Teacher Dearest

The free market alone was supposed to control charter schools, but the state is stepping in to clean up Gail Battistella's mess at Dragonfleye Charter School

Those former colleagues, however, are not just falling by the wayside as in Battistella's pioneer metaphor. They're uniting against her. The problem with Dragonfleye Charter School, they say, is Gail Battistella.

"I don't know if any of us will ever heal from it," says Libby Bohlen, who taught sixth grade at Dragonfleye until the first blowup. "She is a wretched, wretched person. I think she is capable of really terrible things if pushed to the wall. She's a person who should not have access to anyone--not adults, and certainly not children--because nobody can ever be the same after any lengthy exposure to her."

Like one of her caged chameleons, Gail Battistella takes on a happier hue among the insects and animals in her science lab: tortoises and hares, languorous lizards, sedentary walking sticks, hissing cockroaches, a friendly ferret, and rats of the more trustworthy, four-legged variety. Their cages line the walls on shelves and tables. Little boys and girls in white lab coats wander purposefully from station to station, chopping up lettuce for critter chow, cleaning cages.

Dragonfleye was intended to revolve around the lab, to inject megadoses of hard science into an otherwise standard kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school curriculum as an alternative to what Battistella and her co-founders saw as the failings of public education.

"I'm here because I've seen the program that I do work with kids," she says, "and I've seen the public schools fail so many kids, including my own. And most of the other parents here have been failed in some way and feel there should be something better out there for their kids."

Battistella originally developed her lab as a volunteer parent at her daughter's elementary school. She'd earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, with a major in home economics, then spent a year in law school before embarking on a business career with several techno-corporations in the United States and in Europe.

She first set up the lab at Village Vista, a public elementary school in north Phoenix that her children attended. She was good at getting cash and merchandise donations from businesses, at gathering animals, both living and stuffed, and good at rustling up neighborhood newspaper stories. She claimed to spend 55 volunteer hours per week in the lab, and she won a number of parent-teacher awards. Nonetheless, the school principal asked her to leave in 1992.

In an April 1996 letter, Dr. James Jurs, superintendent of the Paradise Valley Unified School District, wrote that "the science lab was creating a series of disputes within the Village Vista community. Interpersonal relationships between Mrs. Battistella and those she came into contact with at Village Vista deteriorated."

But as Battistella sees it, the principal saw that the lab was good and decided to take it over. As soon as she was gone, she claims, the teachers let some animals die. She says they took the lab's microwave oven and refrigerator for the teachers' lounge and otherwise stripped the lab of its supplies.

Then another elementary school in the district offered to let her move in. She set up shop again at Echo Mountain Elementary School in the fall of 1993, but, as Dr. Jurs explains, "The same series of events occurred at Echo Mountain. The science lab became a distraction and divided the school community. Teachers and members of the parent organization again became frustrated with the direction the science lab took. Demands were made which could not be met. Interpersonal relationships again deteriorated."

Battistella claims that once again, union teachers stepped in and tried to grab her success away from her. She is so virulently anti-teachers union that she uses the term as a pejorative for everything bad in education and she tends to dismiss all public school teachers as union teachers or professional educators. And the prejudice ran so deep that one of her principals at Dragonfleye says Battistella would not allow the word "professional" to be used in the faculty handbook, even in the context of "professional attire," because the word smacked of "professional educators."

Battistella claims that she had wrangled a double-digit grant from the Arizona Community Foundation, and the union--or union teachers--wanted it for themselves.

"They called me into a meeting, and the union representatives told me to my face, 'You will not have your grant money to use yourself,'" she says. "'We will take it. We will give part of it to math and part to the other areas in the school.'"

Battistella fought viciously; she called the media, she found a high-profile attorney. Then the Paradise Valley school board voted 4 to 1 to expel her.

Battistella denies that her personality played a role in either eviction.
"Neither one of them were personality problems," Battistella says of those two dismissals. "They were made to look like that because that was the only thing they could use against us."

But a melodramatic if not combative tone shows clearly in a letter she wrote at that time to the ACLU, accusing the teachers union, the school administration and the city government of conspiring against her.

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