click to enlarge Juanita Francis, aka Mama J., speaks to the school board about her dismissal. - Livonia Public Schools (screenshot)

Livonia Public Schools (screenshot)

Juanita Francis, aka Mama J., speaks to the school board about her dismissal.

Juanita Francis is no ordinary substitute teacher.

She calls her students “babies,” and they call her “Mama J.” She brings them home-cooked meals, gives them scholarships, and teaches them how to dance for free. She oozes with passion and positivity and greets every student with a beaming smile. Her mission, she says, is to help students reach their destinies.

But all of that has come to an abrupt end at Livonia Public Schools after the district recently barred her from serving as a substitute teacher. Francis says neither she nor her employer, Edustaff, has received an explanation.

Students, teachers, and parents are vexed and have united to call for Francis to return. Dozens of supporters turned out at a recent school board meeting, and a student-led petition drive has received more than 935 signatures. On Monday, students plan to walk out in protest if the district doesn’t allow her to come back.

Francis is meeting with district officials earlier in the day Monday.

As one of the only teachers of color at the district, Francis, who is Black, believes race is a factor in her dismissal.

It all started in September, when she asked the district why she hadn’t been placed at a middle school in the district for a while. A district secretary told her she could no longer teach at the middle school because some staff members thought she was unprofessional.

Francis responded in an email to defend herself. That’s when the district barred her from all of the schools.

“When an African American woman stands her ground, they look at her as an angry Black woman,” Francis tells Metro Times. “When you accuse me of something, I have to bring to light what you said so you can understand my perspective.”

Colleen Badgero, a parent in the district who serves on the Parent Teacher Association’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Committee, says LPS has a history of excluding women of color. Earlier this year, she says, the district’s Engagement in Equity Committee was dissolved after a Black woman on a subcommittee “was stonewalled and ultimately chose to resign.”

“This repetitive inability to receive truths or experiences coming from people of color, albeit uncomfortable at times given the disproportionate discrimination they and their children face, perpetuates a larger societal stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ and places white women as the ‘victims’ of ‘aggressive’ ‘harsh’ or ‘unprofessional’ behavior,” Badgero, who also attended LPS, said in a statement. “If women of color don’t keep their tone and demeanor perfectly calm and non confrontational in conversation with those who haven’t done adequate implicit bias training, their underlying message is lost and their approach or delivery becomes the justification for further discrimination and maintenance of the inequitable status quo.”

In response to questions from Metro Times about Francis’s dismissal, LPS said in a written response that she was “excluded from substitute teaching in Livonia Public Schools following a series of reports from several schools within our district that the job she was contracted to perform was not being completed to our high standards.”

“Excluding a sub is not an unusual occurrence in LPS or in other districts,” the statement read. “We have the responsibility to our students to have substitute teachers present the lessons and learning materials as planned by the classroom teacher.”

The district declined to further elaborate, saying its policy is to “not publicly discuss personnel issues.”

Francis admits her style of teaching is unorthodox for the district, but she says it’s effective and that her students love her.

“I make learning so much fun,” Francis says. “I make it exhilarating. I teach and lead with love. I love them as if they came from my own womb.”

Dozens of her students showed up at a school board meeting in October, pleading with the district to reinstate her.

“Mama J. has really made the students realize that if you want respect, you have to earn it,” one of the students told the school board. “It’s not a given. She is respected by all the students. When she speaks, people listen. When she teaches, people learn. She is needed at the schools.”

Westland Councilwoman Melissa Sampey also urged the board to bring Francis back, saying many of her constituents have been complaining about Mama J.’s removal.

“It saddens me to learn that such a highly regarded public teacher has been banned,” Sampey said. “She brings passion we have never seen before. Rather than just severing the ties, work with Mama J. to figure out a solution because these children in this room right here, they need her, and they really appreciate having her around. She loves those babies, and they love her too.”

At the school board meeting, Francis said teaching is about more than reciting facts.

“In the African community, they call educators like us ‘destiny helpers,’ helping get our children on the divine path,” Francis said. “I have worked hard to achieve this goal, and I did not get the honor of this name by being mediocre.”

The secretary who told Francis that she was banned from teaching at the district had nominated Mama J. as “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” in June, citing her “devoted and continued service.”

Francis, who is a forensic accountant when she’s not teaching, says she doesn’t need the nominal money she gets from being a substitute. For her, it’s about enhancing the lives of students and making them better human beings.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but some good has come out of this,” Francis says. “I didn’t know how much the students and teachers loved me.”

Francis said she has been “overwhelmed” with the support she has received.

“To have the love they give you, it’s unreal,” she says. “It’s so infectious. It’s amazing to see these young people have a voice and be so supportive. I don’t want to stop being Mama J. I want to continue loving them. I loved to be there. They need me.”

Badgero agrees and says the district should listen to the students.

“For that many students to come out and share their feelings, that speaks volumes,” Badgero says.

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