Downtown Charleston has lacked high-quality, racially diverse public schools for years, and many say the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science gives families that option.

Its advocates won a hard, bitter battle to use part of the former Rivers Middle School on the peninsula, but the fledgling school has struggled to find the right leader to build a strong foundation.

The school’s leadership has been inconsistent since opening in 2008, and the school will be grappling with another change this year.

The school’s governing board fired Principal Michael Stagliano this week, and it made his termination effective immediately. Stagliano’s administration failed to observe some teachers’ classes and to submit state-required documents relative to their evaluations on time, said Mark Danes, a parent and member of the governing board.

Stagliano was the school’s fourth principal in five years, and Danes said the board recognizes the need to move quickly to build stability into the school.

“We don’t want to have the school endure any more changes,” he said. “It’s what made this decision particularly painful.”

Research has shown a link between school leadership and improved student achievement, and that leadership is second only to classroom instruction in terms of school-related factors affecting students’ learning.

“When you have four principals in five years, there is a lot of institutional memory that is lost,” Stagliano said. “There’s no solid chain of learning. Lots of problems stem from having weak leadership or ineffective leadership early on.”

Incomplete evaluations

The school uses the state ADEPT system to evaluate its teachers, and the problem that led to Stagliano’s firing involved 14 first- and second-year teachers. The other approximately 20 teachers on staff were unaffected.

The school’s administration didn’t have effective management controls to ensure those 14 teachers’ evaluations were completed in time, Danes said. That failure resulted in teachers receiving evaluations categorized as “incomplete,” which doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on them but can raise red flags with potential employers, he said.

The school’s governing board found out about the situation June 6, and it immediately began an investigation to determine what happened and what it needed to do to help teachers.

“We’re trying to do right by the teachers,” Danes said.

Teachers’ files have documents showing the “incomplete” was a reflection on the school, not their performance, he said. Neither teachers’ pay nor their retirement should be affected, but they will have to go through the same evaluation process next year.

Stagliano said more than one person was involved in evaluating teachers, but “the buck stops at my desk.” He said he’s been upfront with teachers about what happened, but the situation made some unhappy.

The board apparently wanted to send a strong message that it sided with the teachers, he said. He wasn’t given an opportunity to resign, he said.

“It wasn’t anything really egregious,” he said. “They came down hard.”

He said he’s proud of the work he did at the school, and he’s devastated that the situation unfolded in this way.

A school’s struggle

Stagliano said the charter school’s brief but tumultuous history ended up consuming him, too. Not all of the school’s previous principals have been fired, but their brief stints have left a trail of issues, he said. He didn’t realize the extent of the school’s problems until he began working there last August.

“Some schools never get off on the right foot, and it’s very difficult to play catch up,” he said.

Stagliano said he made a number of changes for the better, such as creating a strategic plan for growth, which didn’t previously exist. He also led the effort to have the county school board renew the school’s charter this past year, and Stagliano said that process became “almost bigger than life.”

The school also moved into the renovated building this year, and all of that happened on top of the routine, day-to-day demands of running the school, he said. Stagliano said the school might not have had enough staff to handle all those responsibilities.

Leadership aside, the school is slated to lose nearly one-fourth of its 34 teachers this year. Three were released for not performing while five others were moving on to better opportunities, Stagliano said. He didn’t think that kind of turnover was unusual, and he said the school experienced similar changes last year with its faculty.

Danes said the school has a tremendous mission, and it’s on a wonderful track.

Going forward

The school is working to identify an interim leader, and it plans to put preventative measures in place to ensure this situation doesn’t happen again. It also has formed a transition committee, which Danes is chairing, that will support the school and its daily operations until that happens.

Danes said the board is committed to honesty and transparency, and it wants to ensure families, staff and the community have the same information it does.

“The board wants to communicate to families and the community: we’re maintaining normal operating hours and we beg some indulgence and patience,” he said.

Stagliano, who’s from Columbia, said he’d like to stay in education, although he didn’t know how this situation would affect his chances.

“I wouldn’t be the first person this has happened to or the last,” he said. “I wish this could’ve been handled differently. I think it could have.”

Still, he said he hopes the best for the school in the future.

“It has hit some speed bumps, but it’s going forward,” he said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.