Michelle McMaster and Audrey Benton

Michelle McMaster stands next to American Canyon High School student Audrey Benton in 2017 after Legacy High School students presented Benton with 1,000 origami cranes made just for her to support her recovery from a deadly snake bite.

Legacy High School in American Canyon will cease to exist as of July, following a decision by the school board last Thursday that left the program’s instructor in tears and facing reassignment, and left unanswered questions over why administrators and the school district didn’t do more to support Legacy High.

“It’s just so painful,” said teacher Michelle McMaster after the meeting on May 3, wiping her eyes and struggling to speak.

McMaster operated Legacy High, a continuation program for at-risk youth, largely by herself for five years on the campus of American Canyon High School.

The Napa Valley Unified School District, which requested Legacy High’s closure due to accreditation issues, plans to offer a similar continuing education model in American Canyon for local at-risk students next fall.

But those students may not have McMaster as their instructor.

McMaster said she was notified on April 24 by NVUSD that she will be working at Vichy Elementary School in the fall, even though she has spent much of her 20-year career teaching high school to at-risk youth.

Legacy High students returning next year will become part of Valley Oak High School, a continuation school in Napa that McMaster taught at before being put in charge of Legacy High in 2013.

The students will receive their education through the new program at ACHS, which will function as a satellite campus for Valley Oak High so the students won’t have to be bused to Napa.

When asked why the district planned to reassign McMaster before the school board decided Legacy High’s fate, district spokesperson Elizabeth Emmett said Monday it was “part of the normal procedure” to ensure McMaster would have a job somewhere in the district next year.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where she’ll end up,” said Emmett regarding the assignment to Vichy.

NVUSD plans to hire an instructor “with teaching and administrative authorizations,” according to the district’s presentation last Thursday, to run the new continuation program in American Canyon.

Officials told McMaster she could apply for the job. She said Monday that she intends to do just that.

McMaster has been praised by current and former students, as well as by parents and teachers for her commitment to helping kids at risk of dropping out to receive their diplomas.

Several school board members acknowledged McMaster’s good work and the importance of her connection with students.

Trustee Thomas Kensok said there had been “a parade” of people at their recent meetings speaking highly of Legacy High and its teacher.

ACHS biology teacher Elizabeth Hawkins said many Legacy High students had taken her classes, and she came away impressed with them.

“These kids went into Miss McMaster’s program as some of the most difficult kids on our campus,” Hawkins told the school board, “and they came out being very respectful, and they come out wanting to learn.”

Trustee Robin Jankiewicz, who abstained from voting on the plan to close Legacy High, expressed concern over how the students will fare going forward without McMaster.

“The piece that concerns me is that these are at-risk kids who have a strong emotional tie to the current instructor,” said Jankiewicz.

Looking in the direction of McMaster seated in the audience, she added: “I want to say thank you for the work that has been done.” Jankiewicz also said she hopes “there’s preservation of a relationship that allows those children to succeed.”

NVUSD decided to close down Legacy High following a visit in March by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. A committee of educators from outside the school district said WASC couldn’t continue the accreditation of Legacy High because numerous recommendations were never implemented.

Those changes required action either by administrators at American Canyon High School, where Legacy High was based, or by district officials.

Trustee Icela Martin raised the issue of why help never came for Legacy High to fulfill the WASC recommendations.

“I would like to see where we dropped the ball especially from the school district’s side,” said Martin. “I don’t think anybody has really addressed that.”

McMaster said the school board was not “making administration accountable, and the kids are at risk.”

“Administration has not supported the school for five years,” she said. “I’ve done it alone — not that it’s about me. It’s about what I know my students need, and I know given the proper parameters they succeed, and I give that to them.”

“My passion is that school,” she said.

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American Canyon Eagle editor

Noel Brinkerhoff has been editor of the American Canyon Eagle since 2014. Prior to that he covered state politics in Sacramento for the California Journal.