Howard’s leadership instability frustrates teachers

Several Howard teachers have expressed frustration over policies implemented under Principal McDowells six-week administration.

Connie Erdozain

Several Howard teachers have expressed frustration over policies implemented under Principal McDowell’s six-week administration.

Greta Gustafson

After over a year of interim administration during the 2020-21 school year, Atlanta Public Schools hired Janet McDowell to be principal of Howard Middle School. A slew of changes followed her arrival; many were not well-received by the Howard community, including the separation of Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students and on-level students, and the reversal of Howard’s unique snake schedule.

Aside from students, teachers were heavily impacted by McDowell’s decisions, many of which found the start of the year particularly difficult. 

“McDowell was disrespectful to fellow teachers at Howard,” 8th grade teacher Christopher Lee* said. “We were in a meeting and she just cut two teachers off, she didn’t even let them finish their question. It was just rude and disrespectful, and it ruined the morale. Everybody was afraid to say anything, or approach her with anything, and it was just not a good vibe. It ruined the culture and the camaraderie amongst the teachers; it was hard.”

After several attempts for a request for comment, McDowell, Paul Brown and Lisa Herring did not respond.

After six weeks as principal, McDowell departed from Howard. The day before her departure, a statement was released from Supt. Dr. Lisa Herring announcing that two interim principals will be in the position from Sept. 14 to May of 2023. 

Although the reason for McDowell’s departure is not known to the public, several teachers believe it was due to a complaint made to HR. 

“One of the teachers filed a grievance to HR and then she left,” Lee said. “We got an email [from McDowell] after that and it was very inappropriate and very aggressive.”

The announcement came as a shock to Howard teachers, yet some said they were happy to hear the news. 

“We weren’t expecting it; teachers hear everything last, and a lot of us were in a meeting when we got the email. Everyone’s demeanors changed,” Lee* said. “You could see it in our body language, everyone relaxed, even smiled.”

McDowell was employed quickly and against community input. According to a GOTeam member, the Howard GOTeam voted over the summer on their top candidates to fill the position and McDowell was third.

“The first two people we recommended were rejected by the folks above,” Howard GOTeam member Brian Forest* said. “We had a good feeling about both of them, specifically who we had initially nominated, but they said no and gave no reason.”

There have been other incidents within APS this year, including both the appointment and reversal of Kari Schrock to be principal of new Midtown elementary school, and the releasing of three top admins during an investigation into hiring concerns and internal issues, causing disarray for teachers and students. Paul Brown, one of the administrators who was put on leave, is now back as the Midtown Cluster assistant superintendent. Many Howard teachers said he was one of the reasons McDowell was principal.

“They [Paul Brown and Lisa Herring] are the ones who made the decision to hire McDowell,” Lee said. “They’re the ones who should also be accountable for what’s happened this year.”

One of the several problems teachers brought to light were the differences between what McDowell told parents and what information was relayed to teachers. 

“It was some of the untruths too that were coming out early on,” Lee said. “The one thing that she told parents was that we got rid of the snake schedule because the teachers didn’t like it. Now, I don’t know a teacher that did not like the snake schedule.”

Some teachers considered changing jobs after McDowell’s changes. 

“I knew one teacher; I don’t think he is doing it anymore, but he was ready to leave,” Lee said. “He had already started contacting PAGE, Professional Association of Georgia Educators, about how he could get out of his contract.”

One of the reasons teachers found McDowell’s leadership approach unfit for Howard was her “turnaround specialist,” (someone who works to make bad schools good) mindset.

“She was a turnaround specialist and treated our school like it needed to be turned around when it didn’t,” Miranda Warner*, an eighth grade teacher, said. 

Lee agrees and thinks everything was not McDowell’s fault but says she was just not the right choice for Howard. 

“We’re a high-performing middle school, and she was treating us like we weren’t,” Lee said. “Like everything we’ve done for the last 20 years has been not working, when we know it has. She didn’t respect the culture and how we worked.”

Warner found the beginning of the school year particularly difficult, even in comparison to the 2020-21 school year in which APS was almost fully online. 

“I love middle school kids,” Warner said. “I think I’m really good at it [teaching], but there comes a point where there’s no joy. I have to have joy and there was none. APS, they don’t really care if teachers have joy, that’s not their concern.”

Sixth grade teacher Rebbeca Walton* was one of several teachers who met with McDowell over the summer and initially was excited for the new administration. When the school year started, she noticed that McDowell started to work in a completely different way. 

“I went to the May 31 meeting where she first met with the community, and then she also had one-on-ones with us this summer, and she was very personable,” Walton said. “I had an amazing feeling about her. Then, the first day of preplanning, she was very condescending to teachers, very rude. It was like she had been lying to us and faking it until we actually showed up on day one, and then it was just like Jekyll and Hyde. It was insane.”

Moving forward, many students are hopeful that the interim principals will work to undo some of the policies put in place under McDowell. Already, they have started to undo the segregation between GATE and on-level students. 

“A lot of people are now cross-team (have classes across cohorts), so we have classes with different teachers,” 6th grader Bridget Ryan said. “The first principal didn’t want that, and now because of her making the teams based on smartness, we are all cross-team to fix what she did.”

Many teachers have requested that the interim principals take the time to properly address the problems caused under McDowell’s administration. 

“I mean, [interim principals] have got to address teacher morale and teacher burnout,” Warner said. “There are teachers that are planning on going to an elementary school or high school because this isn’t sustainable.”

Some teachers have expressed hope that APS brings an administrator to Howard who properly fits the school’s environment and needs. 

“I’m tired of APS sending us ratchet administrators that don’t understand the diamond that they’re sitting on,” Walton said. “They just keep running us into the ground. We [teachers] have just kind of hit the point where we’ve had enough.”

*Christopher Lee, Brian Forest, Miranda Warner, and Rebecca Walton are all anonymous names due to requests by the teachers quoted in this article.