MIA: Newly hired art teacher disappears without a trace
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When prospective art teacher Alexis Grinbold was referred to Country Day for the open position last spring by Carney Sandoe & Associates, a faculty recruitment company, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“She came for an interview and her references checked out,” head of high school Brooke Wells said.
Everything was going well – until Grinbold stopped responding to communications from Wells and head of middle school Sandy Lyon.
Lyon said she emailed Grinbold sometime in May to ask if she’d like a copy of the book that the school’s faculty and staff were reading together over the summer.
“She never replied,” Lyon said. “Ever.”
Wells said the last communication he received from Grinbold was in June, before the AP Art History institute she had been signed up by the school to attend.
The institute was through AP by the Sea, Wells said, an organization in San Diego that teaches summer courses to teachers new to dealing with an AP curriculum or looking for a refresher after curricular changes.
Grinbold had been registered for the June 20-23 session for AP Art History. The summer institute costs $775, and the school paid for her to attend.
After Grinbold failed to respond to multiple communications, Wells called AP by the Sea.
“When she didn’t show up to the AP institute, that was the red flag,” Wells said.
“I thought maybe she had lost her phone, and then she didn’t show up.”
According to Wells, Carney Sandoe & Associates had placed Grinbold in two other schools prior to Country Day among the thousands of teachers they place every year into independent schools.
The job search began quite normally.
After posting the job on the websites of Carney Sandoe, SCDS, the National Association of Independent Schools and the California Association of Independent Schools, the school went through the normal hiring process, Lyon said.
The team included Lyon, Wells, head of school Lee Thomsen, assistant head of school Tucker Foehl and former art teacher Patricia Kelly. However, Lyon said that Thomsen and Foehl deferred to Wells and her for the hiring.
After sorting through résumés, Lyon said she emailed the selected candidates to find out if they were still interested.
“From there, if (the school is) interested, I try to set up a phone interview and talk with them for 30 to 45 minutes,” Lyon said.
“(That’s when I) start to get a feeling as to whether or not someone might work out and have the qualities (I’m) looking for.”
Wells recognized those qualities in Grinbold.
“She was great – very organized, very strong in art history,” Wells said.
Following the phone interviews, the school brings candidates on campus to have them teach a class, Lyon said.
For the art position, the school brought in Grinbold, another woman and Andy Cunningham, who was already teaching the drawing elective.
Grinbold taught a middle school studio art elective and an art history class.
Kelly said she responded to Grinbold’s teaching style.
“She had a plan; she had everything ready to go,” Kelly said.
Grinbold taught a lesson on texture and brought in different spices and plant materials for students to touch and smell, according to Kelly.
“The lesson was simple,” Kelly said. “As a candidate coming in, you don’t know exactly what the situation is like, so you have to figure things out as you go.”
In addition, Grinbold successfully engaged the eighth graders, which, Kelly added, is not an easy task.
Lyon said in the spring Grinbold did a good job, but it was the art history component that made the difference.
“In some ways I deferred to (Wells) on (which candidate to hire) because he wanted AP Art History to be a component of this person’s abilities,” Lyon said. “I think she was one of the stronger ones with that.”
“She had a nice lesson, and she was very knowledgeable,” Kelly added. “(She used) technology and added images and scripted text. It was great.”
Lyon said Grinbold was offered a contract in March.
However, after signing the contract, communication began to get rocky.
“One of the things that’s interesting is that from the time (an employee) signs the contract until they report for work, there’s no legal responsibility for the teacher to do anything or even respond,” Thomsen explained.
Wells said Grinbold camped in Joshua Tree National Park over spring break. So there was a five-day lapse on a phone message.
“It was perfectly normal; she said she couldn’t respond,” Wells said.
But he added, “In hindsight, that was the first inkling I got.”
Lyon, who corresponded with Grinbold throughout the process, said communication seemed to be “a little bit rough, even from the beginning.”
“She would take awhile to get back to me (and longer) to get back to (Kelly), who was trying to set up her classes,” Lyon said.
But when Grinbold didn’t show up at the AP institute and didn’t reply to any correspondence, the school began to worry.
“Our first concern was, ‘Is she OK? Is she alive?’” Thomsen said.
As a result, Wells sent a number of communications in mid-July when Lyon left on vacation, by phone and email, that weren’t – and still haven’t been – returned.
“It’s just so bizarre,” Wells said.
Thomsen added that they tried calling and emailing and even asked Carney Sandoe for help. The organization didn’t get a response either.
Then director of advancement Carolyn Woolf tried contacting a mutual Facebook friend who said he’d contact Grinbold. On Aug. 8, he told Woolf he hadn’t heard back.
Woolf, a colleague of Grinbold’s when they both worked at La Jolla Country Day School in the 2015-16 school year, also contacted Cindy Bravo, interim director of visual and performing arts at La Jolla, to see if she could reach Grinbold.
In an email sent Sept. 7, Bravo said she “reached out to (Grinbold) but did not get a text response.” However, she added that Grinbold had taught a week-long ceramics course over the summer at La Jolla and had mentioned a position at a community college when she was there.
Librarian Melissa Strong discovered on the internet that Grinbold was approved as an adjunct art instructor by the Desert Community College District Board of Trustees at their February meeting, shown in the board’s Feb. 10 agenda.
Currently, Grinbold’s position is listed in the online directory for College of the Desert, a community college in Palm Desert, California. Grinbold did not respond to repeated attempts by the Octagon staff to contact her.
When no one could contact Grinbold, chief financial officer Bill Petchauer said to give her until Aug. 16. Then, he said, her contract would be null and void.
After Aug. 16 passed, Thomsen said the school waited to see if she would show up at new teacher orientation on Aug. 21. When Grinbold didn’t, “plan B” was enacted.
“I had a plan B in my mind mid-May,” Wells said.
Plan B was Cunningham and Liz Leavy (parent of Isabelle, ‘17, and freshman Nate).
Thomsen said the school was fortunate that Cunningham was available to teach the art and drawing classes. And Leavy, who has a master’s in art history, had previously expressed interest in teaching AP Art History.
“I think we’re all happier,” Lyon said. “I feel like we dodged a bullet.”
Wells added, “We ended up on our feet here. It’s really a symbol of our community that it worked out in the end.”
—By Sahej Claire