Following a tumultuous start to the school year and the addition of another administrator to the high school’s leadership team, Madison La Follette High School principal Sean Storch announced just before winter break that he would step down from his position on July 1, 2019.
“For 15 years as a leader in the MMSD, I have stressed the importance of putting family first. It is time for me to honor my commitment to my family at home, and give them the time and attention that is long overdue,” Storch said in a Dec. 21 email to parents.
Storch, who previously attended and served as a teacher at La Follette prior to becoming a principal, said he would continue to work for the Madison School District at the district level.
Storch’s decision to leave La Follette follows what has been a rocky year for the high school. In early November, MMSD placed its executive director for curriculum and instruction, Marcey Sorensen, on a special assignment at the school, where she is set to serve until June 30.
Sorensen was placed at La Follette to help reinforce the leadership team, according to the November announcement from MMSD officials.
The added administrator came after feedback from parents in October called on school officials to find proactive approaches to deal with ongoing climate and behavioral issues, which escalated after several gun-related incidents early in the school year.
A 16-year-old boy was accidentally shot in the leg by another student on a Madison Metro bus near the school on Sept. 19. Just a week later, a teen was shot several blocks away from the school.
After approval from the Madison School Board in November, the district is set to install electronic locks on classroom doors at La Follette before rolling out upgraded classroom locks at Madison East, West and Memorial high schools by the start of next school year.
Scheduling problems have also hindered the school recently. For almost 20 years, La Follette has had a four-block schedule, where students usually had four 90-minute classes each day instead of seven 50-60 minute classes like the other three high schools. Under the traditional four-block schedule, students would finish their set of four classes at the end of each semester instead of having yearlong classes.
Some programs offered to La Follette students in recent years such as Dual Language Immersion and the college readiness system AVID lent themselves to having classes each day, however. In order to accommodate that, La Follette recently tried a hybrid schedule where a set of four classes are held on one day, while another four classes are held on the next day. The Personalized Pathways initiative also added challenges to the traditional four-block schedule. The hybrid schedule prevented some students from taking classes that they need and left others with multiple study halls.
Students also didn’t receive their most recent fall schedules until nearly the start of the school year because of the number of teachers that left La Follette in 2018, a turnover problem that parents at a family forum in October called on district officials to address.
At a meeting on Dec. 19, Sorensen presented a plan to have La Follette move away from block scheduling entirely and join the other high schools in having the traditional school day, according to an attendee. The meeting was held just days before Storch's announcement that he would leave the school.
Ananda Mirilli, who is running for Seat 5 on the School Board and is the parent of a La Follette student, said the meeting about scheduling changes was tense and left some parents feeling excluded from the process of addressing the scheduling issues.
"She (Sorenson) came in and made these big significant changes when there was not enough time to learn about the La Follette community, the environment and its students," Mirilli said. "I felt like I was not a stakeholder in this process. [Block schedules] were supposed to be innovative and help address behavior by cutting the amount of time spent in hallways — that's my concern — and support all the things we want to do."
Mirilli said an alternative plan could have been keeping block schedules but adding 14 additional teachers to the school, which would alleviate the workload imbalances that the current schedules have placed on staff. That plan, which would have cost $1.4 million, was rejected by the district, according to Mirilli.
School Board member TJ Mertz, the Seat 5 incumbent, said in his discussions with La Follette teachers that the new plan for next year was a plan faculty could live with given that the current schedule was not viable.
"I would have preferred a more open and thorough process," said Mertz, who noted he thought there are good things about both a block schedule and an eight-period schedule. "I also think the Board could have been involved. The board was told this change happened, but it wasn't consulted, we never discussed it, we were never given an opportunity to say whether this was a place we wanted to assert our decision-making capacity."
The district's spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A request for comment from Storch was directed to the district's spokeswoman.
Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the process of hiring a new principal will include a school-wide survey before having candidates go through an selection process designed by the district.
“Our process will be designed to test the skills that we need in a new principal, and to identify the characteristics that the students, families and staff are looking for,” Cheatham said in an email to parents shortly after Storch’s announcement.
Storch’s replacement will be announced in the spring, Cheatham said.