In the wake of budget cuts that resulted in teacher layoffs across the Edmonds School District, Meadowdale High School drama students are fighting to save their drama teacher’s job.
At its May 14 meeting, the school board of directors agreed by a 3-2 vote to send layoff notices to 25 teachers as part of its plan to address a $17.7 million shortfall for the 2019-20 school year. Among those laid off was Katie Powell-Mitchell, who teaches English and drama at Meadowdale High School and who is credited with making the program the success it is today.
Five years ago, when Powell-Mitchell arrived at Meadowdale High School, the program only offered one theater class, with a few students enrolled, that put on two shows a year.
“Theater was dying,” Powell-Mitchell said. “I was told I had a year to build it up and if it didn’t grow, the program would probably be eliminated.”
The program grew. Now, four classes are offered — technical theater, production and two acting classes — and the drama program puts on as many as eight productions each school year. This year, the program received the gold level Honor Troupe from the Washington State Thespians, ranking third in the state. At the 2019 5th Avenue Theater Awards, the program’s production of Little Women was nominated for Outstanding Orchestra as well as receiving honorable mentions for Outstanding Choreography and for Victoria Forguson’s performance in the role of Aunt March. Additionally, Sophie Stocker received special honors from 5th Avenue Theater in student achievement, receiving the highest score in the state for her technical theater work.
More important than growing the drama program was developing the sense of community that allows people to feel comfortable enough to take risks and learn new skills, Powell-Mitchell said.
“The reason people are drawn to the theater is the community,” she said.
The news that Powell-Mitchell had been laid off was devastating for many of her students. Forguson and other students went to Powell-Mitchell’s classroom and cried after hearing that she may not return in the fall.
Then, the students decided to turn their anguish into action. Since learning about Powell-Mitchell’s situation, students and their parents have regularly attended school board meetings to lobby for her reinstatement.
The students say their concern is not only for their teacher, but the fate of the school’s entire drama program.
“We don’t know how this program will be run without her,” Stocker said at the July 9 school board meeting.
Speaking during numerous public comment periods at recent board meetings, students have delivered hours of testimony on how Powell-Mitchell had a strong, positive impact on their life.
“Katie Powell-Mitchell goes above and beyond the average teacher,” said Elliott Greenleaf at the school board’s June 11 meeting. “Not only can she be often found comforting students through troubles with family and friends, she has high compassion and understanding for her students.”
Recently, the Meadowdale students organized a walkout in protest of Powell-Mitchell being laid off.
Superintendent Kris McDuffy said the decision to reinstate Powell-Mitchell is not entirely up to district staff and relies on a variety of factors. The district’s hands are tied by variables including students enrollment, the number of faculty members retiring or leaving their positions, and Powell-Mitchell’s credentials compared to other laid-off teachers, she said.
As of July 9, a total of 13 teachers are still waiting to be called back for the 2019-20 school year, said Human Resources Director Roger Jordan. According to McDuffy, all elementary school teachers who were laid off have been reinstated.
“We are remaining hopeful that circumstances may change in the coming weeks,” McDuffy said.
District staff have until August to adjust the budget for the 2019-20 school year, but Powell-Mitchell said waiting that long to find out if she will return in the fall may not be an option. Recently, her husband was laid off from his job and the couple have an eight-month-old baby to care for. Though Powell-Mitchell said she wants to remain at Meadowdale with the program she built, she also wants job security.
“I want to be here (Meadowdale),” she said. “My students are great, I love being here and I built this program.”
–Story and photos by Cody Sexton