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Outspoken math teacher
at Gibbs to lose her job

Veronica Williams contends her contract is being dropped because she criticizes disparities between black and white students' treatment.

photo
[Times photo: Pam Royal]
Veronica Williams, 27, is also known as Amina Camara. Her three-year stint at Gibbs High School has been controversial, though she initially earned positive evaluations.
By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Veronica Williams, an outspoken critic of the Pinellas School District's record of educating black children, will not be offered another contract to teach math at Gibbs High School.

Williams, a member of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, who also goes by the name Amina Camara, received a letter last month saying that principal Barbara Shorter had recommended that Williams' contract not be renewed. Shorter didn't give a reason.

Williams said she thinks she has been targeted because she stood up for a black student who was slapped by a white teacher in 1998 and has fought for the right to open and run an all-black charter school, the Marcus Garvey Academy. She also has sharply criticized the achievement gap between black and white students, as well as the rate at which administrators punish black students. "It's been an ongoing barrage of interviews and investigations and meetings," Williams said Friday. "This is just the last step in their attacks. After this year, I was going to have tenure."

For the first three years, a teacher is considered on probation and has an annual contract. Every year, the principal recommends whether a probationary teacher should be reappointed for the following school year.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley has the final say. He said he always follows a principal's recommendation because the principal is intimately familiar with a teacher's expertise and style.

Shorter said she could not talk about a personnel issue.

Hinesley said Florida law prohibits him from discussing why a teacher's contract has not been renewed. This year, six teachers countywide were not recommended for reappointment; last year, it was seven teachers.

Williams' tenure at Gibbs, where she was hired in August 1997, has been controversial, though she initially earned positive reviews from her bosses.

In spring 1998, Williams began speaking out against a veteran Gibbs math teacher who slapped a black student who had called her a "fat a-- b----." Williams decried Shorter's handling of the incident, saying the teacher should have been fired rather than suspended for three days.

Williams has said that her willingness to speak her mind is what led to several district investigations into her teaching methods. In one case, she was accused of favoring black students and ignoring white students; the claim was unsubstantiated.

She also was accused of using profanity in her classes and playing music while students were working. Some students, in written questionnaires for district investigators, said Williams frequently discussed racism. One student wrote that Williams described pool as a game that promotes racism because a white ball hits "all the colored balls, then finishing with the black eight ball."

The Uhuru Movement has responded to the investigations, which it called "attacks," by frequently picketing in front of Gibbs.

Williams has denied that her behavior is inappropriate, saying she has a trusting, respectful relationship with all her students. She said she does talk about Africa and has told her students that the government planted crack in black neighborhoods. "Everybody knows that," she said.

"Most of the time we're dealing with math, but if a student asks questions, I answer them," Williams said. "I show my students that I care."

For Teacher Appreciation Week, about a dozen students wrote her letters thanking her: for being patient, for being a friend, for making learning fun.

In her first two years of teaching, Williams was described as an effective teacher. Her evaluations say she met expectations, challenged her students to excel, was knowledgeable and took time to make sure all her students understood the lessons. She was encouraged to work on her judgment.

Williams, a member of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, will seek the union's help in fighting her dismissal. Jade Moore, the executive director, said the union can provide her with legal counsel.

Annual contract teachers have few rights to appeal, Moore said. But Williams plans to file a complaint with the district's Office of Professional Standards.

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