Originally published in Washington City Paper on July 20, 2021.
Teachers and staff at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, a top-tier school serving D.C.’s adult immigrant population, have recently pressed their board of trustees to remove the school’s CEO, Allison Kokkoros.
In a letter sent to the board earlier this month, unnamed employees writing collectively under the banner of “CR Strong” said that under Kokkoros’ leadership, “school growth and innovation has stalled. The culture is steeped in toxicity and pain.” The workers, who identify as a mix of “many” who have worked there for more than two decades as well as some who’ve been at the school for less than a year, warned that despite the school’s strong local and international support, “the mission and continued success of the school is in imminent danger.”
The letter cites Washington City Paper and this reporter by name, noting that past and current employees have contacted Rachel Cohen with concerns, and references her past reporting on Kokkoros’ executive compensation, which well exceeded that of any other charter administrator in D.C. The letter also lists other grievances, including what staff cite as “between $125,000 and $150,000 in legal fees” generated while investigating Kokkoros for “discrimination, retaliation, harassment, exclusion, favoritism, creating and maintaining a hostile and toxic work environment and creating culture of fear.” The letter says there were more than 30 complainants and witnesses involved in the “multiple investigations,” as well as “multiple cases of student abuse by teachers” that leaders at the school allegedly failed to investigate.
City Paper spoke with one former employee, who left Carlos Rosario in May after 13 years and filed a complaint alleging retaliation, harassment, and trans discrimination. That investigation is pending. City Paper also reviewed documents related to another complaint alleging racial discrimination. That investigation concluded in June 2020. “Even though there was no finding of unlawful conduct, your complaint highlights the importance of issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, now more than ever,” Patricia Sosa, the chair of the Board of Trustees, wrote in the complaint closure letter.
The CR Strong letter also blasts high turnover at the school, listing 14 departures in 2021. The most recent departures include Karen Rivas, a principal, and Gerardo Luna, the chief financial officer. “Most have publicly stated that their reason for leaving the school is abuse by Allison Kokkoros and/or the toxic environment that she has created and continues to foster,” the letter states. Luna did not respond to a request for comment. Rivas told City Paper she is moving on from Carlos Rosario “due to a growth opportunity for me, as an elementary school principal.” She added that she has “not witnessed abuse or a toxic climate created by Allison” and sees Kokkoros’ “strong leadership as a guiding light.”
In an emailed response sent on the morning of Wednesday, July 14, the Board of Trustees told school staff that they take their oversight responsibilities very seriously and are “working with the senior management to assesses the situation and take actions, as appropriate, to ensure transparency and build trust” within the school community. The board pledged to implement an action plan and share next steps with faculty and staff within the next 45 days.
In response to interview requests from City Paper, Kokkoros and Patricia Sosa, the chair of the board, sent a joint emailed response. “We are running the School, preparing for welcoming students back to our buildings, and assessing how best to provide quality of life and support for our students and employees,” they write. “Covid 19 hit the community we serve hard, and presented an immense challenge to management and staff, issues not unusual for educational institutions. In addition, DEI discussions raised difficult challenges for a school as diverse as ours … The Board has joined senior staff to address concerns and support the adoption of management practices in line with our long history of serving the DC immigrant community in a safe and caring environment. As soon as our plan is finalized within the next 45 days, we will gladly share it with you.”
On June 4, 2020, in the wake of the racial justice protests that swept D.C. and the nation, Carlos Rosario staff sent a petition to school leadership urging them to more forcefully embrace anti-racism policies. Among other things, the signatories called for the creation of a racial equity advisory group, hiring a racial equity consultant, hiring more culturally responsive staff and teachers of color, implementing more trauma-informed practices and mental health supports, and providing anti-racist trainings for staff, leaders, and students.
One concrete change to come from the petition was the hiring of diversity consultants who launched an investigation into the practices at the school. An executive summary of their work was released in late March, though to date employees have not been able to review the full findings. The consultants did not return City Paper’s request for comment or to review the full report.
In the 16-page executive summary, the consultants write that Carlos Rosario “is at a pivotal point in its [Diversity-Equity-Inclusion-and-Belonging] efforts” and that the charter’s organizational culture “predicates favoritism and inequity, both deriving from exclusionary dynamics across leadership, staff, faculty, and student relationships.” The consultants said stakeholders “continuously referred to the racial hierarchies and stratification of roles within the organization” and to fear related to the HR department. The consultants wrote that the current school climate “lends itself to microaggressions” and listed 10 recommendations for the school to adopt, including “cultivate a culture of ownership, not simply buy-in, for DEIB.”
On June 7, a staff member emailed all school employees to raise concerns with the DEI trainings at the school. The staffer, using an anonymous ProtonMail account, critiqued the workshops for “brand[ing] Carlos Rosario as a racist institution.” They cited research showing DEI sessions are ineffective, argued that the trainings “undermine friendship and community,” and are “condescending and racist to Black people.” The staffer urged alternatives to pursuing diversity and inclusion.
In an emailed response to all staff reviewed by City Paper, Kokkoros wrote that the June 7 email “is in no way a representation of leadership or our Board of Trustees.” She reiterated the school’s intention to continue with their DEI work, and emphasized that “it is uncomfortable, but we know it is for the betterment of our organization and the way we interact with one another.”
Toni Lewis, a former outreach and recruitment manager who left the school in March, says Carlos Rosario’s lack of regard for staff feedback, lack of understanding of racial inequality, and lack of commitment to structural and policy changes, drove her decision to move to another adult charter school in D.C.
“I did and still care about the mission of the Carlos Rosario School, I still have a lot of respect for my colleagues there, but that is why I and a great number of other people have left,” she tells City Paper. “I minced no words about this in my exit interview. “