Parents question shifts in P.K. Yonge's noted drama program


Published: Monday, September 16, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 16, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.

The performing arts program has been a point of pride for P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, receiving awards for achievement from national organizations year after year.

But a spate of recent decisions by the school's administration has some parents questioning if the drama program will continue to thrive, or if it is systematically being dismantled.

Administrators insist that's not the case.

A few things are certain: Kathy Byrne, who just started her fifth year teaching drama at P.K. Yonge, was told in June that her teaching contract would not be renewed. Her contract is up on Jan. 17.

"I was really shocked, because I've done really well with our thespian troupe," a competitive group of drama students, Byrne said. The school's theater production received the highest possible rating from a state theater organization last year, she said.

When Byrne asked why her contract would not be renewed, she said P.K. Yonge director Lynda Hayes told her there was no particular cause, only that the decision was in the best interest of the school.

Hayes refused to comment when contacted by The Sun.

A public records request for Byrne's teaching evaluations while at P.K. Yonge has been declined.

Hayes and P.K. Yonge principal Cathy Atria said they could not comment on personnel issues.

Tiffany Dunn, an English teacher at the school, has been assigned to teach a second drama class.

In Florida, per Department of Education guidelines, a teaching certification in English is an acceptable qualification for teaching a drama class.

Atria said Dunn has had theater training and performance experience, and is a former director of education for the Hippodrome State Theatre.

"That does qualify her to teach drama," Atria said.

That's not enough for parents like Susan Washington, who said she moved to Gainesville from Miami Beach so her daughter could be part of the drama program at P.K. Yonge.

"They're firing an extremely qualified drama teacher ... and there's no mention of replacing her with anyone who has comparable qualifications," Washington said.

Byrne holds a master of fine arts degree, has directed and performed professionally with the Actor's Equity Association and the Screen Actor's Guild and taught at the Dallas Children's Theater, New World School of the Arts in Miami, the University of Florida's School of Theater and Dance and Santa Fe College.

A point of contention between parents and the administration is the disappearance of an audition-only drama class that Byrne started last year.

Byrne said she asked for, and was granted, department approval for the advanced drama class for which students would have to audition and be accepted.

Students did audition, and some were accepted.

But when school started in August, only some of the students who had been admitted to the advanced drama class found themselves in Byrne's class.

Likewise, students who hadn't auditioned for the class were put into Byrne's class.

There are two opinions about what happened.

The creation of the audition-only class created scheduling conflicts with required classes and academic electives, Atria said.

"In a school of our size, scheduling becomes very complex" for classes that are only offered during one period, she said.

School officials created two class periods of drama — one taught by Byrne and the other taught by Dunn.

The classes are mixed-level, composed of students who auditioned for the advanced class as well as beginners. Atria said both teachers are capable of differentiating their teaching so everyone is receiving appropriate theater instruction.

Families were not notified of the change over the summer because "No one is not receiving advanced drama instruction," Atria said. She insisted that the school is still offering advanced drama.

But some parents are incensed, saying they believe Atria is trying to dissolve the program.

"It happened so suddenly and so kind-of backdoor," said Peter Oswald, whose daughter — like Washington's — had been accepted into Byrne's class but were assigned to Dunn's.

Washington, Oswald and several other parents requested to meet with Hayes and Atria and were initially denied, they said. Parents now hope to meet with Hayes on Wednesday to voice their concerns.

"There has been a communication problem with the principal all along," Washington said. "The most important classes for my daughter have been shifted around."

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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