Former D.C. adviser believes newspaper's content influenced firing decision

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A former high school newspaper adviser says he was fired because of his involvement with the student newspaper and “subjective” teacher evaluations.

Joe Riener taught English part-time at Woodrow Wilson High School until he was fired in June. Riener, who says he was told his low teacher evaluation scores were to blame, believes hard-hitting stories in the student newspaper upset administrators.

In D.C. schools, teachers are evaluated through student test performance and through in-person evaluations five times yearly in which they are given a rating ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.” Known as IMPACT, the system was first introduced in 2009.

Riener said it was hard to be effectively evaluated in the 30-minute time frame because he taught Advanced Placement classes. He also said he refused to “put on a show” for the evaluators by tailoring his class to their needs rather than the needs of the students

“According to their rubric, did I do exactly what they said to do? I didn’t,” Riener said. “I wasn’t about to do that stuff.”

Principal Peter Cahall declined to comment, saying the matter was a personnel issue. Riener is now teaching middle school English at a D.C. charter school.

Students said that Riener was a creative and unconventional teacher, and two have started an online petition to have him reinstated.

“His class was a lot different than any English class I’d had in the sense we didn’t do grammar, and we didn’t really do small exercises,” said India Olchefske, a former student and newspaper staffer who graduated in 2012. “We had to show him respect, that was kind of a given, but there wasn’t small nit-picky rules I saw in other classes.”

Senior Christina Harn, another student who worked with Riener on the paper, said the evaluations can be limiting.

“I think that he was a very good teacher, and that it’s a flawed system when passionate and creative teachers are forced out,” Harn said.

This isn’t Riener’s first issue with the evaluation system. He was fired and then rehired after a low evaluation score in 2010. After an online petition was posted, Riener was reinstated part-time to teach English and advise The Beacon and the theater club.

Riener began advising the paper, which serves a student body of 1,500, in 2007. Riener provided adult oversight and encouraged students to dig deeper into stories, he said. In 2011, The Beacon placed in the top category in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s print critiques.

“We occasionally ran articles that were probing and somewhat critical of the administration,” Riener said.

One of the articles questioned a new Title I-financed incentives program for sophomores who performed well on standardized tests. That coverage lead to a Washington Post story, he said.

Other articles included a back page spread with controversial humor from the student population, said Mary Stapp, a former journalism teacher at the school who co-advised The Beacon. Stapp is a member of the Student Press Law Center’s board of directors.

Stapp agreed and said she felt there were things in the paper that Cahall did not like. Stapp said she and Riener were called into multiple meetings with Cahall over the paper’s content. She and Riener said that in one meeting about an article about the quality of AP classes, Cahall was particularly upset.

“I think [administrators] wanted us to write more about clubs and activities rather than policy changes and controversial opinions,” Harn said.

Riener thinks his evaluation scores would have been overlooked except for his role advising the paper.

“Had I not been involved with the paper, though, I felt they would’ve just been grumpy about me,” Riener said.

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.