The longtime leader of a high-performing Omaha elementary school has been on leave for the past month and won't return this school year.
Mary Austin, who was beginning her 15th year as principal at Central Park Elementary, said she has not been told why she is on leave or where, if anywhere, in the Omaha Public Schools she will work next.
She learned from Central Park employees — not OPS administrators — that she would not be coming back to the school.
Austin said she expects to find out more during a scheduled meeting this morning with OPS officials.
Chris Proulx, president of the OPS teachers union, has said other employees told him Austin was not at the school because of how a Central Park student had been disciplined.
In an interview Thursday, Austin acknowledged that staff members had restrained a student recently because the boy was running around the office, shouting inappropriate words and knocking things over.
OPS spokesman David Patton declined to comment on why Austin has been put on leave or what's next for her.
Meanwhile, Central Park teachers questioned Austin's removal and cheered the job she has done as they learned a retired OPS principal soon would take over in the interim.
Teachers said Austin has been a positive school leader who took care of student discipline issues so they could focus on teaching students. That firm handling of troubled students has helped lead the school to consistently outscore its OPS peers on state and national tests, teachers said Thursday.
“It's like the district is afraid to discipline so that we can teach in the classroom,” said Kim Wiseman, a fifth-grade teacher at Central Park, south of 42nd and Fort Streets. “That's what Mary has done because she's tough, and now she's been removed.”
The removal of Austin came under interim OPS Superintendent Virginia Moon, who started work in August.
Austin said that throughout her time at the school, many parents have filed complaints against her with the OPS central office. But her personnel file probably does not include the numerous times she has called Child Protective Services and fought on behalf of kids, Austin said.
Substitute teachers and teachers who transfer to Central Park from other OPS elementary schools have told Wiseman that Austin is the rare OPS principal who correctly handles students acting inappropriately.
“A lot of schools, you have a discipline issue in your room and you send them to the office and they're back before the end of the day,” Wiseman said. “There's no consequence.”
Patton, the OPS spokesman, said all district principals enforce the district's disciplinary code of conduct.
At Central Park, Wiseman said, Austin gets the student in her office, has a conference with parents and makes sure the family understands the school's high expectations.
That's one reason the school's test scores are high, she said.
For example, 79 percent of the school's third- through sixth-graders scored as proficient on the state reading and math tests given last spring, compared with the district average of 65 percent in reading and 57 percent in math for those age groups.
The school also has a higher percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty. Last school year, nearly 90 percent of Central Park's students came from such families, compared with the district's average of about 72 percent.
As recently as August, the school was held up as an example at school board committee meeting.
After hearing a report on student achievement data, board member Justin Wayne asked, “What is Central Park doing differently?”
Donna Dobson, OPS elementary education director, said the school's success comes down to instruction. “When I went out there for my visit, and I encourage you all to go, the focus is on instruction,” Dobson told the committee. “And I think that's what our action plan is doing.”
Cathy Christensen, who retired as Washington Elementary principal in 2007, has been appointed Central Park's interim leader. Christensen was with OPS for 22 years. Since retiring, she has filled in as principal at other OPS schools, including an interim stint at Pinewood Elementary.
Pam Lang, another retired OPS principal, has led Central Park in Austin's absence.
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