RACINE — On Oct. 19, Julian Thomas Elementary fourth-grader Serenity Avila came home from school crying after hearing that the Racine Unified School District was transferring her award-winning principal, Demetri Beekman, to Mitchell Elementary School mid-semester.
“These kids need him. This is an inner-city school and he’s doing something great here,” said Tehren Vara, who has a child in first grade at Julian Thomas. “Taking him out of this school is like taking a dad away from family.”
“Why fix something that’s not broken?” wondered Steve Avila, who is Serenity Avila’s father.
On Thursday, about 70 students, parents and teachers marched in the neighborhood surrounding the school, chanting and waving handmade signs in protest of Racine Unified’s decision.
Beekman’s departure is part of a three-way exchange of principals in the school district. Esteban Malacara, who had been the directing principal at Mitchell Elementary, is being moved to Goodland Elementary. And Goodland’s principal, Janet Colvin, is taking Beekman’s spot at Julian Thomas, 930 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“I think everyone is going to give (Principal Colvin) a chance,” Special Education Teacher Megan Wilson said. “It’s going to be a challenging transition for us and the students … It’s a mourning process. He was the father of our school.”
“Pretty much all educators are contractually obligated to go where they’re ordered to go,” said Travis Eales, a dual-language teacher at Julian Thomas. “Mr. Beekman has been very professional in this.”
A principal’s influence
Both parents and teachers attributed Beekman as the primary cause of a turnaround at Julian Thomas.
“We were a very underperforming school that was not meeting expectations,” Fourth Grade Teacher Kristen Vaughn said.
“The hallways here used to be chaotic. The school used to be chaotic,” added Thomas Billman, who teaches third grade.
When Eales started working at Julian Thomas seven years ago, he remembers having to break up three or four fights during every recess period. That doesn’t happen anymore, and Eales thinks that Beekman is the cause of that.
“For my first four years of teaching, we never had the same principal for more than a year. That was not good for the school,” Eales said. “I was burnt out after four years.”
Test scores at the school have improved significantly in English, math, science and social studies since Beekman became principal in 2015, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
“With him being removed, we know it is likely that all of the growth these students have made will decline rapidly,” Vaughn said. “He was a father figure to a lot of our kids.”
“He’s the only principal we had that kept the school straight and got our test scores up,” fifth-grader Cody Taylor added.
‘Our principal is the glue’
The Journal Times spoke with five different Julian Thomas teachers, and each one of them said they will try to keep sustain improvements at the school, but they were all convinced that the loss of Beekman would have a negative effect.
One teacher marched with a sign that read “Don’t stop the momentum.” Another read “Consistency: Bring back Beekman.”
“This is the first year our school has shown significant growth. As awesome as our staff is, our principal is the glue,” Wilson said.
Before Beekman was moved to Mitchell, Vara said that three different people have held the role of vice principal at Julian Thomas in the last two years alone.
“When school staff stays consistent ... that’s how you really start to build a community,” Eales added. “(Moving Beekman) is really stifling all the great things we’ve been doing.”
A 2014 study published by the Alliance for Excellent Education found that high-poverty schools (like Julian Thomas, where 84 percent of students receive free/reduced lunch) are more likely to have high rates of faculty turnover, which adversely affects morale and performance for students and teachers.
Teachers and parents are wondering why the change was ordered.
Edward Lawson, a substitute teacher at Julian Thomas with 18 years of education experience, said that the faculty wasn’t given any heads up about the impending change. They found out last week, just like the students.
Several teachers said they reached out to Racine Unified to find out the reasoning behind the change, but said they didn’t get any answers.
“We haven’t heard a word from our leadership … about how this is supposed to benefit students,” Eales said.
The Journal Times sent an email to RUSD with four separate questions regarding the transfer, but only received a two-sentence response.
“Mr. Beekman was offered and accepted a position at Mitchell School this week. While we normally avoid disruption during the school year, we believe these changes will positively impact student achievement,” Stacy Tapp, RUSD’s chief of communications, wrote in an email.
“I’m not going to take this. I’m going to fight this one,” Steve Avila said, getting cheers from other parents standing nearby. “If we have to go to war with Unified, that’s what we have to do.”
“If we have to go to war with Unified, that’s what we have to do.” Steve Avila, parent of fourth-grade student at Julian Thomas Elementary
“He was the father of our school.” Megan Wilson, special education teacher
“Taking him out of this school is like taking a dad away from family.” Tehren Vara, parent of first-grade student at Julian Thomas Elementary