School in turmoil under new director Half of staff has left Children's Guild

November 30, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Five years ago, Odessa Adams enrolled her 5-year-old grandson in the Children's Guild, a private school in Northeast Baltimore for emotionally disturbed children. Having lost his mother at age 1, he was a fidgety bundle of turmoil, yet bright beyond his years. Adams hoped the school would provide him with an education as well as emotional stability.

Lately, he has getting neither, she said.

The problems began last year, when virtually every teacher and therapist she knew quit or was fired after a change in school management. This year, she said, "he's had three substitute teachers so far. They didn't get a regular teacher in his classroom until a few weeks ago."

On a recent visit to the school, she said, the nine children in her son's classroom were "completely out of control. I'm worried he'll get hurt because they fight all the time. It's such chaos in the class, and the children already have emotional problems."

Chaos is hardly unusual at schools such as the Children's Guild. The school takes students from age 3 to 12; some have been traumatized by physical or sexual abuse, others have developmental problems. All need special educational services, and coping with tantrums or fights can be as much a part of teaching as grading papers. But Adams was so alarmed by what she saw that she said, "I'm seriously thinking about calling the [state] Department of Education."

Other concerned parents have done just that. And even though recent follow-up inspections by the city and the state (which provide the school with more than half its money) have cited no serious irregularities, that hasn't silenced the critics. In more than 40 interviews, parents and former and current employees say the Children's Guild has had more than its share of trouble since a new director, Andrew L. Ross, took over nearly 16 months ago.

Since then, about 60 employees -- nearly half of the school's staff and nearly all of the clinical staff of psychotherapists and social .. workers -- have departed, citing low morale, abrasive leadership and an increasingly chaotic atmosphere.

Ross and his supporters -- another substantial contingent of employees and parents, along with the school's board of directors -- say the Children's Guild has never been better run or headed in a more positive direction.

Vendetta alleged

Ross says that employees who left couldn't cope with long-needed change and that they have pursued a vendetta against him by exaggerating the turmoil, stirring further dissent and complaining to regulators.

"I realize being a trailblazer has never been an easy job," Ross wrote in a memo to school parents last December as the controversy began. "For example, Martin Luther King marches and sits at a lunch counter and people say he is a troublemaker. So I accept both praise and criticism that comes along with being a leader."

At some workplaces, one might attribute such rumblings to an unpleasant but essentially harmless clash of professional egos, an uproar that would subside over time. But at the Children's Guild, the students can get caught in the cross-fire, subjected to the same stresses from which they are seeking refuge.

"Instead of creating a safe environment where the children could heal," said psychotherapist Deborah Sarsgard, who quit her job last year, "he [Ross] turned the Guild into a place that mirrored the most destructive aspects of their home environments -- the chaos, the rigid, top-down authority structure, the constant fear of attack, the weekly disappearance of staff members, and the lack of respect and support."

The rapid staff turnover has been particularly unsettling, said some parents who have recently removed their children from the school.

"My son thrives on structure and stability," said Stephanie Ireland, who withdrew her son from the school in August. "Move a chair, and it's a problem, and he lost everybody last year. All of the teachers he had left. The therapist was gone, his social worker was gone. We make progress in such baby steps anyway, and to lose any of it is just heartbreaking."

Ross agrees that the children keenly sense their surroundings. "The kids are like bats; they can pick up all these messages," he said. But he added, "I don't think this affected the kids as much as everybody said. This affected the staff."

Plenty of parents seem satisfied with the school, including Gene and Diana Brown. They endorsed Ross Sept. 23, writing, "Any derogatory statements made by former disgruntled employees could not possibly bear upon our opinion of the excellent services provided to our son." The guild, they said, had "performed miracles."

Others, however, say the misbehavior customary at such

schools has become unusually hazardous because of disorganization and an inexperienced staff.

A parent's complaint filed Aug. 9 with the Maryland Department of Education said that "the disintegration of the [school's] solid core of professional staff" led to her son's becoming "increasingly anxious over safety issues."

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