MOUNT VERNON — Deb Strouse was the sole witness on Thursday as the contract termination hearing for suspended Mount Vernon Middle School science teacher John Freshwater entered its second day of the defense phase. Strouse, middle school achievement coordinator and sixth-grade administrator, was the individual assigned to monitor Freshwater’s classroom activities the last six weeks of the 2007-08 school year.
Answering questions by Freshwater’s lawyer Kelly Hamilton, Strouse said she did not hear Freshwater talk about religious beliefs or read from the Bible in the classroom while she was there. She said he was teaching to standards, in her opinion, and said she was impressed with his relationship with students and his ability to convey science concepts in an understandable manner.
“John had an excellent rapport with the students and I was jealous,” Strouse testified. “He knew the kids inside and out. ... John believes in his kids, each and every one of them. He has a knack for explaining concepts to students. Anything a kid would say he (Freshwater) could relate it to science.”
“Did you have any indication he was faking it?” asked Hamilton.
“Do you feel the kids were holding back because you were there?”
Hamilton had Strouse explain academic standards, bands and grade level indicators and relate them to the eighth-grade science curriculum. She also explained lesson plans and what Ohio Achievement Tests are and how they relate to a school district’s report card.
Reviewing the notes she made while an observer in the classroom, Strouse said she did see a Bible on Freshwater’s desk, and later noticed another Bible and a book titled “Jesus of Nazareth” (both from the school library) lying on a lab table in the classroom in plain sight. She said Freshwater asked her the difference between having a personal Bible on his desk and having the books from the school library in his room. Her assumption at the time was that he was asking how one can be allowed and the other not.
Continuing with a review of the notes, Hamilton asked Strouse a series of questions dealing with classroom lessons and Freshwater’s response to student queries about subjects not directly related to the current lesson.
“He would tell them to research the topic (raised by the student) and bring it back to class for extra credit,” Strouse said. “He was able to connect science concepts to their lives.” She mentioned things like fingerprints, bees, snakes and CSI television shows. One challenge to students at the end of the school year, she said, was to predict whether Freshwater could rip up a phone book. Strouse said Freshwater promised to demonstrate that he could if they would keep the room neat and say, “I love science, Mr. Freshwater” whenever they saw him. Although Strouse was unsure how he succeeded in tearing the phone book, she said the students were highly motivated to learn the secret and to try it themselves.
Asked how teachers should deal with controversial topics, Strouse said a teacher should use common sense and remind students that some things are for parents to deal with.
Part of the cross examination by school board attorney David Millstone dealt with assessment maps, which Strouse said are a guide for teachers to know what to teach, about when in the school year it should be taught and how to assess the student’s grasp of the material.
Referring to a specific item on the assessment map, Millstone asked, “Did Freshwater teach about heredity?”
“Yes,” Strouse replied.
“Did he teach evolution?”
“He did not.”
Strouse said some of the lessons she observed related to the seventh-grade indicators rather than the eighth-grade indicators, and referred specifically to an activity using pennies. She told Hamilton, upon redirect, that it was an engaging, hands-on activity that motivated the students, but was not relevant to the eighth-grade Ohio Science Achievement Test. When Hamilton asked whether the middle school mission statement says anything about passing the OAT, Strouse replied, “No.”
After several follow-up questions by Millstone, the hearing was adjourned until 9 a.m. today.