Dozens of letters, e-mails and petitions written and signed by
Sprague orchestra students and their parents were sent to district and school officials complaining about his performance as a teacher. Walker’s abrupt resignation has raised serious questions for many in the Salem/Keizer School District about District Music and Drama Coordinator Karl Raschkes and retired Sprague Orchestra director Stephen Nelson.
According to Walker, he was given three options to avoid termination. He could resign and sign a waiver promising not to sue the district; he could resign and not sign the waiver, giving up his salary and benefits immediately; or he could teach music at the elementary school level somewhere else in the district. While he found none of these choices appealing he reluctantly chose the first.
“I was backed into a corner. What other option did I have? The options I was presented with could have dire consequences on my teaching career,” Walker said. “I was told that I had poor classroom management skills and shouldn’t be in charge of a program like Judson and Sprague. I was a bad teacher and a bad conductor.”
Raschkes said that it was Walker’s decision to resign after learning his contract would not be renewed.
A question of judgment?
The letters and petitions received by the school district complained of poor classroom management skills, a lack of musical expertise, childish behavior, and that Walker had used his cell phone and inappropriate language in class.
Walker denies some of the charges, such as the use of inappropriate language, but he acknowledges that as a first year teacher, he did make some mistakes. He said he was trying to introduce new pieces of music and was implementing changes that weren’t readily accepted by some of the students, Raschkes or Nelson.
Janelle Miranda,a parent who wrote a letter to Salem / Keizer Superintendent Sandy Husk supporting Walker,feels that a small group of parents dictated what was best for all of the students in Sprague’s orchestra program. She believes the situation could have been handled better and that Raschkes was “biased” by meetings he had with people he described as “powerful and influential individuals.” Miranda said that there were many families who supported Walker but their voices weren’t heard.
“The things in the letters were so trivial,so childish. What do you mean he didn’t understand his instrument? No parent or student should have that kind of power,” Miranda said. “I understand the parents wanted what was best for the kids, but it revealed a close-mindedness about how the program should be run.”
MaryRuth Helppie, another parent of a Sprague orchestra student who is also a professional musician and educator, blames the district for its handling of this matter.
“Steve Nelson is an amazing teacher and he built this incredible program. The district found a person who is passionate about music. But they should have given him the necessary resources to succeed,” Helppie said. “Often when you have someone who has built a dynasty or legacy of some kind the next person fails. I’m appalled at what the district did to Bruce Walker. I’m very disappointed that the district dropped the ball with him.”
Toni Whitler, another parent whose son took private lessons from Walker, was disappointed.
“I guess the school district should never have brought him in as a brand new teacher. The Judson parents loved him, and my son was very excited about his progress.” A student in the Sprague Orchestra said, “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too painful. It was a difficult time in my life and I just want to move on.”
Walker’s resignation also has created an uncomfortable environment for other teachers in the school district. Salem Monthly was contacted by several teachers who wished to remain anonymous because they feared for their jobs if they were too open about their concerns.
One teacher said, “There were a select group of students who decided they didn’t like him but there were students who were inspired by him and his encouragement. His resignation was forced and not justified. It was done so quickly and unprofessionally.”
Another teacher said that Walker’s problems occurred because “he wanted to go his own way.”
This teacher also faulted coverage of Walker’s resignation by the Statesman Journal.
“They hurt Bruce the way he was portrayed. They missed an opportunity to deal with privilege and the upper echelon of Sprague. The parents seem to have absolute power.”
Janelle Miranda said, “There is a sense of entitlement that some people have. It doesn’t matter how many awards or acknowledgements you receive. It’s what the children get from it.”
Walker said that the attitude in the Sprague orchestra program is to win at all costs.
According to Dan Rouslin, professor of music at Willamette University, private teacher of violin and viola, and section coach with the Salem Youth Symphony, music in the public schools has had to become like a competitive sport in order to survive funding pressures.
“This has the effect of turning music students into note-perfect machines instead of musicians who have a real understanding of what they are doing.”
As for Bruce Walker, Rouslin believes he represented too much change in an established program.
“Bruce Walker wasn’t just interested in having Sprague Orchestra `win’; he was deeply committed to having them learn. Unfortunately, those students and some of the music administrators were so used to the `beat the other orchestra’ paradigm that they wouldn’t or couldn’t make the switch to a true embracing of what music is and how it works.”
Sink or swim
Walker was formally observed in the classroom at least 12 times between
September and January by Raschkes and others. A formal plan of assistance was drawn up between Walker and the district in an effort to monitor his progress, and Nelson was formally appointed as Walker’s mentor.
Despite these steps, Walker said that he wasn’t adequately supervised.
“I was very positive when it came to learning something different and I tried to implement all of Mr. Raschkes’ demands on my classroom. Some things worked, others didn’t. But did anyone ever come in and show me how to do any of the things he wanted me to do? It was all me trying to figure out what he was looking for — trial and error. As far as I’m concerned, there was not a lot of mentoring going on,” Walker said. “This teacher got left behind.”
When asked if Walker had been given adequate support, Raschkes said that the district supports all new teachers. Nelson said that Raschkes provided Walker more than adequate support.
“Karl worked countless hours every week with Mr. Walker. He loves to work with new teachers and has an open invitation every Friday afternoon for new teachers to meet with him.”
Sprague High School’s advanced orchestra, Camerata, has earned international recognition and has won numerous awards and prizes. They are known for high standards of excellence under Nelson’s tutelage.
Some parents question the judgment of officials who placed an inexperienced first-year teacher in charge of such a highly respected and demanding music program.
One parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “It would have been difficult for any first-year teacher to fill Steve Nelson’s big shoes. Mr. Walker was just too green. They should have hired someone with more experience.”
Danh Phan, a teacher and band director at Leslie Middle School and a friend of Walker’s said, “Bruce’s biggest mistake is that he wasn’t Mr. Nelson.”
Walker received a Bachelor’s degree in music education and cello performance at Southern Illinois University in 2005. He was the recipient of a scholarship and was a graduate student studying for his Master’s degree at Central Washington University when he was approached by Nelson at a music festival in which Nelson had seen Walker perform and conduct. Nelson encouraged him to apply for the position at Sprague and Judson.
“I had the opportunity to watch and observe his conducting abilities,” Nelson said. “It was extremely brief and I talked to the kids. They felt he had good energy.”
Three days after meeting Nelson, Walker received a phone call from Karl Raschkes. “He was looking for me. He said I came highly recommended and asked if I was interested,” Walker said.
Within 24 hours after his last interview Walker received an offer and accepted his new position, eager to get started on his
He was hired to teach orchestra at Judson Middle School as well as serve as director for three orchestras at Sprague, including the highly touted Camerata Orchestra. He had an Illinois teaching certificate and his paperwork for an Oregon teaching credential was expedited to ensure that he was ready to start teaching in the fall.
According to Jay Remy, Director of Communications for the Salem/Keizer School District, Nelson recommended Walker and mentored him, but was not part of the interview and hiring process.
However, Raschkes, Nelson and Walker all confirm that Nelson, as well as student representatives, were part of the formal interview process.
Walker’s union representative, Karen Spies, said that having a retired teacher involved in hiring his replacement is unusual, and having students sit in and help conduct the interviews is a questionable practice.
“High school students are not qualified to assess the credentials of prospective teachers. You don’t see that in other district personnel hiring. How can a student tell if a candidate is qualified?”
Spies believes that Walker was subjected to policies that pertain only to the district’s music program.
“He is the victim of a department allowed to go unchecked,” Spies said. Rick Costa, President of the Salem Education Association, believes the staff at Sprague was very supportive of Walker but that he received little support from the Salem/Keizer School District.
“The music program has a certain way of doing things that is different from any other group in the district,” Costa said. “One person, Karl Raschkes, has an enormous amount of power in hiring and firing. In this case, he was judge, juror and executioner.”
Turnover in music programs throughout the district is high with four teachers in the last three months alone leaving their positions for a variety of reasons.
Lines in the sand Nelson expressed regret over how the Walker situation had transpired. “Nobody would ever want this to happen. You certainly had a very tough situation for the young man. I can’t comment on the specifics of the matter because it was held in the strictest confidentiality.”
Nelson said that the “true nature of the situation” wouldn’t be known until and if Walker’s personnel file was made public. But when he was informed that Walker had provided Salem Monthly with his personnel file, Nelson said, “I didn’t know it was available. I can’t comment on it, I’ve
never seen it.”
In the file the notes from many observations portray an inexperienced teacher struggling with classroom management and adapting to teaching young but very accomplished musicians who are used to high levels of excellence in their performance.
Nelson’s role in Walker’s training is unclear and just when he actually stepped in as Walker’s mentor is uncertain. Nelson and Walker signed the mentoring agreement on November 27 but Nelson was involved prior to that date.
“I only observed Mr. Walker for about a month and he already had an in-building mentor, Brad Howard the band teacher,” Nelson said. “I was there a couple of times to contribute.”
Though he is retired, Nelson was hired by the district as a part-time teacher on August 29, but the teacher’s union wasn’t aware that he had been rehired.
“That’s news to me,” Rick Costa said. “We’ve been told he is not an employee by the district. Apparently Karl has more power than even I thought he had.”
Walker also made available e-mail exchanges between himself and Raschkes and Nelson. On November 1, almost a month before the formal mentoring agreement was signed, Walker received an e-mail from Nelson in response to a request from Walker for Nelson’s assistance and the opportunity “to pick his brain as much as possible.”
“Had you trusted me from the beginning, we wouldn’t be discussing these issues at this juncture, as my schedule would have been arranged in such a way to provide you with the assistance you sorely need.
“Three things will have to happen, and one of them surely won’t!! First, Sprague will have to sub-contract me for my services, paying me my specified per diem rate. Second, you are going to have to listen to Karl and I, demonstrate that you truly understand what we are, and have been, desperately trying to tell you, and finally show that you can implement those pedagogical principles on an everyday basis. I suspect this will be difficult for you as you have stated at various times publicly, that you simply disagree with my philosophy — the word travels fast. Third, and finally, stop using reference to me or Karl when you haven’t made any contact. It is dishonesty, very hard to live down, and the kids can easily determine if you have talked with either of us, as your pedagogy would be clearly modified from your usual methods. Now Bruce, which one of these won’t happen?” Nelson goes on to say that students in Camerata have made “desperate attempts to illuminate some of the very basic elements of string pedagogy for your benefit, and then to endure your rebuffs.”
When asked for a response to the email exchange, Nelson said, “What possible value is there in my responding. It’s there in black and white.” Nelson also was asked if the letters and petitions were part of a coordinated effort. He said they were an expression of concern.
“If you read the newspaper articles carefully, without reading between the lines, you can see that there were a considerable number of parents who felt a particular way. That is their prerogative. I tried to keep a distance. I hadn’t seen anything of the letters at all. I didn’t see a petition.”
In April 2005 Nelson was involved in a situation in which letters apparently were used to shape and control Sprague’s orchestra. Some parents were infuriated to learn that Nelson had sent letters to parents of students in the music program at Judson Middle School, encouraging and offering to coach them to apply for transfers to Sprague so they could continue working with Nelson in that program. These students were supposed to go to South Salem High School after graduating from Judson.
According to Nelson, he originally had written the letters for 11 Judson parents who wanted their children to go to Sprague. They had requested information from him regarding possible transfers.
“I didn’t distribute the letter beyond those 11 families. Copies were made available at a booster meeting and that’s when it became public,” Nelson said.
“Teachers can make that information available to families.” Walker wonders whether there was an orchestrated campaign among students and parents that resulted in the letters and petitions complaining of his performance
as a teacher.
“The thing I question is that all of these letters came at the same time, about two to six days before the end of the semester. The word usage is very similar and the timing was uncanny since I had to have this final meeting to decide my fate at that time. Was this a letter writing campaign to get me out of Sprague? I honestly don’t know.”
Walker has been accepted back into his Master’s program at Central Washington University, which he will complete in June. He then travels south in the fall to enter the doctoral program in music and cello performance at UCLA.
Danh Phan, a first-year teacher and the only teacher willing to go on the record said, “It’s unfortunate he’s gone. He was the victim of hearsay and mob mentality. How can they slander a person and say those awful things? Did we destroy a teacher? Someone who could do much good? This sets a dangerous precedent. If you don’t like a teacher, then the parents can get rid of him. From a probationary teacher’s point of view, that’s how it looks.”