School board cuts off complaints about chemistry class

Students object to teaching method

Friday, June 13, 2008

Several students from Leonardtown High School went Wednesday to the St. Mary’s County Board of Education calling for changes in the way an advanced placement chemistry class is taught.

Shortly after she began to speak, however, one of the students was silenced by Chair Bill Mattingly because the issue is already before the school board on appeal.

Lauren Bussler said her AP chemistry teacher, whom she also had for honors chemistry during her sophomore year, suggested she take the advanced class her junior year.

She said she was aware of the rigor of the class, but that it ‘‘quickly spiraled out of control.” In prepared comments that she was not permitted to read in front of the school board, she wrote, ‘‘The teacher began harassing us; constantly changing due dates and grading standards and publicly ridiculing selected students. She made inappropriate comments left and right and refused to help students or answer questions in class.”

‘‘You are talking about something that is before us as an appeal that could impact our decision,” Mattingly said after Bussler read just a few opening sentences of her comments. ‘‘I don’t believe this is appropriate. I cannot allow you to continue.”

Her father, Roger Bussler, tried to say from the audience that this was the only time she has been able to address the board of education members in person, but Mattingly said he was out of order.

Mattingly confirmed that the matter was currently before the board of education and that as a personnel issue, it was being discussed behind closed doors. He would not comment any further on the issue.

A reporter’s request to speak with the school’s AP chemistry teachers through the school system was denied. Bussler’s teacher, Pauline Owen, did not return phone calls to her home.

The other Leonardtown AP chemistry teacher, Ronni Morrissey, was reached at her home but had no comment for this story. The two team-teach, students said, and both had the same approach.

Owen is a tenured teacher with St. Mary’s public schools and has taught AP chemistry for several years, a school administrator said. Two educators with St. Mary’s public schools defended Owen and said Leonardtown students’ pass rates over the years on the college-level AP chemistry tests have been outstanding. Those pass rates were not available at press time.

Bussler and her family took their complaints to Superintendent Michael Martirano. ‘‘He found no grounds for anything we said,” Pam Bussler, the student’s mother, said. So the family appealed to the school board.

The school board decides how to handle such an appeal, and in this case chose to hear it based on the record, meaning they would review written documentation only and not take new testimony. This is similar to how an appeals court functions.

The family put in two written requests to be able to tell their side of the story in person, but both were denied.

‘‘They won’t even hear them. She’s not allowed to address the board, she’s not allowed to tell her side,” the mother said. ‘‘How are you going to investigate if they can’t hear both sides of the story?”

The student’s parents said they did not understand why their daughter was denied permission to speak during the public comment time of the board meeting. ‘‘She didn’t name names” in the prepared statement, her mother said.

The student accused the teacher of sitting behind the computer each day and not helping students.

‘‘We had to do it on our own. They hated if we asked questions at all,” Lauren Bussler said.

By the end of the first semester the former straight-A student had dropped the course and signed up to take it through the College of Southern Maryland. She got a B for the first semester in the AP class at Leonardtown, and has requested that grade be removed from her transcript.

‘‘It got to the point where I was coming out of class crying a lot of days,” as were other students, she said. ‘‘No one needs that. No one needs to remember that from high school.”

After she dropped the class, ‘‘there were still kids in that class that were being harassed,” she said. Bussler is president of the Class of 2009 and as an outspoken student, she had more meetings between the school principal, other school administrators and eventually the superintendent.

‘‘This matter is under appeal and I have no comment” on the specific case which involves just one teacher, Martirano said after Wednesday’s meeting.

However, he said generally that although there are independent study classes, ‘‘if there’s a course being taught by a teacher there’s no self-teaching” involved.

‘‘There’s a level of expectation for independence and students taking responsibility for their own learning” and students may be asked to work independently or in groups to solve certain problems, but a teacher is expected to discuss the topic with them afterward, he said.

‘‘All we were asking, all that I desired, was for my former teacher ... to simply do her job and teach the students in her class who wanted to learn,” Lauren Bussler said.

She and her parents have also accused administrators of not effectively dealing with the situation. ‘‘The people in charge have lost the main focus of our school system, which is to educate children, not to harass, bully or intimidate them. They are supposed to help us succeed and be positive role models,” Bussler wrote in her prepared statement.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Bussler and her family were accompanied by four other AP chemistry students with beefs about the two teachers.

‘‘They simply just don’t teach us,” student Nick Corey said later Wednesday. Corey was in Morrissey’s class.

Even though he knew the class would be tough, he said, ‘‘These are really complex things that we have to learn and we have to learn them by ourselves.”

‘‘They have certain kids that they picked on,” usually the ones who do better in class, he said. He said the teachers made him and other students ‘‘feel low” and that the class became a ‘‘real hassle.”

He said he and several other students held study sessions at his house on Sundays, but that he still only managed to get a C the first semester and barely a B the second semester. ‘‘That’s really not the problem,” he said. ‘‘If it happens next year, they’re going to have to go through the same things and it’s not worth it.”

His mother also met with the principal to discuss the teaching styles in the class.

Student Bora Kim’s parents also contacted Principal David O’Neill several times about their concerns, which she said included being tested on material that had not yet been taught. She eventually dropped the class after the third marking period, although she said she tried to stick it out.

‘‘The environment got much worse” the second half of the year, she said.

‘‘I took it because I really liked chemistry,” she said. She said she plans to take a chemistry class at the College of Southern Maryland next school year.

‘‘I just hope that something is done about it. No one deserves what we got,” Kim said.