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September 20, 2011 > Wanted: Drama teacher's return

Wanted: Drama teacher's return

Supporters of Anne Riley fill School Board room

By Miriam G. Mazliach

Something is different this year at Mission San Jose High School (MSJHS). For the first time in 19 years, Anne Riley, the Drama teacher, is not there. She has been placed on a "Leave of Absence" by the Fremont School Board, but not by her choice.

Riley states, "There is a dispute with the District on my teaching assignment. I am working with the Dept of Fair Housing and Employment to try to get it resolved."

When reached for a response, Superintendent James Morris stated, "Ms. Riley is a District employee and we can't comment on Personnel matters."

About seven years ago, Riley contracted the autoimmune disease, known as "Guillain-Barre Syndrome," which caused her legs to become paralyzed. Upon her return to work, she continued to teach three class periods, although per doctor's orders, not a full-time schedule, as "Guillain-Barre" is a fatigue-based illness.

But she didn't allow the illness to slow her down and adapted quite well with the use of a power wheelchair. When necessary, Riley can even stand with the aid of leg braces, although she has no feeling in her legs. The nerves, that tell muscles what to do, have been destroyed by the disease.

In regard to overcoming any writing difficulties she might encounter, Riley is able to accomplish those tasks by using arm braces if needed, or utilizing her computer, equipped with voice recognition software and other accessible devices, which she paid for herself.

Riley's love for and involvement with dramatics began at the early age of nine when she started in the theatre. "Theatre is a place where kids who don't fit in, find a fit in theatre. It's an open accepting place. You have students embrace each other and their differences so they can put something magical on stage," says Riley.

Kathy Hebert, a parent of a MSJHS student, can attest to that experience. "I've known Anne Riley for three years. She has just accepted everything about my son and his disability (Autism) and encouraged him to try out for Drama where he has thrived. He loves getting on stage." Hebert adds, "I'm hoping the skills he's learned through Anne and acting, have boosted his confidence and helped him with his future goals." If so, he will join the ranks of many of Riley's former students who have gone on to great success in the arts, theatre, film, and other fields as well.

An abundance of support for Riley was visible at the September 12 Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) Board meeting, where the room was packed by many who came to speak on her behalf. Comprised of students, parents, friends, and colleagues, a significant number took turns at the podium, asking the Board to consider reinstating Riley to her teaching position.

Noa Kretchmer, one of Riley's students last year, addressed the Board. "Ms. Riley is never afraid to go all out when it comes to Drama. She's dedicated and always taught me to not give up and how to grow as an actor and a person."

Retired Choral Director, Lee Glover, spoke of Riley as a "woman of many talents." Glover added, "Anne's always created a safe place for kids and supported their passions." The kids deserve her, to be their teacher."

Currently, all four levels of Drama at MSJHS are now grouped together into one class period, and students and parents are upset that the course will be theoretical in nature. As it stands now, the anticipated production of "Steel Magnolias" is in doubt.

(Earlier in the day, TCV questioned MSJHS Principal Sandra Prairie about the situation, who remarked, "This is a Personnel issue. Anne Riley is on leave. We are going forward and trying to have a positive and good experience with Drama.")

Linda Jackson-Whitmore has known Anne Riley for more than 20 years. Recently retired, after 36 years, as the Drama teacher at Irvington High School, she stated, "I admire what she [Riley] can do with the students. In a wheelchair Anne can show that she is capable of doing anything. Just look at the commitment from parents and students who have rallied around her, or past graduates who frequently come back to see her."

Riley had worked with Jackson-Whitmore at Irvington, prior to MSJHS and thinks of Jackson-Whitmore as not only a colleague, but as her mentor.

At the speaker's podium, MSJHS Math teacher, Claudia Fort commented, "I've known her as an unbelievably dedicated teacher. Just because she's disabled, or in a wheelchair, it still has never slowed her down. I'm in awe of what she's done. She has never done anything to put them [her students] in harm's way. We cannot believe she will not be back to continue the program," said Fort.

Yaron Kretchmer, parent of MSJHS student Noa Kretchmer, expressed his view that Drama at the high school is facing "death by a thousand cuts" and attributed this to lack of support from the school administration. "First the Drama teacher was placed on leave and now the show has been cancelled. I want Drama to stay active as a performing program, not theoretical," stated Kretchmer.

Drama student, Amy Mendonca has been a student of Riley's for the past three years. She started an online petition in support of Riley at www.change.org where people can voice their opinions and reactions to Riley's situation. To date, over 140 responses have been added to the petition.

"No one really saw who I was as a person before," said Mendonca. "She means the world to me, more than a teacher - a mentor, role model and a friend. She does more hours than any teacher at Mission especially with play rehearsals sometimes lasting until 9 p.m. and she's always glad we're there. Anne Riley is an incredible woman and should be at MSJHS teaching," said Mendonca.

Former student Jilly Mitchell wept openly, when talking about Riley. "She taught me more than Drama -about dedication, perseverance and respect for others and myself. Drama was a sanctuary for those who don't fit the mold," said Mitchell. "I was falling through the cracks. College wasn't an option in my mind. Anne Riley put calls out and helped me get into college. I now work for a youth intervention program. She has definitely encouraged people to pay it forward."

District parent Anne Crosbie expressed her views; "I think if you had one word for Anne Riley, it would be tenacious. Nothing stops her. Why don't the schools continue to support her? Why not consider job sharing? There is a lack of support for the Drama program," added Crosbie. "She is so beloved and works so hard for her students. I would hope you would support her and the program."

Praveena Raman's son and daughter graduated from Mission and were both involved in drama. Raman is a member of Parents of Universal Performers, which supports and raises funds for the Arts/Drama/Band at MSJHS. "I have worked closely with Anne and have seen her dedication to the students and the program. I urge the Board to reconsider and reinstate Anne for her students and the community," said Raman.

Riley is appreciative of the outpouring of compassion and support from parents and students. "The leave is not my choice. I never intended this to happen. I want to teach Drama. I love working with teenagers. I adore it. Theatre is my passion. Always has been and always will be."

To access the online petition, visit www.change.org and type in Anne Riley.

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