Newark gets new crop of principals, including one for troubled Shabazz high school

One of Newark’s most troubled high schools will have a new principal this year, along with several other schools, after the school board approved Superintendent Roger León’s appointments on Tuesday.

Naseed Gifted, a vice principal at Central High School and a former engineer, will take over Malcolm X Shabazz High School in the South Ward. Once recommended for closure by the state, Shabazz continues to struggle with an extremely high absenteeism rate and a graduation rate far below the district average.

The board also approved more than $167,000 in separation pay for seven administrators whom León forced out of the district, as well as the merger of two separate academies into a single Barringer High School.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the new principals León chose to lead at least eight schools, including East Side High School, the district’s largest school.

“This evening, I have the great honor and privilege of presenting to the community a number of our city’s shining stars,” León said at Tuesday’s meeting, which several of the new school leaders attended.

León, who became superintendent on July 1, did not take questions after the meeting. But, in a press release, the district said that León had revived a principal hiring process that has not been used for nearly a decade.

The process calls for a “School Leadership Council” made up of students, parents, teachers, and others to interview principal candidates who have been pre-screened by the district. The council then selects finalists to be interviewed by the superintendent, who decides on one person to recommend to the board to be hired.

The press release also noted that, “like León,” five of the new principals “were born, bred, and educated in Newark.” By contrast, many of the 31 officials and administrators whom León recently forced to resign or face being fired had been recruited from outside the district by his predecessors.

“It is extremely important to me to lead with superior educators and administrators who at their core represent the best of Newark,” León said in a statement. “The community asked for it, I promised it, today we begin anew.”

At Shabazz, a council that included parents along with current and former teachers interviewed four candidates to replace Principal Damon Holmes, who was dismissed by the district’s interim superintendent in May. They settled on Gifted, who has spent 15 years at Central High School, most recently as a vice principal who oversees the school’s pre-engineering academy.

In an interview at the board meeting, Gifted told Chalkbeat he wants to “revitalize the natural resources” at Shabazz, including its automotive and cosmetology job-training programs. He also hopes to refocus the school on science, technology, engineering and math, or “STEM” subjects, which he said would attract more students to the school and help prepare them for lucrative careers.

“It’s an opportunity to influence more minds to go into STEM fields,” he said. “There’s 1.8 million job opportunities out there, and I want our students to be prepared for them.”

Gifted faces a daunting challenge at Shabazz, a school where violence and disorder were once so rampant that a 2009 state report said it should be shut down.

Today, the school continues to struggle to draw students, with about 460 enrolled this past academic year — down from about 1,200 a decade ago. In 2017, its four-year graduation rate was 61 percent, compared to 78 percent across the district.

The majority of its students miss so much school they are considered “chronically absent,” which is linked to high dropout rates and heightened risks of entering the criminal-justice system. In the 2016-17 academic year, more than 70 percent of Shabazz students missed more than 15 school days — twice the district-wide rate, according to state data.

Still, Board Member Reginald Bledsoe said he is confident that Gifted can turn the school around.

“A year from now, I look forward to hearing about all the positive things that are happening there,” he said.

Shabazz is not the only school heading into the fall with new leadership.

At East Side High School, Vice Principal Michael West will replace Principal Mario Santos, whom León named as his assistant superintendent overseeing high schools. At West Side High School, Vice Principal Akbar Cook will take over for Principal Larry Ramkissoon, who will work on curriculum for the district.

Principal Angela Mincy, who leads Barringer Academy of S.T.E.A.M., will head the reunified Barringer High School. Barringer, long one of Newark’s most troubled high schools, was split into the S.T.E.A.M. and Arts and Humanities academies under former Superintendent Cami Anderson.

The other new principals are: Rosa Branco, First Avenue School; Sandra Cruz, South Street School; Natasha Pared, Rafael Hernandez School; Jill Summers-Phillips, John F. Kennedy School; and Deneen Washington, Belmont Runyon School.

The board on Tuesday also approved a number of other staffing changes, such as promotions and transfers, but did not immediately release the names of those employees.

The separation pay is going to seven officials who were pressured to resign, including $42,000 to former Assistant Superintendent Angelica Allen-McMillan and more than $32,000 to Rolando Bobadilla, a former special assistant in the special-education office.

After the meeting, Board Chair Josephine Garcia said she was excited about the new crop of principals.

“I look forward to ensuring that they move our schools in the right direction,” she said.