MARICOPA — At 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, most kids are trying not to think about school. And yet on Oct. 28 several teenagers made their way to Maricopa Public Library because they want to learn math — and because someone waiting for them in the building might just be the only person who could teach them.

Inside, Kevin Struble sat at a table leading a tutoring and study session, going over critical math concepts with students he was no longer technically responsible for developing. Just 10 days earlier, Struble was informed that he was fired from Sequoia Pathway Academy. He had found a job at another school, but his heart remained with the students he had taught for years.

So when a couple of them asked him to help them with math, he couldn’t say no.

“They’re still my kids; I don’t get to be at Pathway with them anymore, but they’re still my students and they always will be,” Struble told PinalCentral. “So as long as they need me, I’ll be there. I still get texts from college students asking me for help.”

The Pathway math program, Struble said, was already short-handed before his firing, after another teacher had been fired due to a disciplinary issue earlier in the school year. With him gone, he said there were just two full-time math teachers left to teach the entire 7-12 school, meaning most students are being taught by a long-term substitute.

The reports he was getting from students since his firing suggested that those substitutes were not ready to teach math, and were in fact giving students the wrong information. He said things like that get to him, and he wanted to step up to help.

“They’ve had upwards of four adults in that room trying to do my job,” Struble said.

When asked why he was fired, Struble couldn’t speak with a lot of certainty, since it still didn’t make a lot of sense to him. All he knows is what he was told and what was included in his notice of termination.

What he was told was that he had underachieved in his benchmark evaluation, something that would very rarely ever be punished in the middle of the school year. The second reason concerned insubordination. He said he asked his principal, Ja-Queese Dightmon, what that was about. He said she brought up a meeting early in the school year where he had his back turned to her. Struble explained that the meeting had already started by the time Dightmon got to the room, with the speaker at the time on the other side. He simply continued to look in that direction.

What really got him fired, Struble theorized, was a complaint he made just a few days before. He said Dightmon stopped him from sending out an email to parents describing a situation that was happening with students’ homework. Instead, she wanted to run the letter up to the district to make some changes and didn’t want to show Struble the revised letter before sending it. He did manage to eventually see it and discovered his name had been put on the new letter along with hers.

Talking about all this, though, Struble expresses a kind of inevitability about the whole situation. He said there has been a toxicity in the air the entire year since Dightmon took over for previous Principal Diane Silvia. And even that is just the latest in years of Pathway being an uncomfortable and confrontational place to work.

As students protested Struble’s firing out in the parking lot, staff members — the current ones asked not to be identified due to fears of job security — told PinalCentral the situation behind the scenes felt like chaos, with little knowledge of what was going on or who was staying or going. It appears to have been a tipping point for some. One current employee reported up to six teachers having left since then, with numerous others expressing a desire to do so at the end of the semester or the school year.

One of the teachers who left is Misti Oosthuizen, who since 2013 had taught science, environmental science, psychology, physics and dance. She was also a cheer and dance coach, an instructional coach, a science lead and a new teacher mentor.

Her last day was Oct. 25. In her resignation letter provided to PinalCentral, she credited her time at Pathway with her growth as an educator, but said the past few months had become too much to handle. She described being lied to, having necessary job information withheld and being treated disrespectfully. All this, she wrote, had a negative impact on her life, health and family.

“I have witnessed teachers being called out and disrespected in open forum,” Oosthuizen wrote. “I have seen my fellow co-workers in tears, and I have seen good people drug through the mud. I can no longer remain with an organization that places so little value on the people that define them — the educators.”

The inexperience is starting to catch up to them, current employees say. When a man brought a gun on campus to steal a student’s truck on Oct. 30, so few teachers knew the proper protocol or had the training to put it in place that one employee said it was the first time she had legitimately felt unsafe at work.

Struble just shakes his head when asked about everything that’s happened at the school since his high-profile firing. He said he put his heart and soul into Pathway, which makes it all the more sad to see what’s become of it. But he’s not surprised, as it shows what has happened this year, especially.

That decline, he said, could have plenty of roots in the couple of years that came before it.

Harassment allegations

Paris Jones didn’t think much about then-Campus Director Alfonso Alva when he would roam around the school and monitor classrooms during her sophomore and junior years. Other principals had done the same thing. In fact, a lot of students found Alva funny and pleasant to talk to.

Then she started hearing rumblings from her friends. It started innocently enough, with Alva connecting with them through cultural similarities, which they found amusing. However, these interactions started to change over time, as Jones’ friends started sharing stories about Alva making comments that made them feel uncomfortable, injecting himself into their personal lives.

It got to the point where one of her friends came to Jones and a teacher terrified because Alva kept making remarks about her boyfriend cheating on her, and she didn’t know how to make it stop because she was afraid of being punished. As a 16-year-old, Jones said she didn’t know what to do for her, except to be supportive and help protect her.

Then, the same thing started happening to her.

During her junior year, Jones began dating a star athlete, at which point she said Alva started paying more attention to her, just as he did with her friends. She recalls Alva telling her things like, “He’s talking to prettier girls than you, Paris,” or “He was cheating on you with other girls.” She said she was young and naive and had no idea why he would be making those comments.

“Even if it was a joke, when I look back on it now I wasn’t old enough to be able to handle jokes like that, especially with someone I didn’t have a real relationship with,” Jones told PinalCentral. “If he had known me since I was a little kid, I feel like it would have been different. … I didn’t know him. It made me uncomfortable, but at the same time I just wanted to brush it off because maybe this was his way of trying to build a relationship with me.”

Alva never touched any of the students, at least as far as Jones knows. But she described an environment of almost daily harassment felt by those girls he had decided to put his attention toward in a way that made some uncomfortable to even go to school. Worst of all, because of their age, the students felt as if they just had to ignore it.

After a while, though, she said she couldn’t keep her concerns to herself. The problem was, she didn’t know whom to talk to. She started to have off-the-record conversations with school administrators, hoping they would explain to her what was going on and what she could do about it. She discovered, though, that those administrators were already aware of the issues but they also didn’t know what to do.

Jones remembers a big event held at the school attended by a significant number of officials with the Edkey charter school organization. She went up to those people to express herself, and was told that Alva would not be returning to Sequoia Pathway. But she wanted more. She wanted assurance that he wouldn’t be around any school, because she didn’t feel he was qualified to be around children.

Alva had indeed been removed from the Pathway campus early in the 2018-19 school year, replaced as principal by Diane Silvia. However, he remains a significant part of Edkey, currently serving as the assistant superintendent of operations.

What Jones soon found out was that she wasn’t close to being alone in her feelings. The process had been set in motion that would eventually lead to a complaint filed with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools detailing a toxic environment at Sequoia Pathway, including teachers, administrators and other students. Included in that complaint was a significant number of accounts of Alva being volatile, divisive and stirring up drama, all of which sounded all too familiar to Jones.

The charter board would end up closing that complaint without taking any action, but Jones — who graduated in May‚ said she is still glad she spoke out because there are good people at the school, and they deserve a voice. And that conviction has been made all the stronger with the recent instability.

“For every teacher who is leaving their job, for everyone who is trying to help students, this is wrong,” Jones said. “People don’t deserve to go through this, kids especially. Kids aren’t weak, but they’re vulnerable and they’re scared, and they shouldn’t have to be. I know the younger kids don’t know what’s going on, but we’re putting them in danger by leaving a dangerous man in charge and taking out people who want to protect them.”

Complaint details

The complaint contains 266 pages of documents, all of which have been obtained by PinalCentral. They include letters written directly to the charter board, emails sent internally between Edkey employees, responses from Edkey and more.

Nate Wong, who was the athletic director at Pathway before he abruptly resigned in September 2018, filed a complaint with the Edkey board. He told PinalCentral he kept his reasons for leaving mostly secret because he didn’t know how Edkey CEO Mark Plitzuweit was going to respond to the complaint — whether he would treat it fairly, or protect Alva. He said he got his answer soon enough.

After Alva was allowed to remain with Edkey, Silvia, the principal at the time, wrote a letter to the state charter board in April asking it to investigate the “systematic harassment and verbal abuse directed toward female staff and students” during Alva’s tenure as principal.

Examples of Alva’s conduct as listed by complainants included various sexist and racist language, including saying Silvia was out sick due to an illness that was all in her head because she’s a woman, saying Silvia was “too white” to talk to minority families, disparaging black families and repeatedly referring to one staff member as “his little Jew.” He was also accused of making inflammatory statements against staff members, including saying one was an alcoholic and another had cheated on her husband.

What followed the initial complaint to Edkey was what multiple current and past staff called a wave of retaliation against those involved. The most prevalent example was Lauren Wong, wife of Nate, who at the time was the dean of assessments and accountability. She filed a separate formal complaint with the school in March accusing Plitzuweit of retaliating against her.

According to Lauren Wong’s account, and corroborated by an email included in the charter board investigation, Plitzuweit informed Silvia that there are legitimate fears Pathway could lose up to 40% of its students due to the arrival of two new charter schools in Maricopa. As an attempt to remedy the financial losses in such a scenario, he explicitly referenced Lauren Wong as potentially having to move back to the classroom, as opposed to another more recently hired administrator.

Since Lauren Wong was named, Silvia let her know about the email, which Edkey in turn took as a breach of confidentiality.

Struble, still a subordinate of Alva at the time, was also involved in the complaint. He said he had an interaction with Alva he found alarming in which the then-principal unloaded all sorts of allegations against Silvia and Lauren Wong the day Nate Wong resigned. He said Alva’s remarks were coarse, sexist, slanderous and recriminatory. He quoted Alva as saying, “Lauren Wong will never be (assistant) principal here as long as I can help it.”

Lauren Wong was indeed vying for the assistant principal job only to be told later that she lacked the required certification for the job. In an email with HR, she said there was no certification requirement for the job. Less than a year later, both she and Silvia had left the school. Dightmon, who replaced Silvia as the grades 7-12 principal, is only certified under the Arizona Department of Education for “Standard Professional Elementary Education, K-8.”

Mark Worischeck from the law firm Sanders+Parks responded to the charter board’s complaint investigation by reiterating that Edkey conducted a thorough review of the allegations in the original school complaint and removed Alva from the Pathway campus after determining his behavior was inappropriate. Edkey also gave Alva a written warning that further violations could result in his termination. Alva responded to the warning with a written statement calling the allegations “false and very offensive” and said they were only made because he did not want Lauren Wong to become assistant principal.

Worischeck said it wasn’t until March, when a rumor with “no merit” began circulating that Alva was returning to the campus, that other allegations started popping up. This, Worischeck argued, meant all the alleged actions had taken place a full school year prior, with nothing happening since.

Worischeck went through each area of the charter board complaint and noted a lack of evidence provided by those who brought it forward. He called the whole matter “unsupported and spurious” and requested it be dismissed, saying Edkey had properly followed its own handbook as well as federal and state laws.

Alva did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Plitzuweit responded to a request by asking for more details before he would comment, but has not responded to that follow-up.

More resignations expected

Now, Silvia, Struble, and Nate and Lauren Wong are gone from Pathway. All have found jobs at other schools, except Silvia, who said she needed a year off after everything that had happened. It has been noted by those who spoke to PinalCentral that few people who were involved in the complaint remain at the school.

“It felt like I was being pushed out,” she told PinalCentral. “The writing was on the wall. There was no recourse at that point with the CEO, or HR. I just had to go for my own sanity and health.”

Where that leaves students and staff still at the school is unknown. Sources still employed at Pathway said they expect more resignations at the end of the semester or the school year, and they said parents have told them they’ll be pulling their students at the end of the semester.

Jones said recent graduates like her and current students have seen a change in the culture where those who have the interest of students at heart are being lost in order to keep certain people in power.

“Mrs. Silvia and Mrs. Wong were powerful and strong and intelligent, and they were incredible women,” Jones said. “They were amazing for that school, but they left because Edkey didn’t want to support them. It’s utterly ridiculous. They didn’t deserve to have to go through all that, but they did it for the kids. They could have left in the middle of the year, but they didn’t want to leave the kids. You don’t find educators like that every day, and the fact that they just tossed them out the window like it was nothing — it’s not nothing, it’s everything.”

Struble agreed, which is why he said he’s “stymied” about the decisions that have been made in recent years that have brought the school to this point.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Struble said. “What is Plitzuweit’s long-term goal? What is his vision for the school? … They don’t want to answer questions, they don’t want to take ownership of the problems. And if his ultimate goal is to bring Dr. Alva back onto that campus, he’s going to have to fire several more people.

“But I can tell you it’s not students first.”