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 a sit-in 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.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”