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Supporters defend School 18 principal amid teachers' complaints

A much different story of Buffalo's School 18 emerged Wednesday, a month after teachers went to the Board of Education seeking the removal of the school's principal.

This time, supporters came to the principal's defense and dismissed allegations that she is ignoring student misbehavior or making inappropriate comments to kids and staff.

"To say that our principal is creating a hostile environment for students is absurd," said teacher Jacqueline Morris. "She is focused on changing our building's mindset, which in turn has ruffled some feathers."

Some teachers from School 18, a pre-K to grade eight school on West Avenue, took their concerns about Principal Aakta Patel to the School Board in December. They accused Patel of making racially insensitive and cruel statements and that she was covering up the "chaos" at the school in order to make the suspension data look good.

Teachers at School 18 ask for removal of principal

Her supporters, however, painted another picture Wednesday of a school that has had a revolving door of administrators before Patel arrived to get it on track.

"She took over a building with rapidly declining test scores and at risk for receivership with stamina, determination and an action plan," said Jessica Emerson, a staff member at School 18. "She continues to hold us to high standards of rigorous instruction and provides effective feedback.

"Unfortunately," Emerson said, "I believe that there are teachers who have become frustrated with these efforts and heightened expectations and are using this complaint as a way to target our principal."

Emerson also explained that she and Patel had a side conversation in which the principal made a non-aggressive, humorous comment. That, she said, was repeated inaccurately by other teachers, who portrayed it unfairly as a derogatory statement about Emerson's Polish ethnicity.

Marisela Rodriguez, a clerk at School 18, called Patel a "firm leader" who is compassionate, fair and supportive. Some teachers are retaliating for getting reprimanded by her,  she said.

"The claim that she is racist has never been a thought in my mind," Rodriguez said, "and she treats everyone with equal respect and care."

"I pulled two of my children out of charter schools so they could attend at School 18," said Marisol Antonetti, a parent and volunteer at the school. "When my children started there, there was no set principal. She took on that and brought the chaos down – less chaos than there's ever been that I've seen in the past."

Superintendent Kriner Cash thanked those who came forward at Wednesday's meeting to provide a more "balanced picture" of what is going on at School 18. He called School 18 one of the "most complicated, challenging schools in the district," and was well before Patel took over as principal.

The superintendent, however, said he was discouraged by how the situation played out publicly. As educators, Cash said, "even when we disagree, we can disagree civilly and with respect. We don't try to tear the heart out of somebody's whole professional career."

Cash threw his support behind the principal and indicated she would be staying at School 18.

"Get behind the principal," he said to teachers. "We have a good action plan in place over there and let's make it work.

"If you really, really can't work it and still don't like it, put in your transfer papers," Cash said. "I'll find a place for you. That school is going forward under this principal's leadership."

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