Edu-Drama, and My Response

In early June, a great friend and colleague of mine, Geoff Grimmer, was abruptly terminated from his position as Principal of Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. I wrote the following letter to Dr. Sandra Smyser and the Eagle County School Board in response and in support of Geoff. I also attended the public appeal hearing where I spoke in support of reinstating Geoff.  In my remarks, I expressed great surprise at Dr. Smyser’s unfortunate characterization of good principals as “middle managers” and about the power of modeling as good leadership. In my opinion, firing Geoff for being a poor “fit” in the district and for a perceived failure as a middle manager signaled that returning to teach in Colorado would be impossible for me in the future. If one gets fired for success in public education, we have major problems. Happily, the Board voted not to uphold Geoff’s termination and he will return to VSSA this year. 

Dear Dr. Smyser,

I am writing today to express my extreme shock at your failure to renew the contract of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s Principal Geoff Grimmer. Mr. Grimmer is a former colleague of mine and an inspiration to me in my teaching practice as an English teacher and department chair at Zurich International School in Zurich, Switzerland. Mr. Grimmer is an example of an ethical educator who places the whole student firmly at the center of his practice. My only consolation for the loss of such a leading educator to the children of VSSA is that we may be able to lure Mr. Grimmer to our school.

First and foremost, I am surprised at your decision to terminate Mr. Grimmer’s contract. Mr. Grimmer is a nationally recognized leader in education, as noted in coverage by The New York Times of the great success of students at VSSA. Negligence or incompetence on the part of an educational leader is not mentioned by the journalist in this coverage; rather, success and positive innovation aimed at helping students realize their highest potential form the backbone of the article. Mr. Grimmer was also very recently featured in Microsoft Vice-President of Worldwide Education Anthony Salcito’s “Daily Edventures” blog aimed at uncovering “global heroes in education.” Do you disagree with Mr. Grimmer’s view of education as expressed in these two media pieces? Is the vision that Mr. Grimmer expresses so out of touch with your vision, or the vision of Eagle County Schools, that this represents grounds for termination? If so, I would be interested in learning the areas in which you disagree. On your “Office of the Superintendent” page, you state that “Eagle County Schools is an innovative district that pushes the boundaries of what public education can do.” Surely VSSA, created and led by Geoff Grimmer, stands as nationally-recognized proof of such a statement. Is this grounds for termination in the Eagle County Schools?

Perhaps more surprising is that by any objective measure, VSSA is flourishing under Mr. Grimmer’s leadership. As your district reporting on 2010-2011 CSAP results states, “Eighth graders at VSSA and GCMS improved their [math] scores from 55 to 79 and 62 to 77 this year“ and scored “79% proficient or advanced” on the reading portion of the test. Your report goes on to note that VSSA students and 8th grade students district-wide “boasted stellar improvement scores at 79, 76 and 70 percent proficient or advanced.” If such success as measured by the admittedly questionable instruments of Colorado state standardized tests proves grounds for dismissal, have you failed to renew the contracts of Mr. Grimmer’s similarly successful colleagues? Of course, as you declare on your Superintendent page, “We are clearly a district that is serious about student achievement – not just test scores, but meaningful learning that is relevant, interesting and promotes abilities like critical thinking and problem solving. We expect that every student can function at high levels, and we are determined to help them achieve.” As VSSA allows students with exceptional talents to pursue their skills at the highest levels while at the same time employing 21st Century learning platforms to maintain high standards of education, it seems a model for your claim. In the design and implementation of this innovative model for learning and teaching, what failed to meet your expectations, or the expectations of the Eagle County Schools?

Finally, I wonder by what standards you assess your instructional leaders? By the ISTE NETS-A standards for administrators, Mr. Grimmer is an outstanding example of educational leadership in the digital age. Beyond areas previously mentioned, Mr. Grimmer understands key metrics for evaluating success in a diverse, unique environment like VSSA and has clearly utilized them to provide a safe, positive environment for individualized instruction – best practices all around. Per the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, Mr. Grimmer clearly meets all standards and, most importantly, is a reflective educator and lifelong learner dedicated to continually improving his practice and the learning community under his charge in a healthy, humane manner. Even the inconsistent Colorado Principal Standards provide a steady list of strengths attributable to Mr. Grimmer or areas in which growth can easily be realized. While I am certain that Mr. Grimmer “Exemplif[ies] a personal and professional commitment to ethical conduct and respect for others and their rights,” I cannot be sure that he does not hold the bar for student achievement higher than “Colorado State Model Content Standards” or that he always “Convey[s] respect for the roles of elected officials and administration.” What is unclear in the Colorado Principal Standards are the benchmarks upon which a meaningless abstraction such as respect for elected officials and administration are judged; does the absence of a positive, for example, prove a negative? Of course, ethical behavior and the holding of high expectations seem minimal expectations taken for granted until compelling evidence of their absence is uncovered. In lieu of such evidence, surely it is incumbent upon you, Dr. Smyser, to present findings worthy of termination of employment for an otherwise fine educator.

Dr. Smyser, as an experienced educator yourself, you must recognize the relationship between objectives or benchmarks and judging performance. By measures qualitative and quantitative, Geoff Grimmer is a successful educational leader of Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. When district leadership suddenly terminates the contract of a successful school leader, especially so very late in the school year and without any prior notice, they risk deeply undermining the trust and authority placed in them by the community, and so should not do so without a volume of compelling evidence. If gross negligence or incompetence was obvious before, why did you not act earlier to mitigate the damage? In fact, such a decision fails to meet all communication and environmental management standards for administrators such as those linked above. For these reasons, and for the children of your learning community, please accept this statement of protest of your decision not to renew the contract of Principal Geoff Grimmer of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. You should reconsider this decision immediately and move to renew Mr. Grimmer’s contract today. The health and vibrancy of your learning community demands it.

Sincerely,

Ian W. Hoke

English Teacher & English Curriculum Area Leader

Zurich International School

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