having their say

Students at Townsend Harris High School hold hallway sit-in to protest Principal Rosemarie Jahoda

PHOTO: Renaenia Cipriano Pangan
Students participating in Thursday's protest at Townsend Harris

Dozens of students at Townsend Harris, a top Queens high school, took to the hallways Thursday to express their frustration with Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda, who replaced Principal Anthony Barbetta in September.

“Our goal was to show that students felt the difference between the school atmosphere before Mrs. Jahoda came and after,” said Student Union President Alex Chen, who helped organize the sit-in. “The atmosphere she created is impossible for us to work with.”

The students aren’t the only ones concerned. A online petition to keep Jahoda from being named permanent principal at the school has collected more than 3,000 signatures, including many from people identifying themselves as parents or alumni. The petition notes “rumors” of “faculty harassment” and “significant changes to course offerings and programs” without proper input. “She has simply not been as approachable as previous principals,” it states.

“We do not feel that there is a path forward for her at Townsend Harris High School,” the petition concludes. “Appointing her will be going against our wishes for our children and for the future children who will be attending the school.”

Principal Jahoda did not respond to requests for comment.

A former assistant principal of mathematics at Bronx High School of Science, Jahoda has a history of conflict with school staff. Twenty teachers — nearly the entire math department at Bronx Science — filed a complaint focused on her in 2008. An independent fact-finder later verified many of their concerns, noting that Jahoda had engaged in “harassment and intimidation” of teachers. The Department of Education rejected that report as “not fairly based upon all the evidence in this case.”

The Townsend Harris students timed their protest to coincide with a visit from the district superintendent. Sitting along the hallways, they whispered excitedly to each other other as a videographer from the student newspaper filmed interviews with the students involved.

Instead, it was Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro who visited that day. She stopped and addressed the students, with a silent Jahoda beside her. Holding a pad, Pineiro proceeded to question the students, sharply at times.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” Pineiro asked Chen. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Franco Scardino, a social studies teacher at the school and the union chapter leader, said he had seen the video and was troubled by Pineiro’s tone.

“Even if you might disagree with their naiveté or their flawed tactics due to their lack of experience, I would think you would accommodate a conversation with students rather than a lecture,” he said.

Pineiro said she supported the students’ right to protest, but felt they had been misinformed. “I have a great deal of respect for kids. That’s why I’m in education,” Pineiro told Chalkbeat. “I’m just urging students to fact-check, and parents as well.”

Pineiro added that she has worked closely with Jahoda and thinks she’s not getting a fair shake. “I have the utmost faith that if people were to give her an opportunity and a chance, they will find that she’s really an advocate for students,” she said.

Susan Karlic, co-president of the Townsend Harris parent-teacher association, whose daughter is a senior at the school, said she is reserving judgment for now. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of the matter and take all sides of the story, and make our own decision from there,” she said.

The Department of Education is also taking a wait-and-see approach, noting that the process of hiring a permanent principal had not yet started. “Principal hiring and assignment decisions are made by the superintendent in accordance with the Chancellor’s Regulations, and based on consultations with members of the school community,” said DOE spokesman Will Mantell. “We listen closely to the feedback and concerns of all school communities, and engage them as part of the C-30 [hiring] process.”

The next school leadership team meeting will be held Thursday, Dec. 15 at 4 p.m. The next parent-teacher association meeting will be held the same day at 6:30 p.m.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.