Elaine Weintraub, a highly regarded Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School history teacher of 25 years, announced her retirement last week, effective at the end of the school year, saying she has been “excluded” and “isolated” by the administration, in a letter to the school committee.
“I write not out of concern for myself, but to inform the committee of the ways in which it has become impossible to continue to teach in ways that honor the relationship between students and their community,” Ms. Weintraub wrote.
More than 50 people packed into a small conference room at the school library, a majority of whom were there to show their support for Ms. Weintraub and speak out against the school administration, citing issues with the disciplinary process, which was described as unfair, harsh, and alarming.
Ms. Weintraub did not attend the meeting, but her retirement letter was read by Kelly McCracken, a school committee member, after people urged the committee to read it into the record. The ensuing discussion lasted for nearly an hour and a half, and school committee members unanimously agreed to hold a public forum on the school’s disciplinary process.
“I know the loss here is going to be huge for these kids,” Tricia Bergeron, who no longer has a child in the school, told the committee. “For these kids, that’s huge not to have somebody like her in their life, and I hope it has opened all of your eyes and all of your ears, and do something about it because it is real.”
Ms. Weintraub teaches courses in Brazilian history and culture, making the high school the first in the state to offer such a class, according to Willa Vigneault, a high school senior who took the class. Ms. Vigneault called Ms. Weintraub “a pillar” of the community during the meeting.
Ms. Weintraub also taught courses in Irish history and global history, and organized the One World Club, an organization at the school aimed at creating an inclusive climate for all nationalities. She has chaperoned trips to New York and Ireland for students.
Ms. Weintraub created the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail, and in 2010, she helped Brazilian students win the right to wear their country colors at graduation.
“She has helped many students navigate the challenges of MVRHS and adjust to our community and to the Martha’s Vineyard community,” Ms. Vigneault said.
Chuck Hughes moved to the Vineyard with his three Asian children in 2001, he told the school committee. He said his two daughters experienced racism — being called derogatory terms — and described it as a challenging time, but one that Ms. Weintraub helped his children through.
“Elaine was somebody who just took them in,” Mr. Hughes said. “She made them feel like there’s a place for them.”
A breaking point
Ms. Weintraub said in her letter that the most trusted aspect of a student-teacher relationship, the ability for students to feel safe confiding in her, was in jeopardy. She acknowledged her role as “a mandated reporter,” and said she is aware she has to report “information that may be life-threatening for a student.”
She was told to report the conversations she had with students, and noted her only interaction with administration was when they sought to punish a student.
“I was shocked by the request,” she wrote.
In a conversation with The Times on Wednesday, Ms. Weintraub said if a child has an adult to go to whom they trust, it keeps them safe, and that students often seek out adults to talk to. But when she was asked to discuss the things she was told in confidence — things that did not jeopardize a student’s safety — to give the administration “a heads-up,” she was alarmed.
“That was kind of one of the breaking points,” she said.
Sara Dingledy, the high school principal, told The Times on Wednesday that she asked all teachers who heard of incidents around safety, harassment, or comments about immigration status or fears of deportation to share them with the guidance department so the school could address it, after charges that students, especially those of immigrant families, were being bullied.
Ms. Weintraub has been the chair of the history department since 2005, but when the decision was made to appoint a different chairperson, she told The Times that she wasn’t surprised by the decision.
“In the past year, this sense of a departmental team with common responsibilities has been greatly disrupted through unequal and covert treatment of the various members of the department,” she wrote in her letter of retirement.
At the beginning of the year, the administration decided that department chair positions would be three-year terms as there was no real process in place for renewal, Ms. Dingledy told The Times. In theory, it was supposed to happen every year, but it was something that wasn’t enforced.
“It was about putting a system in place,” she said.
They selected four departments at random, and this year, the history, world languages, guidance, and English departments were up for review.
Several candidates in the history department applied, and Ms. Dingledy interviewed them and established department support for the candidates. “Everyone had a chance to weigh in,” she said.
There were many history candidates who applied, including Ms. Weintraub. Ms. Dingledy ultimately made the decision to appoint someone new, but declined to comment further on her reasons for moving on from Ms. Weintraub.
Four years, five principals
There have been five different principals in four years, but many school policies have remained unchanged.
“I think there’s a culture of structure that kids need,” Ms. Dingledy said of enforcing already existing policies. For example, needing a pass to leave a classroom hasn’t been a practice at the school, but is necessary for safety and security, and so now is being enforced, she said.
She acknowledged there may be a perception of being “heavy-handed,” but reiterated the need to keep students safe. “This year’s climate was tough, and we looked into a lot of incidents,” Ms. Dingledy said in an email to The Times. “These situations require our attention and focus, and I think that we have handled many of them very well this year, using a team approach as we figure out how to support all of the students involved.”
Matt D’Andrea, superintendent of schools, told The Times on Tuesday that Ms. Dingledy has “stepped into a difficult situation,” being the fifth principal in four years, but that she was enforcing rules that were already in place. The inconsistency in enforcement, he said, came from the frequent changes at the top.
“The efforts that [Ms. Dingledy] has started working on with us and with the school is 100 percent in support of the students at that school,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “She has my full support.”
During the school committee meeting, Mr. D’Andrea urged people to use the school advisory council to voice concerns throughout the school year. Both Mr. D’Andrea and Richie Smith, assistant superintendent of schools, said they regretted that their children, soon to be in the high school, would not have Ms. Weintraub as a teacher.
Robert Lionette, chairman of the school committee, commended the work Ms. Weintraub has done. The Martha’s Vineyard public school district was the first in state to pass a “safe schools resolution,” which affirms the educational rights of students, regardless of their immigration status, according to Mr. Lionette.
“Without the work that Elaine has done here and in the community, it would never have moved with that sense of alacrity, and that work will be missed,” Mr. Lionette said.
Making a difference is what motivated Ms. Weintraub to get into education in the first place, she told The Times. She plans to work at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, and continue her involvement at the Massachusetts Department of Education Committee on evaluating Bias and Sensitivity in Education, as well as at Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that engages students in the examination of racism and prejudice.
“I went into teaching because I felt education was a way you could make a difference in people’s lives,” Ms. Weintraub said.