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Just before winter break, Michael Rounds, the district's chief operations officer, announced that volunteers were no longer welcome at Southwest — for their own safety.
"I'm a 50-year-old woman," Ramsey says. "If it isn't safe for me, how is it safe for the kids? They blatantly lied because they did not want volunteers seeing what was going on in that building."
Hand, president of the homes association, repeatedly asked to talk with the superintendent. He finally caught up with Covington by phone in December.
"I talked for 25 minutes," Hand says. "He talked for two minutes, and then there was about three minutes of awkward silence. The awkward silences were after I would ask him a question, and he would sit there for a minute and then say, 'I'm listening.' I couldn't get him to talk. And now he's blaming the volunteers."
The district's answer to the problems of the first semester was to shake things up once again, splitting Southwest's students into three academies: a resurrected early college program, an academy of health- and science-focused studies, and an individualized curriculum called "School of One."
Smith was assigned to teach in the School of One. She describes it as a computer-based remedial program.
"Here's the hilarious part about it," Smith says. "Right now, we don't have enough computers to do it. The even more hilarious thing is that we never will have enough computers."
The changes seemed to mute unrest at the school. But the calm didn't last.
"You know when something's too good or something's too quiet?" Lockhart says. "That's how I was feeling in, like, January. I did feel like it was a matter of time before somebody just pulled the fire alarm or tried to get in a fight."
February 11 was an unseasonably warm Friday. Just before noon that day, firefighters raced to Southwest and extinguished two burning lockers. They checked a teachers' break room on the second floor and found a ream of paper on fire, sending flames close to the ceiling.
Fire-alarm evacuations were nothing new at Southwest. But this wasn't a prank or a drill, and everyone who had class on the second floor was directed to the school's auditorium upon re-entry. Inside, Lockhart and Moore met up, and they saw that the adults had lost control. "We were just sitting there, and we see all these crowds of people just being chaotic and fighting," Lockhart says.
Principal Boothe announced over the public address system at 2:20 that buses had arrived. Students were sent home an hour early.
Since then, the district has doubled the number of security guards, installed 75 new cameras in the building, and maintained strict supervision of students at all times.
"If I tell you that I have a facility. It's made of stone, it has guards all over the place, and cameras and metal detectors, what would you say that is?" Hand asks. "You'd say that's a prison."
Since the February fire, a few hundred kids have transferred or dropped out.
Lockhart and Moore aren't returning next year. "It feels like I'm backtracking," Lockhart says.
Teachers are leaving, too.
The district has contracted with Teach For America to supply 250 teachers over the next three years. TFA's teachers are typically young and earn low salaries. Replacing experienced faculty with TFA teachers could save the district millions.
The motive for going the TFA route is no secret to anyone in urban education, Smith says. "Our district would be an anomaly if they weren't doing this. Not that I don't think it's newsworthy — it's a great way to de-professionalize and de-unionize a large, politically influential group of workers."