Court documents and testimony in a federal sexual discrimination lawsuit are now providing an inside, public look at the dysfunction inside Hoover’s Trace Crossings elementary school during the years parents were leaving in droves for private- and home-school opportunities. Those parents’ decisions changed the school’s demographic mix, emptied out the school, and ultimately led district officials to propose geographically rezoning much of the 13,800-student district.
The Hoover school community is not unlike most in buying the idea that if a school has more poor kids, more kids of color, that school is more likely to have low test scores.
“The notion of blaming the kids is unfortunately very, very common,” Dr. James Spillane, Olin Professor of Learning and Organizational Change at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University in Illinois, said in a recent interview.
School officials, board members, teachers and parents through the years have blamed shifting demographics of children for Trace Crossings’ decline, but court documents now reveal there were many problems among the grownups inside the school.
It’s true that some kids come to school with greater challenges, Spillane acknowledged, but it’s not acceptable for teachers to say “I’m doing the best I can” followed by “what more do you expect us to do”.
It is only by teachers, administrators and parents agreeing all have a collective responsibility for students that improvement occurs, Spillane said.
Depositions and evidence presented in the lawsuit — where former Trace Crossings principal Robin Litaker is alleging that former superintendent, Andy Craig, showed favoritism toward male administrators, particularly when trouble arose within their schools — reveals the turmoil the school was in when she arrived in 2010 and provides some likely reasons why families abandoned Trace through the years.
Test scores weren’t great long before the school became Hoover’s first and only African-American majority school a few years ago.
Teacher relationships and actions can certainly influence test scores. Spillane said research indicates that “roughly 20% of the value added by teachers to student achievement comes from interaction with peers. Teacher-teacher interactions, teacher-teacher trust, teacher-administrator trust is critical to student improvement.”
The Shanker Institute recently published a look at how holding teachers individually accountable through teacher evaluations based on test scores doesn’t acknowledge the evidence showing the importance of collaborative efforts among teachers to improve schools.
In schools, teachers, administrators and parents must have a collective sense of “we’re responsible for this together” known as “collective efficacy”, Spillane said.
In court documents, Litaker and others describe a school where collective efficacy isn’t visible. Prior to Litaker’s arrival in 2010, teachers weren’t following the state-mandated math course of study, weren’t using board-required curriculum materials, and didn’t want to plan together as grade-level teams, they testify.
Evidence shows backchannel communications were used to circumvent protocol that should have been followed to address teacher and staff complaints and concerns.
Standardized tests weren’t kept securely, special education plans weren’t developed and followed, and children were slipping through mechanisms designed to identify and support struggling students, according to the testimony.
When Litaker arrived to make changes, the pushback was predictable, Spillane said, adding “It’s quite common when a new principal comes in who wants to change business as usual, that there’s pushback.”
An email written by former assistant superintendent Carol Barber confirms Litaker was holding teachers accountable at Trace. Human Resources Director Mary Veal testified that the former principal didn’t hold teachers accountable.
Court documents now beg a new set of questions to ask: What if declining test scores aren’t the kids’ fault after all? What if the problem, evidenced publicly by low test scores, has more to do with what the grownups inside the school are doing?
How might that lack of accountability have impacted Trace? Could it be that maybe the kids don’t deserve the blame after all?
Court documents show Litaker stepped into a hornet’s nest in 2010, and it’s unclear if that hornet’s nest has been cleared out.
Barber moved into the principal position at Trace after Litaker was removed in November 2012. Testimony indicates Litaker was not made aware of complaints that were brought to central office officials prior to her removal nor was she given the opportunity to remedy those concerns.
Recently, Barber announced she is retiring from Trace, opening up the job that Litaker seeks to reclaim as a remedy in her lawsuit.
The Hornet’s Nest Litaker Walked Into
Woven throughout the testimony and evidence is a look at a school that was in complete disarray when Litaker arrived at Trace in July 2010.
Litaker became principal at Trace after long-time principal Dot Riley, who had presided over a steady decline in test scores and student population, retired in June.
Barber, in her deposition, testified that teachers at Trace said they didn’t want anything to change when Litaker became principal. Barber said that parents wanted their new principal to be accessible, unlike Riley.
Litaker came to Hoover to teach P.E. at Trace when it first opened in 1992 with around 600 students. She became Hoover’s first statewide Alabama Teacher of the Year in 1997 while she was at Trace. Trace had grown to more than 1,000 students when newly-built Riverchase Elementary was built in 2004 and Litaker followed half of Trace’s students to Riverchase.
Litaker became assistant principal at Shades Mountain Elementary in 2006 before becoming principal at Trace in July 2010.
Litaker’s testimony reveals a wide array of serious problems existed at Trace when she arrived. Litaker said Craig and Barber had warned her that Trace had “multiple, serious issues and a toxic working environment.”
Craig testified he was not aware of problems at Trace during the previous principal’s tenure.
In court documents, Litaker cites a long list of problems she identified at Trace, including standardized tests not being kept in test-secure rooms, basic test security protocol not being followed, faculty charging their own students to tutor them (a violation of board policy), $10,000 in missing textbooks, Individualized Education Program (IEP) problems, federal reports that had been filed incorrectly, faculty skipping complete units of study, faculty not turning in lesson plans, and faculty not trained in state-mandated curriculum in math, reading, or science.
Faculty were not following state courses of study or district pacing guides, nor were most receiving professional development needed to maintain the standard of excellence expected at Hoover schools, documents and testimony show.
In her testimony, Human Resources Director Mary Veal acknowledged that former long-time Trace principal Dot Riley had not held teachers accountable for multiple aspects of their teaching. Veal also said Riley was absent a lot.
Barber testified that she had been made aware of concerns about Trace prior to Litaker becoming principal from former Director of Curriculum Deborah Camp. Barber said Camp told her there was a “lack of attention to curriculum consistency across the school in terms of teaching standards, accountability for lesson design, sharing lesson plans, that type of thing.”
Camp testified that she and Barber had concerns about teachers under Riley’s leadership not using mandated curriculum, a concern that was validated after a curriculum assessment was performed during Litaker’s first year as principal.
Litaker said she found that some teachers were due for an evaluation, and some had not been observed since as far back as 1998. Most were long past the three-year state mandate for an evaluation.
A document obtained by the Alabama School Connection revealed that every one of the 80-plus teachers and employees at Trace was due for evaluation when Litaker became principal. Ten teachers hadn’t been evaluated since before the year 2000.
State law prohibited more than one-third of a total faculty from being evaluated each year, so the faculty was divided into thirds and a schedule was drawn for which teachers would be evaluated at which time over the following three years.
Litaker said when she found the practice of placing children in classrooms using criteria of whether they lived in apartments or single-family homes and whether their parents were married or divorced, she ended it.
Litaker said she discovered 27 children were misclassified in the DRC report for the school. The DRC (“Data Recognition Corporation”) report was used to place children in the proper subgroup for federal accountability purposes. Misclassifying students would have skewed annual test results for Trace and could have impacted whether the school passed or failed Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measures.
For example, if a student is classified as being eligible for free or reduced-price meals (“poverty”) but actually isn’t eligible (“non-poverty”), the test results for that student would be reported in the wrong category which could cause the real results for children in poverty to be skewed.
Litaker said she found that one of the grade levels was segregated by race after the start of the school day, where “you would have twenty-three minorities in one room and then you go down the hall and there were fourteen whites in another room”. Litaker put a stop to the practice as soon as possible, she said.
Litaker said when she first came to Trace that “some of the teachers referred to minority students and special needs students as ‘Sweet and Low’, ‘Those Kids’, ‘Apartment Kids’, and ‘You Know, Special’.” Litaker said she instructed teachers to stop using those terms.
And that was just in the first few months of being principal. Litaker said she reported what she found to Barber and kept moving forward.
Problems Continued After Litaker’s Arrival
Problems with assistant principal Debra Smith made the first year difficult, Litaker said. School officials testified they were aware of problems between Litaker and Smith. Smith had worked under Riley and applied for the principal position when Riley retired.
Smith filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the district when Litaker was hired as principal instead of Smith. Smith is African-American. Litaker is white.
Litaker said Barber told her Smith started a petition and sent out emails claiming Litaker was hired because she was white. Litaker said Barber told her two other employees also sent emails with the allegation that Litaker’s hiring was racially motivated. Both of those employees eventually complained about Litaker to Human Resources Director Mary Veal.
Barber, in Litaker’s 2011 evaluation, acknowledges Smith’s EEOC complaint and gives Litaker high marks for enduring a difficult situation, saying “Principal continues to work with this AP even though there appears to be a great deal of negative behavior involved.”
Litaker said Smith made her first year at Trace “extremely difficult and continually told faculty members not to listen” to Litaker. Litaker said Smith told a teacher not to cooperate with Litaker. “It was a very difficult situation that I had not had a hand in creating. I was not the one responsible for the Board’s failure to place Smith in a principal position,” Litaker wrote.
Litaker said assistant principal Amanda Stone, who was a technology coach at Trace that year, told Litaker that Smith was telling teachers not to listen to her during standardized testing that year. Another teacher told Litaker she had been “kind of reamed out” in the parking lot by Smith for cooperating with Litaker.
Barber said Smith was “moved out” of Trace Crossings after the end of Litaker’s first year. Litaker said Barber told her they intended to “’chase [Smith] off’ by sending her to Crossroads Alternative as the system’s testing coordinator”. Smith took a position whose duties included overseeing federal testing for the district at the start of the 2011-2012 school year and assumed the duties as the district’s Title I coordinator soon after.
Stone became assistant principal after Smith was moved. In October 2012, Stone met with Barber and Veal to complain about Litaker. Veal said Stone came to her because Stone said she felt Litaker didn’t trust Stone.
During her first year as principal, Litaker requested a national consulting group, Learning Forward, be brought in to conduct a review that revealed many problems in instruction and in teacher practices.
Former director of curriculum Dr. Deborah Camp testified that the Learning Forward report confirmed that teachers at Trace were not using the state-mandated math curriculum nor using the board-approved instructional materials for math.
That report served as a “living document” and was used as a blueprint for improvement measures, according to Camp.
Near the end of her second year as principal, Litaker said Craig met with her in spring of 2012 and told her that he was working with “a city council member and a developer to tear down the apartments”, referring to apartments zoned to Trace.
In her testimony, Litaker never blamed children at her school for academic problems. Instead, her testimony focused on serious issues with the culture of expectations and teacher beliefs and practices at Trace before she arrived in 2010.
Failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a federal accountability measure, in spring of 2012, brought more stress to the school, Litaker said. Litaker was “very shocked” when students in the fourth grade performed poorly on standardized tests in the spring of 2012 near the end of her second year.
Litaker and Camp testified that indicators showed students should have scored better than that. Litaker was concerned that something unusual had happened with the test scores.
Camp testified that when central office administrators met in July 2012 about the low scores, Barber said she “thought that the 4th grade teachers had intentionally sabotaged the scores to get back at Dr. Litaker”. Litaker testified Barber said “the teachers had tanked the scores on purpose.”
Litaker, Camp, Barber, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Dr. Ron Dodson, Stone and former Title I director Linda Gurosky used the AYP failure to improve instruction at Trace and worked in teams to observe teachers and provide feedback on how to improve teaching in the second, third and fourth grades.
Litaker and Camp tried to investigate what happened to those fourth grade test scores, but Dodson didn’t follow through with the investigation because when he began the walk-throughs in the fall he could see that teachers weren’t familiar with the math curriculum. “It makes sense to me that the scores dropping would have been a result of the teachers not being prepared to teach the curriculum,” Dodson testified.
Though this was at the start of Litaker’s third year as principal of Trace, Litaker, Camp, Barber, and Dodson testified that some teachers were still having trouble changing their instructional practices and were nervous about having the walk-throughs conducted by central office personnel.
Dodson testified about the negativity that the teams from central office were encountering with teachers while conducting the walk-throughs.
Complaints about morale at the school escalated at that time, according to Barber and Veal. Litaker was not made aware of any of those complaints and testified she believed that the faculty was making strides in improving instruction. Barber’s evaluations of Litaker at the end of each school year were glowingly positive.
“Principal will tackle tough situations if it is in the best interests of students!” Barber wrote in Litaker’s evaluation after her second year as principal. Litaker’s contract was renewed for three years and she was given a raise in July 2012.
On November 15, 2012, Barber called Litaker to the central office for a 4:00 meeting. Craig joined them.
Litaker said Craig told her she would be transferred out of Trace, saying, “Robin, they are after you.” Litaker said Craig didn’t identify who “they” were. Craig said that a board member, whom he did not name, was after her, too.
Litaker said she trusted that Craig and Barber were “watching out for her”, so she accepted the transfer. Litaker said Craig told her he would make her a principal again as quick as he could.
Litaker said Barber later told her that Riley, Smith and Stone had a hand in her being moved, adding, “Robin, don’t worry, I am going to take care of everything.”
Barber moved into the principal’s office at Trace following Litaker’s removal.
Litaker worked at the central office after taking administrative leave. After being told she would be transferred to Crossroads Alternative School in April 2013, considered a demotion by Litaker, she tendered her letter of retirement. Litaker claims she was “constructively discharged”, or forced to retire.
Litaker filed the administrative EEOC claim on September 2013 and was issued a “right-to-sue” letter, opening the door to the federal lawsuit, which she filed on November 10, 2014.
The lawsuit now sits in U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala’s hands, waiting for her to determine if enough evidence has been introduced for the case to continue.
Haikala is also overseeing efforts Hoover is making to get out from under a federal desegregation order and recently ordered a plan to shift 2,200 students into new attendance zones to be delayed until at least the 2017-2018 school year as more information is gathered.
Litaker has requested a jury trial. If Haikala allows the case to move forward, there will likely be an opportunity to learn even more about the inner workings at Trace and the Hoover school district.
What’s Happening Now?
Five full school years have passed since Litaker was named principal. While teachers and parents talk of improvement at Trace, there is little external evidence to support their claims.
Though enrollment had somewhat stabilized under Litaker, enrollment began declining again after Litaker was moved out of Trace. Of the 425 students enrolled this past school year, 141 were white, 146 were black, 96 were Hispanic, and 25 were Asian.
Test scores from the spring of 2015 indicate Trace is showing improvement, though most other Hoover schools scored higher on the ACT Aspire, the state standardized test used for accountability. Trace has the highest percentage of students scoring at the lowest level.
It’s hard to know for sure what is happening with the grownups at Trace.
One set of notes from a January 2013 meeting between Litaker, Barber, and Veal shows Barber was still struggling to get teachers to work together. Barber said she was working to build consensus because “teams appear to be taking sides with philosophical matters”. In another statement, Barber said teachers refuse to take responsibility for their portion of the team.
That was three years ago. Camp testified that it takes three to five years to turn a school around.
In recent years, school officials have publicly praised work at Trace.
Is that the full story now? Until court documents in the Litaker case were available, Hoover school officials said all was fine.
The story that unfolds about the pushback Litaker received, unknown to her until well after she retired in 2013, reveals teachers still struggling mightily with change.
Spillane said it’s certainly possible to address a toxic teacher culture, and there are different ways of doing that. It can be addressed by “cleaning house”, including teachers, but it can also be addressed by “creating a new set of routines that bring staff together regularly to talk about teaching and learning. That, in time, will get people to trust one another.”
For now, the greater Hoover school community is still pointing the finger at the kids.
A number of people who spoke at community meetings held about rezoning prepared elaborate presentations using test score data to show the inevitable consequences of moving too many poor and minority children into one school.
Too many poor and non-white kids in one place will drag down a school, right? After all, look what happened to Trace, many said.
The court documents open a new conversation to consider about what actually happened to Trace. What effect did the teacher culture Litaker found at Trace in 2010 have on the reputation Trace has earned?
Superintendent Kathy Murphy was asked to comment but said she would not address matters with pending litigation nor matters relating to good name and character of former or current Hoover City Schools personnel.
Dot Riley, Amanda Stone and Debra Smith were not deposed for the lawsuit and did not respond to requests for comment.
The Court Documents
Trace Crossings Principal Robin Litaker
Superintendent Andy Craig
Assistant Superintendent Carol Barber
Director of Human Resources Mary Veal
Director of Curriculum Dr. Deborah Camp
Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Dr. Ron Dodson
Trace Crossings in the News
UPDATE: 4:05 p.m. This article was updated to clarify Dr. Ron Dodson position and add Dr. Deborah Camp’s credentials.