SALEM — A parent forum giving a newly hired high school leader a chance to explain work happening under her leadership derailed into frustration about critical AP-level class substitution issues, students lost to district shortcomings and anger over how that principal was so abruptly hired just weeks ago.
Danise Mendonca, a high school parent, explained to a crowd of 50-some-odd high school community members that her child was having panic attacks over issues with the school's advanced-placement offerings. She explained her anger reading in The Salem News about issues in the district's non-public tapping of Vittoria Pacifico to replace resigned leader Jennifer DeStefano weeks before she actually resigned.
"Yes I am angry, and yes I am passionate. But I love my kids," Mendonca said. "It makes us feel like... again, there's some backdoor shenanigans going on, and I need to make sure that isn't happening."
Mendonca then looked at Pacifico and pointed toward her.
"You might be fantastic," Mendonca said, "but now you're thrown into a hot mess."
Pacifico was hired by Superintendent Margarita Ruiz on March 13, the same day that DeStefano resigned. A follow-up investigation from The Salem News discovered that Pacifico lacks a Massachusetts principal's license, and that efforts to interview and hire Pacifico significantly predated DeStefano's resignation.
The event opened with Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who doubles as chairperson of the School Committee, addressing what she called the "elephant in the room."
"It's fair to say that I've had a chance to speak to every single School Committee member with respect to some of the transition here at Salem High, and there have been some fair concern and frustration," Driscoll said. "It is something the School Committee will be taking up. We have two School Committee meetings in April."
Frustration, lack of trust
Driscoll said the body has felt "a little bit of frustration about communication, and a little bit of [issue with] trust with some of the information that has been shared."
"I know, from some of the emails I've gotten and information I've gotten from folks, that some are uneasy and restless about this transition. And maybe that's kind," Driscoll said. "School Committee members are deeply concerned and are taking issues like this very seriously. We think it's important that we have an open, communicative dialog to have discussions and conversations with stakeholders, and we think that's a weak spot in the district."
In her remarks, Pacifico highlighted her commitment "to listen, to hear" as she took over.
"Students have come to me and said, 'Dr. Pacifico, I got accepted to Harvard.' 'I got accepted to Dartmouth.' 'I got a four-year scholarship to be at B.U.' I'm so proud of them, 100 students," Pacifico said. "What about the rest of the students? What about that student that came to me and said, 'Dr. Pacifico, I'm struggling. I'm struggling. I don't know where my next meal is going to come from.'"
The main bulk of the meeting lasted for about an hour, and included updates from several staff members and volunteers about initiatives going on at the high school. The event then ended without taking any public comment, prompting a little less than half the crowd to leave. But about 10 minutes later, Driscoll opened it up for public comment.
That comment period lasted for two more hours.
"I'm in Dr. Davidson's AP Biology class, and for the last two months, I've been without an actual AP biology teacher," said Michael Cantone, a student at the school. "As a student in the class, I feel as though I'm being babysat on the off days and not being taught or prepared for the AP exam in the last few days."
The exam is coming up soon, he said. So now, his unpreparedness could impact his ability to avoid burning tuition and student loans on courses avoided by passing an AP test.
His father, Chris Cantone, later took over during an exchange with Driscoll. He called for accountability and asked what the School Committee could do to remedy an issue impacting his child's college career.
"I can't go back and fix the circumstances," Driscoll said. "I don't know if the School Committee is prepared to cover the cost of a college course that, by our doing, a student isn't prepared for."
Jamie Lapensee, a parent in the community, shared a similar story about a lack of teachers and suitable substitutes for AP courses, an issue that got a public spotlight just before DeStefano's resignation.
"He spent his whole time trying to prepare for an AP exam so that he doesn't have to take that course in college, so that he gets a let-up on a financial investment," Lapensee said. "If he fails that exam, what are you going to do for him? There needs to be more than, 'sorry. It was hard.'"
One mother asked why it's so hard to hire replacements for the district, and whether its human resources department is properly staffed.
"We do have an HR director," Driscoll said, adding that finding replacements mid-year is hard. "I heard about this at the meeting three weeks ago, and we're chasing down information. That was the first time I heard about this problem."
"This isn't just an AP classes," related high school parent Kelly Ryan. "These seem to be across the board in all grades — this (highlighting her prior example) is an honors class."
Then, Mendonca spoke: "I need to trust you. I need to believe you."
"I'm sorry," she concluded. "I don't want to be rude and disrespectful."
Driscoll told Mendonca to not apologize, and that she wasn't being disrespectful.
"Don't be sorry. Don't apologize. We need to hear it," Driscoll said, "and we need to fix it."
The district's School Committee meets twice in April — on April 8 and 22 — and features public comment periods at the beginning and end of each meeting. Meetings are held in the School Committee chambers at Collins Middle School, 29 Highland Ave., starting at 7 p.m.