In mid-October 2018, the newly licensed elementary teacher James Oliver reported for duty at Harriett Treem Elementary School.
Two months earlier, the principal of a different elementary school, Eva G. Simmons, had interviewed and hired James. However, in one of the aberrations that increasingly mark the Clark County School District, the school’s assistant principal had effectively voided the hiring. [See footnote]
After some reflection and discussions of his situation with other teachers, James decided that he would explore an option that’s available to all CCSD teachers: voluntarily taking the “surplus” route.
Under that process, all district teachers who desire to relocate, go on an announced date to a designated auditorium. There, projected onto a large screen, are listed all the currently open positions at district schools.
When Oliver went, he told Nevada Journal, over two-hundred openings were listed on the screen.
Under the terms of CCSD’s arrangement with its teacher union, teachers choose in order of their seniority. Schools chosen must then accept the teacher.
Having only just received his own teaching license, however, Oliver’s seniority was essentially nil. Thus, when his name was finally called and he was permitted to choose among school positions still open, the teacher slot at Harriett Treem was one of the few remaining.
“It was on the screen a long time,” he says, “so your veteran teachers already knew about the school. But I did not.”
Only later would Oliver understand why so many elementary school teachers with more seniority and experience had avoided selecting Treem.
People fleeing Treem
Previously, at the end of the just-completed school year — according to CCSD records examined by Nevada Journal — staff at the school had given the Treem administration what appears to have been a massive vote of no-confidence.
Over half of them — 32 out of a total staff of 60 — had chosen to “surplus” themselves so that they could avoid returning to Treem Elementary that fall.
Among the staffers escaping Treem, over a third — 10 of 24 — had been licensed to work as classroom teachers. However, that sum doesn’t also include the substitute teachers who quit, since substitutes are not officially designated as employees by school.
Two new substitutes then proceeded to work that fall in the second-grade classroom to which, in mid-October, Oliver would find himself assigned.
Nevada Journal interviewed the long-term substitute who’d held that position longest — from before school opened in August and into the last part of September. She said she’d ultimately quit when she realized that Treem administrators had knowingly and cynically been exploiting her desire to become a licensed teacher.
Aware she’d taken the position to fulfill the long-term-substitution requirement under Nevada’s Alternative Route to Licensure (ARL) program, the administration had appeared supportive, pairing her up to work with a “learning strategist” who also had a side job within UNLV’s ARL program.
In addition, however, many surprisingly aggressive requests had also been made of her, she recounts — to which she nevertheless complied.
“They asked me to do a lot of stuff on my own time that the district didn’t pay me for and had me do things like developing lesson plans myself when they said they would give me help,” but didn’t.
What had kept her at Treem, doing all the extra work, she says, had been the expectation of “getting the class full-time, once I had my license.”
And the work had been demanding. Thrown into the classroom cold, with no support from the administration, she had no preparation for the special-education challenges she found herself facing.
Never even informed of which children had IEPs (Individual Education Plans) and thus needed accommodations, or special assistance, she says, she initially “wasn’t able to prepare them and give them the accommodations that they needed,” until, on her own, she had tracked down the IEPs.
One major challenge she found facing her in the room was a severely autistic and regularly disruptive seven-year-old girl. Often out of control, she would not pay attention but instead, full of anxieties, frequently attacked other children.
Thus, the other seven-year-olds in the classroom — themselves now fearful or distracted or on guard — were not learning either, she says. Raw screenshots from the school’s Infinite Campus gradebook confirm this, revealing that nearly all the room’s grades on classroom quizzes during the first two months of the 2018-2019 school year were D’s and F’s.
Academically, the autistic girl learned nothing at all, says the substitute — notwithstanding all her efforts.
“I really tried my best with her,” she says. “For having had no training or education to deal with a child with her needs I felt like I gave her as much of my attention as possible — sometimes to the [detriment] of the other kids.
“I was not qualified to handle her, and they should have had her with a more qualified teacher. Because, she didn’t get any education with me, to be honest with you. She learned nothing from me.”
It was in late September that the sub learned that her status as a long-term-substitute at Treem was being unilaterally ended:
“There was a staff meeting and they were talking about how they were either going to have to eliminate a second-grade teacher or take on a displaced teacher. Either way I was going to have to go.”
“It might sound cynical, but in my opinion they take advantage of us long-term subs as a way to save money on hiring a full-time teacher. We make less than half the pay and they just rack up the savings until they either have a work-force reduction and get rid of us or replace [us] with a teacher that has been displaced.
“That’s why I left.”
Bad faith at Treem
Like the substitute, the autistic girl’s mother has come to believe that while many people in the district are talented, conscientious and caring, a surprisingly large number of others operate in bad faith.
In comments to Nevada Journal, the mother observed that the substitute teacher had received “no support at all” from Treem administrators, and — though lacking previous experience with children on the autism spectrum — had nevertheless been charged with both teaching and managing the severely autistic girl.
And after the conscientious substitute herself had quit, notes the mother, Treem administrators — surreptitiously, and without alerting parents — had divided the class into two sections and placed them in two other second-grade teachers’ already-full classrooms, bringing each of those classrooms to 150 percent of capacity.
Only when the mother’s seven-year-old would come home and say, “Oh, I was in Ms. So-and-so’s classroom,” did the mother learn who currently was her daughter’s teacher — and thus might, in an emergency, have to be contacted..
It was their experience with Treem the next year that finally led the family to pull all of their children from the school and place them instead in a new, nearby, charter school for the 2020-21 academic year.
For the mother, the final straw had been learning that her daughter’s third-grade teacher — who already refused to communicate with the mother —was also quite content to ignore the now-eight-year-old’s need for learning.
The teacher, said the mother, would simply consult the now-eight-year-old, and if the girl would say, “I don’t want to do it,” the teacher would then tell her, ‘Okay, you don’t have to do it.’”
Indifferent to any obligation to teach the child, the teacher on several occasions, “had blatantly told me,” said the mother, “that she just doesn’t want to deal with” the possibility of facing heat from the little girl.
“So she doesn’t make her do anything,” the mother said.
This was though more intelligent district teachers had already demonstrated that, handled the right way, the girl could be successfully directed into productive learning.
“My child is going into the fourth grade,” the concerned mother said this summer, “and has almost no basic understanding of multiplication, division, English, writing skills, how to form paragraphs —stuff that she should have the basic understanding of.”
And the third-grade teacher at Treem — as well as its administrators — had been content with that.
After classes began that fall at Eva Simmons ES, the school’s teachers were informed by the vice principal that students were taking too many bathroom breaks.
“They can only have two private ones and two with all the other students,” she reportedly said. “We’re not going to have any more. I don’t care if it’s an emergency.”
That issue of the hard line on bathroom breaks then came up at a parent-teachers meeting. When Oliver explained it was a new school policy, announced by the vice principal, at least one of the visiting parents asked, “Who’s your vice principal?”
After Oliver answered the question, the concerned parents went off to see the vice principal.
The next day, the vice principal called Oliver in and announced that on the following day she was going to observe his teaching. And though Oliver prepared in detail, after consulting with his mentor, Dr. Pappas (more about him later), the observation she wrote up and demand that he sign was full of what Oliver says are falsehoods.
She then, according to Oliver, reminded him of her directive on the bathroom breaks, and follows up with, “Well, here’s your observation. I’ll make sure that you never teach in Clark County School District again. Sign it. No one ever embarrasses me in front of a parent.”
When Oliver looked over the observation and responded, “Well, I didn’t do all that,” her answer, he says, was the boilerplate that Nevada Journal has found frequently used by administrators who want to get rid of an employee: “You’re only signing it because you’re acknowledging that I have shown you this.”