Two whistleblowing teachers at the Oakland Charter Academy, part of the Amethod Public Schools network, are alleging that they were fired without notice on the last day before Christmas vacation after they complained that the school was inadequately supporting student needs, particularly failing to provide special education and English learner services.
Jennifer Ventimiglia, a credentialed teacher with over a decade of experience, and Karen Toepp, who did not have a credential but had applied for a substitute teaching permit, say they were told on Dec. 18 that they were being terminated for “not being a good fit” at the school and were escorted to their classrooms to remove their personal possessions.
The Oakland Charter Academy (OCA), a middle school located at 4215 Foothill Blvd., describes itself as the flagship of the Amethod Public Schools organization, “the only National Blue Ribbon School in East Oakland.”
Established in Fall 1994 as Oakland’s first charter, OCA says its goal “is to prepare our students to compete and excel in a competitive global marketplace.”
Besides OCA, Amethod operates the Downtown Charter Academy in Oakland, Oakland Charter High School, Benito Juarez Elementary in Richmond, John Henry High School in Richmond and the Richmond Charter Academy.
OCA has 152 students, 81 percent Latino and 10 percent African American. About 30 percent of the students are English learners.
OUSD’s new Enrollment Options Guide says the school offers “mild-moderate” services to special education students.
Ventimiglia told the Post that she began raising concerns to the school administration, both about how the school treated its students and the failings of the academic programs, soon after she started working at OCA in August.
When she did not receive a response to the issues, she began speaking with the Office of Charter Schools at the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).
After Ventimiglia and and Toepp were fired, they sent a letter to OUSD detailing what they had witnessed.
“There were no special education services being offered to students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs),” according to the two teachers.
An IEP is a legally mandated written statement of the educational program designed to meet a special education student’s individual needs.
Instead of providing individualized student services, special education students and students who were one or more year below grade level in math and reading were pulled out of their classes by tutors, who mostly were young people who have not graduated college and have no experience with education, the teachers said.
“From what we have observed, all students receive(d) the same instruction that consist(ed) of work on (a computer program) and grammar worksheets accompanied by the workbook,” according to the teachers’ letter.
In addition, the letter said, English Learners “received no accommodation or differentiated instruction in their core classes, and many were failing all subjects,” the letter said.
Besides being pulled out of their English classes by untrained tutors, the English Language Learner students were taught as part of a group with special education and low performing students, and the instruction was undifferentiated.
“The only other support provided for students was after school computer work with the Rosetta Stone (computer) program,” the leader said.
Ventimiglia tired to encourage the school to improve English language instruction, but her suggestions fell on deaf ears. “Not only did OCA leadership never respond to her suggestions, they often actively sought to dissuade her from supporting EL students.”
According to the teachers’ letter, three of the school’s seven instructors did not have teaching credentials.
Like almost all charter school employees, these teachers did not have the protection of a union contract. “All staff members must sign a contract that they can be fired anytime for any reason,” said the teachers’ letter. “In every sense of the word, teachers and staff members have no voice and no rights.”
Though charters are publically funded, they are not generally held accountable to the public for their educational practices. By law, they are exempted from most of the state Education Code, except the requirements for credentialed teachers and federal protections against discrimination.
While charter schools have their own internal grievance procedures, these procedures have been criticized in some cases for being arbitrary or nonexistent in practice. The governing boards of charters are not elected, unlike the board of a school district.
The chartering agency, such as OUSD, is supposed to provide oversight of charters, but an application to renew a charter every five years is often the only public scrutiny that a charter school may receive, according to educators.
In response to the Post’s questions, the school district responded: “The OUSD Charter School Office investigates and provides a Notice of Concern that If violations are not remedied within the prescribed timeline, then it will escalate to a notice of violation; and if that’s not remedied, then it could lead to revocation.”
Administrators from the Oakland Charter Academy did not return repeated calls from the Post.