New energy felt at school where cheating principal was removed

Lights dimmed on stage in the auditorium at the Theatre Arts Production Company School and a cocktail waitress in a short dress and high heels walked out. Behind her, flappers and American expatriates bickered and drank wine in a Paris jazz club while waiting for her to sing.

The scene that students acted out on Wednesday was from an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” a novel that the students read earlier in the year. Directing the students from the front row was theater teacher Bud Thorpe, who cued music and lights through hushed orders into a headpiece.

“This is kind of like a rebirth,” Thorpe said backstage after the performance as he considered the school’s — and his own — recent fortunes.

It has been just over a year since the Bronx secondary school closed a dark chapter. Last March, officials removed TAPCO’s founding principal after finding that for several years she fudged student transcripts, inflated test scores, and misused school funds. Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Lynn Passarella’s behavior was “dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities.”

Under Passarella, the school glimmered with accolades, including the top score on the city’s progress report, but suffered internally through teacher turnover while students received an incomplete education. After her removal, some test scores plummeted, a sign that some of school’s lofty accomplishments were perhaps too good to be true.

Those scars are still fresh. But the school is seeking to reinvent itself by doubling down on the programs for which the performing arts school was named. The Hemingway production, Thorpe said, which included nearly 50 students, was a sign of the progress made in just one year.

The school is also rallying around its new leader, a former fireman and blues singer from Ohio who moved to New York City in 2005 to teach.

“After the disaster, as we called it, the school’s reputation was tarnished,” Thorpe said. “It was Ron who polished it.”

Ron Link had not been a principal before getting picked to oversee TAPCO’s turnaround, a job he began the day after Passarella was yanked from the school. (The city moved to fire Passarella, and she is currently suspended without pay while she appeals the decision.)

“I sensed it was a wounded community,” said Link, who said he spent the rest of the 2012 school year listening to teachers and learning about their skills. What he found, he said, was that many of them had extensive arts backgrounds but were not teaching arts classes.

“The arts were alive here,” said Link, who said he was drawn to the school because of his own background as an actor and musician in Cleveland. He likes to tell visitors about his band, which opened for many famous acts, including Run-D.M.C. in 1983.

One of the teachers whose background was being squandered was Thorpe, who often clashed with Passarella during her tenure. Link said he had been “stuck in a classroom,” away from the stage where he previously taught theater, as a result.

“There was an immediate bond and it was really over the summer, after he came in and had time to listen and to communicate,” said Thorpe. One of the ideas they had was to commit to putting on a theater production on a large scale, which would engage more students in the school’s mission. “When we started talking, he said, ‘You can do this.’”

Link started the year by moving much of the arts instruction in house,  improving morale and bolstering the school’s budget at the same time.

“All of the arts were farmed out, like $4,500 to $6,000 per month, to outside consultants,” Link said. “I spent less than that for the entire year and I have affiliations and partnerships with 12 [or] 13 programs within New York City that cost next to nothing.”

The school was also significantly underequipped to serve the 20 percent special education population. Link hired six special education teachers with dual arts certifications, who have spent the year working with students with disabilities and running their own dance and acting clubs.

Raising student achievement remains a challenge. After years of inflated scores, proficiency on eighth grade English and math tests fell last year, the first without Passarella, by 21 and 22 points, respectively. And not a single student passed the Algebra II Regents exam, just two years after nearly 90 percent of students did.

Several students who took the exam in earlier years alleged that their teacher had given them the answers to test questions. The teacher, Anastasiya Kornyeyeva, is under a new investigation with the city, Department of Education officials said. A former teacher at the school said the investigation is tied to cheating.

Link would not comment on the case, but he said he has been diligent about making sure that no part of the old culture continued.

“Anything that I encountered that was contrary to Department of Education policy, I submitted it to [the Office of Special Investigations] for review and possible investigation,” Link said.

Link said he hired someone just to comb through student transcripts to figure out which ones were improperly credited, and “we whittled it down to what’s real and what’s not.” Link said they found “a handful” of students whose were at risk of not graduating.

Teachers say Link has brought a sense of order to the school day and cohesion to their instructional practice. He has planned curriculum maps for each subject that get revised regularly through team meetings, collaboration that teachers said happened rarely in previous years.

Link said he believes the school is now on the right path, and its website boldly makes that claim.

“The Clouds are Clearing!” reads TAPCO’s homepage, which touts a strong school quality review from the city and a B on last year’s progress report, with “more authentic achievement” to follow in the future.

Next, Link plans to toughen the school’s admissions process by requiring students to demonstrate their commitment to and skills in the arts, which he said the old administration did not do.

“People are going to have to come ready with a monologue, a piece to dance,” Link said. “They’re going to have to want to be here.”

Link received an endorsement of his own recently, too. The newly formed student council, one of more than 20 clubs and programs at the schools, asked him to meet them in the auditorium to review plans for end-of-year events. When he got there, they surprised him with a tribute to his first year on the job. A video they dedicated to him featured students who often thought back to what it was like in previous years. Some said they “weren’t really learning” and, now, were happy to be “actually doing our work.”

“The school probably would have closed down,” a student said.

Thank You, Mr. Link from TAPCO Video Productions on Vimeo.