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.