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Internal tensions turn to sidewalk protest by teachers at Bethune pre-K in Gary

Contributed By The 411 News

Before the bell rang Friday morning at Bethune Early Childhood Development Center in Gary, some of its teachers were walking the streets near the school on east 21st Avenue with protest signs and handing out flyers.

‘Teachers have a voice,’ the signs read. “Why we are picketing” was on the flyers, calling attention to tensions in the building between the school principal and staff.

Bethune is the Gary Community School Corporation’s full-day pre-K and Kindergarten school. It is one of the few full-day early learning schools in the state and it’s free to Gary families. According to the Indiana Dept. of Education, nearly 80% of its 24 teachers have more than 11 years of experience; 45% of its teachers have 20-plus years of experience.

Tensions have turned to protests over keeping in place a policy added due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To reduce the risks of COVID-19 infections at Bethune as students returned to in-person learning in April 2021, parents were not allowed in the building. In the morning, classroom staffs get children from parents’ vehicles. At the end of the school day, staffs return the students to the parents’ waiting vehicles.

Before the pandemic, parents walked their students into the building’s multi-purpose room; students were then escorted to the classroom by teachers or aides. In the afternoon, parents picked up their children from the multi-purpose room.

Staff accepted the change and continued the new policy until the weather became an obstacle to some, said Bethune teacher’s aide Cynthia Woods. As the pandemic has subsided, some teachers want to return to the old drop-off and pick-up procedures. Woods is a co-organizer of the protest and a Gary Teachers Union Paraprofessional Building Representative.

The public protest is the result of what organizers say is “a lack of honesty and integrity in implementing policies and procedures for our school.”

Classroom staff were given an ultimatum on March 31 by Bethune Principal Erica Glenn that their jobs would be in jeopardy and “contracts not renewed” – if on April 1 and thereafter, they failed to follow the procedure set for student drop off and pick up.

At Friday’s protest, Bethune teacher and co-organizer Markenia Lattimore said talks between the district administration and Gary Teachers Union have not brought a resolution to the issue.

“I have been at Bethune 23 years,” Lattimore said. “We have always stayed in the building, receiving students and monitoring the halls. Parents don’t mind walking in with their kids; it gives them time to talk with the teachers.”

On April 1, “the do or die day” as described by GTU president Glen Eva Dunham, Bethune staff were met by the police, the district’s human resources and legal staffs, and the Director of Elementary Education. All Bethune staff adhered to the policy.

Lattimore said the collaboration and teamwork between the school’s principal and its teaching staff that made Bethune an excellent school is missing. “It’s a climate where the principal actually feels threatened by us. We are not that type of staff. No one has ever been aggressive to her.”

As the weather turned to snow and icy conditions, Lattimore was among the teachers who resisted and refused. “I’ve had hip and back surgery, and I didn’t want to risk injury to myself or the children by going out.”

Woods said half of Bethune’s teaching staff is over the age of 50. “Principal Glenn came to Bethune at the start of the pandemic in March 2020,” Woods said. “For a whole year, students were not in the building. She hasn’t been able to see how well the old system worked.” Since the new policy has been in place, Esther Goodes, the Director of Elementary Education said, “The backlog of traffic at Bethune significantly decreases during drop-off and pick-up time. This practice has been in place since the start of the school year once bus transportation was discontinued.”

Goodes said the administration is working to resolve the issue with the teachers who refused to adhere to the new policy. “The issue has yet to be resolved, and there are those who felt the need to voice their concerns via protest. While this is their right, our focus remains on the safety of our children.”

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