BY EMMA BUZBEE, NEWS EDITOR, SOPHIE REVEAL, WEB NEWS EDITOR, AND ERIN DOHERTY, SPORTS EDITOR
Principal Peter Cahall speculates his contract was discontinued because of his sexual orientation and public coming-out last May, rather than poor test scores, the reason given by DCPS. The Washington Teachers Union, however, says the real reason may be teacher dissatisfaction, and they are planning to file a class action grievance based on teacher complaints.
“I believe that when I came out, that that empowered me — the attention, publicity, national notoriety of that,” Cahall said. “I think they just felt I was too powerful. And/or just being a gay white man. It had something to do with it.”
He said he also believes his friendship with David Catania, the runner-up in the 2014 DC mayoral election, contributed to the discontinuation. Catania was present when Cahall announced his sexual orientation and the two of them walked in the Gay Pride Parade together last June.
Cahall’s criticism of DCPS is another factor he believes to be behind the decision. “I’ve been a vocal critic of Chancellor Henderson and her regime. And they wanted to silence me.” He said that Henderson was “conveniently absent” from the meeting where Cahall was told that his contract would not be renewed.
I believe that when I came out, that that empowered me…I think they just felt I was too powerful.
On December 18, Chancellor Kaya Henderson wrote in an email to the Wilson community that DCPS could not give reasons for personnel changes, but that the reason for Cahall’s termination had nothing to do with his coming out as gay last year. This email was in direct contrast to Cahall’s explanation, which came a day later.
From the beginning, Cahall reported that reason he was given by DCPS for his contract’s termination was low test scores. However, the percentage of students who scored proficient and advanced in the DC CAS English Language and Math sections has improved under Cahall, an increase seen most dramatically in the improved percentages between the 2012-2013 school year and the 2013-2014 school year, where the number of proficient and advanced students went up nine percent in both categories.
While the general test scores have improved, the achievement gap between races has been a weak spot for Wilson. The DC CAS scores of black students are consistently lower than school-wide averages. Cahall announced at the start of the 2014-2015 school year that closing the achievement gap would be one of his main goals. Both the math and English DC CAS scores of black students who received proficient or advanced increased by 13 percent from the 2012-2013 school year to the 2013-2014 school year, following a pattern of school-wide progress.
Cahall has always been vocal about his accomplishments at Wilson, as students know from his many speeches. He maintains that his termination is unfair, citing increased enrollment, increased graduation rates, more honor roll students, more Advanced Placement participation, decreased suspensions, and a climate of acceptance and tolerance at Wilson during his tenure.
However, speculation abounds inside and outside Wilson’s hallways, with many who believe that there is a larger reason behind Cahall’s termination. Social studies teacher and Washington Teacher’s Union representative Jim Leonard said, “I do not believe it was all based on test scores.”
Washington Teacher Union (WTU) president Elizabeth Davis said she believes the real reason is teacher dissatisfaction. “Some [parents and teachers] have indicated that teacher morale is not as healthy as it should be,” she said. “There seems to be a lack of collaboration between the entire staff.”
On December 13, the day after news broke that Cahall would not return to Wilson next year, Davis wrote an email to Wilson teachers describing the atmosphere at Wilson as “toxic.”
In an interview she said, “If it’s toxic for teachers, it’s going to be toxic for students as well.” Davis was not allowed to share specific complaints made by teachers in order to protect their anonymity, but said some were upset about the evaluation system, excessive testing, and unfair targeting of personnel. The WTU is threatening to file a class action grievance against Cahall, but needs to ensure that all complaints of contract violations are included before filing the grievance. The WTU has not yet met with Cahall and the administration to discuss the specific concerns of staff members, but is planning on doing so in the near future.
If it’s toxic for teachers, it’s going to be toxic for students as well.
The School Chapter Advisory Committee (SCAC) voted unanimously to support DCPS’s termination of Cahall’s contract. SCAC is a group of six teachers elected by the faculty to represent them and meet with Cahall monthly. Its current members are Leonard, social studies teacher Julie Caccamise, social studies teacher David Heckler, social studies teacher Michele Bollinger, English teacher Alicia Hunter, and CTE teacher Dee Ward. According to Leonard, “This group is about trying to come up with solutions to issues in the hopes of making this a better place for teaching and learning.”
Cahall’s reaction to his termination has shifted between one of resignation and and one of outrage. Cahall said that his immediate reaction to the discontinuation was one of “shock, anger, and disbelief.”
By the time he announced it to Wilson staff and emailed it to the Wilson community, both on December 12, Cahall described himself as being at the acceptance stage of the grieving process. “I have accepted that it may be time for me to leave and allow someone else to lead this incredible school,” said Cahall in the email.
However, in a Facebook post two days later he encouraged students to fight for him. “So let’s take off the gloves and fight for what you believe…it is on,” he wrote.
In an interview Cahall disregarded the importance of the post, which he said he wrote at the prompting of alumni and old friends. “I let people get the best of me because everyone was encouraging me to fight. I don’t want to put my students in that position [of fighting for me].”
In terms of the future, Cahall’s is wide open. “I’ve already received two or three offers but they want to me to start in January. I told them I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t walk out on the school. I needed to finish the school year,” he said. “It’s been a great seven years; I’ve grown, I’ve learned. I’ve met so many wonderful people and I’ll always cherish my time at Wilson.”
Graphic by Sarah Torresen
Claire Parker contributed to this report.