Drama at Dodge

Parents, administrators battle over the future of a Tucson Middle School

Flood is a word frequently associated with Dodge Middle School.

It was named after longtime Tucson teacher Ida Flood Dodge. The adjacent Alamo Wash a few weeks ago carried flood waters by the East Pima Street campus. And finally, a continuing deep rift among parents and teachers over the school's curriculum plan has caused a flood of controversy.

Sixth-grade mathematics teacher Dean Keller says that test scores for Dodge are impressively high. During the past school year, AIMS results for reading, writing and math were either the highest or near the top in the Tucson Unified School District for all three middle school grades.

Regardless, the chasm between parents who want to strictly interpret the curriculum plan--which established Dodge as a tradition-based school almost 20 years ago--and those who may want to modify it grows deeper. As a result, Keller and principal Cathy Comstock have been the targets of sharp complaints from some parents.

Charging both with "insubordinate acts and violations of TUSD (School) Board policy" in a July letter, Sue Muszynski requested the principal's reassignment. "For the last few years," Muszynski adds in an interview, "under Comstock, the school has been veering away from its adopted program."

Comstock counters that she is extremely committed to traditional education. "It's false to say I'm not," she says. "The main reason Dodge is so strong is because of the program."

Disagreement also marked the initiation of the traditional public school movement in Tucson 25 years ago. When first proposed, the idea was initially opposed by then-School Board Chair Raul Grijalva, but he eventually joined a unanimous vote in approving the concept. Established at Bonillas Elementary School in 1983, the tradition-based program was publicly popular, because it articulated specific educational concepts. These included an emphasis on phonics, memorization of arithmetic facts, uninterrupted academic time and a dress code. The board-adopted plan for Bonillas also noted that "parents will be encouraged to become involved in all phases of the school."

This same terminology was used a few years later when a similar document was approved for Dodge, before the school opened as a traditional institution. To accommodate this involvement, a parent advisory committee (PAC) was established.

A major issue splitting Dodge parents concerns this group and whether it, or a standard school site council, will oversee curriculum issues.

The 1986 guidelines adopted for Dodge had its PAC composed of 15 members, 10 of whom were parents. State law, however, later mandated site councils be in place at every school unless an exemption was granted; those councils require an equal number of parents and teachers.

In a recent legal opinion, TUSD attorney Robert Ross wrote that it was the Dodge site council which should oversee curriculum issues, but Muszynski insists the PAC must retain that power.

Keller believes the entire Dodge document is no longer valid because of some of its wording. He's also filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office over the PAC's meeting practices. Keller says: "If the PAC (makes decisions), I'll have no say in the curriculum."

Robyn Gaub has had children at Dodge for several years and points out that the document "was structured to have an overabundance of parental input."

The adopted plan for Dodge also states that attendance would come from students at Bonillas "whose parents wish them to attend," along with other interested TUSD pupils. Keller, however, says there is a waiting list to get into Dodge, and thinks the automatic exemption for Bonillas pupils should end.

"My opinion is that's discriminatory," he says. "It's wrong to give special dispensation to the Bonillas students. ... The law says openings have to be filled by a lottery."

Gaub strongly disagrees. Citing the need to preserve the "articulation" between the traditional education programs at Bonillas, Dodge and Catalina High School, she believes the current admission policy for Bonillas students must be maintained.

Dodge parent Muszynski additionally criticizes Comstock for allowing non-academic subjects to take up classroom time. Citing several examples, including an anti-bullying course, Muszynski thinks the school's "uninterrupted academic time" standard must be vigorously maintained.

"Class time is precious," she says. "Those programs could be done at the beginning of the school day, after school or during the summer, but don't mix them with the curriculum."

Comstock defends herself, stating: "We still have to follow state standards and the law. Some of these programs weren't in place in 1983."

Speaking of the anti-bullying program, Dodge parent Cindy Dunn reflects: "It didn't take up much (classroom) time. I don't see what the big deal is."

As for altering the school's adopted curriculum plan, Dunn adds: "We never wanted to change anything traditional."

Also dividing parents is Keller's approach to teaching math. While the school's curriculum plan requires "memorization of arithmetic facts," the six-year teacher at Dodge flatly refuses to comply.

"Memorization isn't mandated (by state education policy)," Keller points out. "I'll teach what I need to teach."

Muszynski counters: "Some of the teachers think the document is 'old school,' and Keller is trying to undermine it." Muszynski additionally accuses Keller of "maligning" Bonillas students, because he stated in a meeting last October "that he has four Bonillas students who cannot read in his class."

After reviewing his notes from that meeting, Keller responds: "It's possible I talked about four students from Bonillas. I'm not sure."

Even though Muszynski and Gaub have requested Comstock's reassignment, when more than 400 students go back to school next week, she will be their principal at Dodge. However, several other problems continue floating around the school--including whether the PAC or site council will oversee curriculum issues at Dodge.

According to Comstock, TUSD officials have worked over the summer to find a solution. "I think we have something positive to address the needs of all sides," she says optimistically, adding the proposal will be presented to the two groups on Wednesday, Aug. 23. "We want to keep with the original document and address what process to use to make changes to it. We're not looking at abandoning it."

Muszynski and Gaub hope there aren't any changes to the document. "The district has to take a stand on what they approved," Gaub says of the 20-year-old plan.

On the other hand, Keller views his and Comstock's opponents as a small, select group of parents. "It's inappropriate for 25 percent of the parents to try and override the other 75 percent," he says.

No matter what TUSD administration officials do, some parents will remain upset, Keller says.

"The district hasn't done a good job in dealing with the parents," Keller observes, "and it has both sides calling the other liars. But the district has to make a decision (between the PAC and site council), and that will leave one set of parents very angry."

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