says this was a major moment for staff after a COVID-plagued year that often felt unsafe for educators. Nonetheless, it was clear that “it felt like our admin team was really listening to us and really treating us with care.”

Additionally, Skiljan said that the staff coming together in reaction to dehumanizing treatment from the district “was one of the most unifying experiences I’ve ever had with a staff,” even though the threat was revealed that evening to be a student prank. Enough teachers called in sick the next day that school was canceled.

A few months later, when Franklin staff and students found out that O’Connell, Pollard, and Lam were leaving, Skiljan describes a common reaction to the way this year’s events unfolded. “It feels like Franklin’s staff was standing up for themselves in ways that the district didn’t like this year, and so now they’re going to bring in a new team that’s going to be able to handle us better … and it’s not a coincidence that similar things happened at Cleveland, and they’re going through the same thing.”

Why Catherine Brown Won’t Be at Cleveland Next Year

At the May 20 walkout, students heaped praise on Brown for caring about her community, making them feel comfortable, and taking time out of her day to check on them. One student’s assessment of the situation was that “she [Brown] just got fired for being transparent.”

Based on documents and emails obtained by the Emerald, as well as clarifications from an SPS spokesperson about the timing of district communications, the Emerald was able to piece together the sequence of events that surrounded the Jan. 9 meeting where Brown openly disobeyed district commands.

On Jan. 7, SPS released new guidance to principals about how they would conduct contact tracing. In a communication received by Cleveland admin, it said, “Due to the volume of positive student and staff cases identified this week, we are adjusting our contact tracing process. Our central team needs to be focused on contacting COVID-19 confirmed individuals and providing consulting supports to school leaders that need to transition classrooms to remote.”

On Jan. 8, Brown emailed seven people at the district headquarters expressing her concern that this guidance seemed to contradict the information she was instructed to send out to parents — specifically that contact tracing would resume for cases of close contact. She said:

“If our COVID mitigations have shifted, we need to inform families. Families are currently making decisions under the assumption that they will be notified if their student has been in close contact with a positive case. If they will not be, we need to tell them. And we certainly should not be sending out the opposite message. I hope that there will be an SPS communication coming soon that will explain this shift in our capacity to all our families, since every day that it is in effect without being communicated could result in a massive loss of trust from our community.”

Brown had not heard back from the district by the time she attended a District 411 School Review Task Force Group, which, in Brown’s suspension and demotion letter, Treat describes as being set up to “support principals who were grappling with high student/staff absences during a surge in COVID-19 cases.” At this remote meeting, some of the attendees included, Sarah Pritchett and Carri Campbell, the assistant deputy superintendents of Strategy Deploy Response (SDR); Dr. Michael Starosky, executive director of Schools; Dr. Concie Pedroza, the associate superintendent; and Beverly Redmond, assistant superintendent for Public Affairs.

From Pritchett’s account, Pat Sander, the executive director of Coordinated School Health, explained the intended changes, but Brown was not satisfied with the explanation and was “clearly frustrated” with “our [the district’s] lack of transparency with families.”

Both Pritchett and Pedroza’s accounts mention that Brown proceeded to say something to the effect of, “I gotta do what I gotta do.” Brown, however, in her investigative interview with Starosky said she didn’t recall saying that.

“Not understanding if Principal Brown was somehow threating [sic] the authority of central staff or indicating that she was going to do something rash, I asked Principal Brown what she meant by her statement,” continues Pritchett in her account. “She explained that it just didn’t sit well with her and that she was going to communicate with her families about what she felt was a change in practice that left her community unsafe. I then asked her not to do that because we did have a communication plan in place and that may lead to unnecessary confusion for her families.”

In her investigative interview, Brown explained that she had thought about the change in policy and how it would be communicated, saying, “I believe the policy is wrong and a mistake.”

By various accounts, Brown was told to “stand down” and to hold off communicating to families. Brown expressed concerns in the investigative interview about maintaining trust with Cleveland families, and that parents couldn’t wait until the end of that week for further clarity from the district.

Later that Sunday evening, Brown sent an email to Cleveland families with her operable understanding of what the change in policy would mean for them. It said, “If your student was exposed to a positive COVID case in one of their classes at Cleveland this past week and going forward for an unspecified length of time, it is most likely that the only notification you will receive is the general notice that your child was in a classroom with someone who later tested positive for COVID. The interviewing of individuals, including staff, to determine if a close contact occurred will only occur in a limited number of cases with this change.”

The district updated their contact tracing policy on their website that Wednesday, and by Friday of that week — when the weekly case count reached its highest point of the pandemic — had gotten word to families about changes.

Brown’s appointed replacement at Cleveland, Dr. Marni Campbell, declined the position just a few hours before the walkout. As of writing, another appointment is pending.

Editors’ Note: This article was updated to clarify who Superintendant Dr. Brent Jones appointed to be the new principal of Franklin High School.

📸 Featured Image: Cleveland STEM High School. (Photos: Vee Hua)

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