Black principal under fire in Upper Peninsula

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Despite school improvements, unionized teachers are pressuring an Upper Peninsula school board to get rid of principal Zeke Ohan, an African American.

Hancock — Zeke Ohan wasted little time after becoming a high school principal in the Upper Peninsula in 2017.

He carried out a plethora of changes that already are bearing fruit. Enrollment and test scores at Hancock middle and high schools are up. More graduates are going to college. Students and parents like the hard-charging administrator.

But his popularity doesn’t extend to teachers, who have been pressuring the school board to get rid of him. Two board members and the superintendent resigned during the height of the campaign in March.

Ohan’s supporters say the teachers’ opposition is partly fueled by race. Ohan is black while all 19 instructors are white. One percent of the town’s population is black.

The supporters aren’t aware of any specific racist actions or comments. Instead, they point toward the teachers’ early resistance to Ohan and their disparaging comments about the principal on social media and during board meetings.

“I think they’re racist,” said Danielle Bennett, a student’s parent, echoing comments by six others. “This wouldn’t stand anywhere else in the country.”

Enrollment and test scores at Hancock middle and high schools are up, and more graduates are going to college.

Several teachers contacted by The Detroit News declined to comment, but their union said race wasn’t a factor in the controversy. It had more to do with instructors trying to adapt to a new boss, a union spokesman said.

“Any time there’s a change in administration, there will be issues that pop up. Teachers aren’t used to the way he handles things,” said Hans Wienke, a UP director for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest union of education workers.

Wienke said he didn’t know the specific reasons teachers were unhappy.

In April, the school board voted 6-0 to end Ohan’s contract when it expires next year. School board president Dale Kero described it as a procedural move that wasn’t a reflection on the principal.

Hancock Public Schools board members Dale Kero, left, president, Michael Lancour, Wendy Chynowet, Charels Paoli, and Superintendent, Kipp Beaudoin attend a recent meeting.

The school district is in the process of changing the contracts of its superintendent and two principals, removing a clause that automatically extends the pacts each year, said Kero. If the board hadn’t voted to end Ohan’s contract, it would have automatically extended another year.

"Neither (of the votes involving the principals) is based on the job the employees are doing," Kero said.

But Ohan’s supporters say the timing of the vote, coming on the heels of a strenuous campaign to oust the principal, was foreboding. With several board members opposed to the administrator, supporters doubt he will be rehired after 2020.

In the meantime, his backers said Ohan is looking for a new job.

Ohan, 54, declined to say much about the controversy.

“Things are still unfolding,” he said. “I’m dealing with a delicate situation. I have to remain marketable. I have a son, a daughter, a wife and a house. One stroke of a brush would put that into jeopardy.”

When heading north on the Portage Lake Lift Bridge this sign welcomes you to the city of Hancock and the Keweenaw.

A footballing past

Finnish settlers were pleased when they came to the western UP in the 1800s to pull copper and iron from local mines, according to historians. It looked like home. It still does.

Remote towns are sprinkled amid piney hills and deep forests. It’s one of the snowiest parts of the United States, 400 inches some seasons, covering the ground for nearly half a year.

The miners’ influence remains, whether it’s the pannukakku in restaurants or saunas in backyards. Street signs are bilingual. One third of the 4,600 residents are Finnish, according to the Census Bureau.

Until 2015, a popular Sunday morning TV show was broadcast in Finnish, replete with polkas, waltzes and schottisches.

Ohan was walking amid this Scandinavian snowscape last year when he stumbled on Betty’s Collectibles in the local mall. He and Betty Chavis, the owner of the antique shop, were surprised to see each other, she said. Both are black.

“He said I was the first black person he saw,” Chavis said with a laugh.

By that point, Ohan had been in town for a year.

Ohan, who is married with two children, can be an imposing figure, supporters said. He played briefly for the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons. At Clemson University, he was known as a special teams assassin, fans said.

He was a social studies teacher for 12 years at middle and high schools in Muskegon and Muskegon Heights, according to his LinkedIn page. Three years in a row, he won the Golden Apple Award, given by the Muskegon County Bar Association for outstanding education related to the law.

He also had been a principal for a year, leading Muskegon Heights middle school from 2013 to 2014, according to LinkedIn.

A wealth of ideas

What Ohan lacked in experience he made up for with enthusiasm.

He was brimming with ideas when he took over the Hancock job, parents said. These were teaching methods he had learned from the Michigan Department of Education and had tried at the Muskegon Heights middle school.

“He’s manic about test scores and students doing better. He’ll talk your ear off about it,” said resident Rose Patterson.

Ohan, who makes $70,000 a year, oversees 384 students from grades 6 to 12.

He had teachers of similar subjects regularly compare notes to see which teaching methods were most effective with which students, and then apply them to specific pupils, school district officials said.

The principal launched an extended learning center that allowed struggling students to receive additional help, the district said. The center recently added a math tutor.

Ohan opened a parents’ lounge as part of something he calls Mother Mondays and Father Fridays. Parents are free to roam the halls, sit in on classes and question the teachers.

One of the parents who took advantage of the lounge was Josh Bennett, whose son is in the ninth grade.

“He was all about the parents,” said Bennett, who, like several others, talked about Ohan in the past tense. “He got a lot of help for the kids who needed it.”

Ohan also opened a summer school, expanded autism training and offered more advanced placement classes, according to the district. He improved attendance of parent-teacher conferences by moving them from teachers’ classes to the school gym.

'It doesn't add up'

The changes have shown early dividends.

The school’s test scores in math, reading and social studies all rose during Ohan’s first year, according to M-STEP, the state standardized test.

In social studies, 56% of eighth graders were proficient or better, compared with 43% the year before. The state average was 29%.

Parents liked what they saw.

 “A lot of good things are happening,” said Frank Hawthorne, whose son is in the sixth grade. “Everything I’ve seen of the man (Ohan) is positive.”

Hawthorne had been stymied in trying to get help for his son, who is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It wasn’t until he talked with Ohan earlier this year that help arrived.

The principal introduced him to a person in the school district’s Individualized Education Program and his son now receives extra academic help.

“When I hear criticism (of Ohan), it doesn’t add up,” Hawthorne said. “It’s not what we’re seeing. It’s not what we’re hearing.”

Policy clash

Some of Ohan’s changes didn’t sit well with teachers.

Shortly after his arrival, he stopped teachers from leaving the building or using the school weight room during school hours, district officials said.

He began enforcing a rule that students had to remain in the cafeteria during lunch because they had been leaving trash all over the school, the district said. The move prevented teachers from meeting students in classrooms to discuss academic work or club activities.

Most upsetting to teachers, he began requiring them to submit lesson plans every week. The plans describe what the teachers hope to accomplish and how they will do so.

Some teachers shared their displeasure on social media.

Leanne Laakonen, who teaches science in the high school, said on Facebook she had spoken with Ohan five times about the lunchtime policy.

“My principal will not change nor listen unless he is directed by the board,” she wrote in January. “It’s a power play thing.”

Laakonen declined to talk to a reporter.

Ohan’s personality probably didn’t help matters, supporters conceded.

They said he has a stubborn streak and may have benefited from seeking more input from instructors before making some of the changes.

“That’s true for all of us,” said Kipp Beaudoin, the outgoing superintendent. “Ninety percent of the things in the world are about communication. Sometimes that’s the toughest part.”

Critics on board

Teachers began bringing their gripes to school board meetings.

One of the regular attendees was Karyn Rudak, a middle school English teacher who is vice president of the teachers’ union, the Hancock Education Association.

Besides criticizing Ohan at meetings, she also used social media to downplay positive stories about the principal in the local paper.

In November, Rudak said on Facebook the extended learning center wasn’t a new idea, that it had been a computer lab for 20 years. She said the public was frequently given false information and gave praise to the wrong person.

“Nothing has changed. It’s just called a fancy name,” she wrote about the center. “People who came before this principal set a lot in motion without the fancy names or need for recognition.”

Rudak declined to talk to a reporter.

The angry teachers found a receptive audience among some board members.

School board member Wendy Chynoweth, whose husband Jesse is a teacher, has been a critic of Principal Zeke Ohan.

One of Ohan’s biggest critics may be board member Wendy Chynoweth, whose husband is a teacher. Before joining the board, Chynoweth had been critical of Ohan at several of its meetings.

During a board meeting in February 2018, both Chynoweth and her husband, Jesse, who teaches social studies in the middle school, had different complaints about Ohan, according to meeting minutes.

Jesse objected to the new format for the parent-teacher meetings while Wendy objected to an obscenity she found on Ohan’s Facebook page, according to meeting minutes.

Chynoweth wasn’t the only new board member related to a teacher. Joining her in January was Mike Lancour, whose mom, Emilie, was a special ed teacher who resigned last year.

School board member Michael Lancour is the son of special ed teacher Emilie Lancour, who resigned last year.

Two months after they joined the board, another member accused the board of interfering with Superintendent Beaudoin’s job.

Without naming names, board Vice President Paula Nutini wrote in her resignation letter the board needed to learn what its role is and isn’t, according to a copy of the note. She said the board should receive more training to learn about the superintendent’s job and its relationship to it.

“(The board failed) a valuable administrator, educator and, more importantly, advocate for our students,” she wrote.

Nutini and the Chynoweths didn’t respond to requests for comment. Beaudoin and Lancour declined to discuss the matter.

Heading out

Nutini wasn’t the first to resign.

On March 5, three days before she quit, board President Kevin Kalinec announced he was leaving. In a resignation letter, he said he was tired of all the sniping.

Kalinec's departure was prompted by a conversation with a student’s parent, but it hadn’t been a negative talk, he wrote. It was a positive one.

The parent, who has children in the middle and high schools, had a good grasp of the controversy after speaking with Ohan, Beaudoin and teachers, Kalinec wrote. The resident discussed how the imbroglio could be resolved.

The parent’s comments showed Kalinec what had been missing from the debate, a desire to forge an agreement and move forward.

“It made me realize I’ve had enough of the pettiness, distrust and unwillingness or inability to have conversation toward a common ground,” he wrote.

Kalinec told The News he was a big supporter of Ohan but, given the virulent opposition, wondered if he wasn’t a good fit for the school.

“Anytime someone comes in and makes changes to how things have been done for some time, there will be some dissension and discomfort,” he said. “Unfortunately it was a little tough to overcome.”

On the same day Nutini quit, Beaudoin joined the exodus. The superintendent, who began the job two years ago, announced he and his wife were becoming missionaries.

Asked if he was leaving because of the Ohan controversy, Beaudoin chuckled.

“I guess when you look at something, something was changing,” he said. “But the church was the leading reason.”

The goodbye parties may not be over.

When Ohan and Chavis met in the mall last year, she asked why he was in town. He said he was the high school principal and explained how he ended up there.

He told her he had never heard of Hancock until the job opening, Chavis said. He said the job sounded challenging and he loved challenges.

“I guess he got what he asked for,” Chavis said.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell