Should a student be graded on how much money they sell in ads for a journalism class?
That’s a question one Tellico Plains mother wants an answer to.
Sealena Butler, mother of Tellico Plains High School sophomore Sierra Butler, addressed the Monroe County Board of Education on Thursday night with concerns about a grade her daughter received as a nine-weeks grade in her journalism class recently.
“Sierra is a straight-A student and excels in school,” said Butler. “The grade she received does not reflect the hard work that she put in and is based solely on money for ads that were not purchased. I, as her mother, am concerned because her hard work that was put in was not recognized and her grade has suffered because of it.”
Butler said her daughter was asked to sell ads for the yearbook and had problems meeting the $500 goal.
“She went to the vice principal with the situation and she helped her sell some ads, ending up selling $350 worth, which was greatly appreciated,” said Butler.
‘Buying her an A’
The mother told the School Board that she made an appointment with the teacher, Cristal Harrill, to express her feelings over the situation.
“She told me that if Sierra had come to her and asked her, she could have helped,” said Butler. “I asked Sierra when I got home why she didn’t and she said that Ms. Harrill told them repeatedly that they needed to be more responsible, more mature and that she was not their mother and could not hold their hand every time she turned around. That she was busy and had things to do for the yearbook too.”
Butler said Harrill told her that is would not be fair to the other students who sold their goal for ads if she changed Sierra’s grade.
“How is it fair to my daughter that she did the same work as the other students, but didn’t bring in money because the places she went to didn’t want to buy ads?” questioned Butler.
The mother said she offered to drive her daughter back to the businesses to have them sign a form stating that her daughter visited them about purchasing an ad, but that they did not want to buy.
“She (Harrill) told me, ‘No,’” said Butler. “I said I should have just given Sierra the $500 to make up any ads that she wanted to so she could have had an A. She responded, ‘Yes.’ To me that’s the same thing as buying her an A, which is very unethical.”
Butler said she realizes that selling ads is an important part of journalism, but that she did not feel like a grade should be based on how much money a student sells in ads.
“I took the information to the principal and he told me he would look into it, but before he responded back to me, he and Ms. Harrill pulled Sierra into the office and had a conversation with her about how I was wrong to ask for her grade to be changed,” said Butler. “And how she was so quiet, that because of that she kind of set herself up to fail by taking journalism in the first place. After that, he contacted me and said he wasn’t going to change her grade. The reason he gave me was that this is the way that class has been done for many years.”
In addition, Butler said the cost of the ads increased from last year.
“She took journalism last year and sold the ads that were required from her,” said Butler. “She has been in school 11 years and I’ve never gone to any of her teachers to complain about a grade. But if the grade she receives is based only on the amount of money we make for a school, I think we need to step back and look at our ethics and a much bigger picture. I don’t see how this can even be legal.”
Butler asked the School Board to “do the right thing” and correct the situation.
‘A very dangerous precedent’
The board then heard from the teacher, Harrill.
“I really do not like to cause trouble,” she said. “I try to do my job, love my kids and be a positive example. I rarely speak out unless I’m attacked and today I feel somewhat attacked.”
Harrill said having a grade based on ad sales is a procedure that has been done for years in Tellico Plains High School’s journalism classes.
“Actually since 1981,” she said. “This is not the first time that it’s been done and I’m not the only teacher that has done it.”
Harrill, who is in her first year as the journalism teacher, said she spoke with Butler twice.
“I did agree to raise her child’s grade by 10 points if her child sold some more ads and she said that wasn’t good enough,” she said. “I did speak to Mr. Harris and Mrs. (Sharon) McKinnon about this, and they backed me up. I did speak to Mr. (Tim) Blankenship about this matter also. He insisted that I change the grade to satisfy Mrs. Butler. I also understand that Ms. (Sonya) Lynn was contacted about the issue.”
“I told Mr. Blankenship that I would change the grade to the one that Mrs. Butler wanted if he made the request to me in writing, and he still refuses to do that,” Harrill added.
Harrill said she also met in a closed-door meeting with Blankenship, Harris and McKinnon at Tellico Plains High School.
“Mr. Blankenship threatened me with possibly having to go to court over this,” she said. “I told him I was willing to do that if he refused to give me his request in writing. I have already agreed to increase the grade by 10 points to reflect the student’s additional work after the due date. And I feel this is a reasonable grade. I do not feel like it is fair to the other students in my class who did sell ads and 18 of the 22 did. Their grades do reflect their sales. I also feel like changing the grade to the one the mother wants is a very dangerous precedent.”
“I never said change the grade,” said Blankenship. “I said to give different options. Options without having to sell a certain amount in ads. That’s what I’m against. I can’t in good faith ask any student to sell a certain number of ads for a grade. It’s not right.”
Harrill said she made the objective clear at the beginning of the year, in addition to reiterating it throughout the semester.
“We worked on how to sell ads. We made business cards. I gave them a list of businesses who I thought would be receptive. I feel like I did everything I could do,” she said.
‘The board can’t change a grade’
Chairwoman Lynn said the other two high schools in the county — Sweewater and Sequoyah — require journalism students to sell ads, but the amount they sell is not what their grade is based on.
“The students are required to get documentation that they attempted to sell the ads, but they don’t get docked for not selling a certain amount,” said Blankenship.
Unfortunately, the board does not have a policy in place to prevent situations like this from happening.
“If we don’t want it to be done this way, we need to have a policy and we do not have a policy about it,” said 1st District’s Faye Green. “Whether or not Sweetwater does it, or Sequoyah does it, Tellico has done this since 1981. A precedent has been set. This is not something that Ms. Harrill just came up with this year. If we now turn around, and I do not know this child and I very much respect her mother for coming forth for her daughter, but you have to understand as Ms. Harrill just said, we will be setting another precedent that anytime you are not happy with your grade based on whatever the requirements are for that class, you bring that before the board and they will get that changed. That’s not what we do as a board.”
Tellico Plains High School Principal Russell Harris said he went back and checked with at least four former journalism teachers who said they did it the same way.
“This is a great student and a great mother and I don’t want to have any hard feelings here,” said Harris. “I think the teacher was fair and she did what’s been done in the past and told the students way ahead of time. Honestly, and I don’t want to be disrespectful, but if you’re having trouble in math class, when the semester is over in December, you need to ask for help in November or before. I hate that it’s come to this.”
Second District board member Janie Harrill said she looked over the classroom objectives, which were handed out in the syllabus at the beginning of the school year and selling ads was listed clearly.
“If you’re going into journalism, sooner or later you’re going to have to sell ads,” she said.
Butler said all 10 places that her daughter visited turned her down before Vice Principal McKinnon helped her make some sales.
“The board can’t change a grade,” said 2nd District’s Marsha Standridge. “That’s not our job. Teachers need to have the ability to manage their class as long as it’s responsible.”
In the end, the board said the thing to do would be for the school to talk to the other high schools and adjust their own policy for the journalism class.
“I think that might be the thing to do,” said 3rd District’s Jo Cagle. “When kids go in businesses, the business sign off on something that the student has been there.”
“I do want to thank the parent and teacher for coming before the board,” added Green. “It’s been tough on all of you. I wish there was a way for us to wave our magic wand and fix it, but there’s not.”
Butler had one final question for the board: “Where do I go from here?”
The board had no answer for her.
See more from the School Board meeting in related story inside today’s edition.