It didn’t take long for Fresno Unified officials to make switch-ups at embattled Fort Miller Middle — the school will have a new principal by next week, Fresno Unified officials announced at a board meeting Wednesday night.
Mike Jones, principal at Hamilton K-8 school, will replace Fort Miller principal Deborah Buckman, who has been on medical leave since November.
But the news, which was met with two thumbs up from teachers and union officials who attended the evening meeting, was shaded by heart-wrenching personal stories from students and teachers who took to the dais to talk about safety and bullying at the school.
The school has come under increased scrutiny after an escalation in campus violence, including an assault on a 65-year-old teacher last spring and a poisoning of a teacher in January. At least 17 teachers quit or were transferred last school year.
Trustees Carol Mills, Christopher De La Cerda and Brooke Ashjian have spoken publicly about the problems, each calling for increased resources and attention by district officials. Mills has also pressed for reducing student enrollment. About 855 seventh and eighth graders attend school there.
At Wednesday’s meeting, nine teachers, a parent and a student continued beating the drum.
Fort Miller is a place all the speakers called home — many fondly referred to the central Fresno school as “the Fort.” But spats of violence, student misbehavior and high suspension rates have become the new normal, many said.
Campus culture director Marcy Barnhart, an upbeat teacher who said she’s known as the school’s biggest cheerleader, said she “was told by a colleague I had lost my spark this year.”
“I’m emotionally and physically exhausted while I’m at the Fort,” she said. “Fort Miller is filled to capacity with at-risk youth ... we need more support to engage our students.”
Eighth-grader Unique Martinez was near tears as she spoke about being bullied and showed trustees close-up photos of her face, scratched and bruised after a recent attack.
Some attributed the problems to stresses the school felt after it absorbed more students three years ago. Starting in the 2012-13 school year, students from additional elementary schools began feeding into Fort Miller as part of a plan that turned another central Fresno school, Cooper Academy, into a specialized college-prep program.
Several teachers read from handwritten student letters, notes their students wrote this school year in response to an assignment about the school’s campus environment.
“Fort Miller Middle school is a great school, it’s just that there are some kids that are bad. Fort Miller Falcons look bad, but we will work on it, we never leave a Falcon behind,” teacher Jaime Schaffer read from a letter.
Schaffer then shared her own message.
“I’m asking you to not leave our Fort Miller family behind. We have been made to feel we are not wanted, we are not noticed and we are not cared for.”
As part of the agenda, board members reserve their comments about issues brought up by the public until the end of the meeting.
So it was long after the crowd had left that Trustee De La Cerda had a chance to fiercely defend Fort Miller students, calling public conversation blaming problems on so-called bad students an “unfortunate low.” He pointed specifically to a letter published in The Bee calling the school’s students “mini-thugs.”
The school serves overwhelmingly poor neighborhoods, circumstances children can’t control and should never be held liable for, he said.
“We ask (students) to rise above those conditions, to make something of themselves,” he said. “We need to move together and with clarity and focus, not cloud the issues and scapegoat our children for our failures.”
Superintendent Michael Hanson told The Bee he’s confident Jones will set a different “tone and tenor” moving forward. The district is taking other steps too, Hanson said, including hiring a school resource police officer.
“We have a problem that is going to ultimately have to be owned by the Fort Miller community and Mike Jones is the perfect leader to help everyone understand that and get everyone rowing in the same direction,” he said.
Jones said in an interview he’s meeting with Fort Miller’s staff on Thursday and expects to start his official duties on Monday. He’ll split his time between Fort Miller and Hamilton until his replacement at Hamilton is named, he said.
Jones, who graduated from Fresno High, said he’ll bring an understanding of the central Fresno community and nearly three decades of experience.
“I’m an experienced principal, I’ve been doing this for 29 years and the main thing I want to make sure is we’re transparent in everything we do,” he said. “We work with the staff and the community and we look forward, not back.”
NOTE: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the change of principals at Fort Miller Middle School was approved at the Fresno Unified board meeting. Superintendent Michael Hanson transferred Mike Jones to the position and the board announced the move at its meeting Wednesday night.