masses for transit

City students rally against possible end of free student Metrocards

Kammie Sifonte, 14, protests budget cuts that would eliminate free student Metrocards outside of the MTA's Manhattan headquarters.
Kammie Sifonte, 14, stood outside MTA's Manhattan headquarters, protesting budget cuts that would eliminate free student Metrocards.

Hundreds of New York City high school students rallied outside of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Manhattan headquarters this afternoon to protest budget cuts that would eliminate free student Metrocards.

The students came from all corners of the city, responding to a hastily organized call made over Facebook. They came from Manhattan’s School of the Future and Millenium High School, from Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills High School and Franklin K. Lane High School, from the High School of American Studies and Our Savior Lutheran High School in the Bronx, among many others. Many of them left their schools early, with or without the permission of their principals. Others were accompanied by their teachers and parents.

They gathered at the MTA’s Midtown headquarters to send the message that the elimination of free student transportation would drastically hurt their ability to attend quality schools. Students predicted increased financial hardship for their families, forcing them to return to their zone schools, a prospect many said they wanted to avoid. Others predicted they might drop out altogether.

The MTA board is currently in a public comment period on the cuts, which they passed last week and will vote on early in the new year. If the plan is approved, students would begin to pay for half-price passes beginning next school year and would pay full price beginning in September 2011. New York City students have received free or reduced fares since 1948.

Students gathered from schools around the city.
Students gathered from schools around the city.

Jessie Byrd, 14, said she travels 30 to 40 minutes each day from her home in East Harlem to the School of the Future, where she is a freshman. Next year she intends to transfer to Bayside High School in Queens, drawn by their arts and music curriculum, but those plans will be thrown into doubt, she said, if her free Metrocards disappear.

“My mom has been struggling, barely getting by, getting money for lunch,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to waste my $4.50 for lunch just getting to school.”

Next to Byrd, 14-year-old Kammie Sifonte and her twin brother Danny, both freshman at School of the Future, said that lower classmen would be disproportionately harmed by the plan. “We’ll still be in school in 2011, and we’re too young to get jobs to help us pay for the cost,” said Danny.

The Sifontes energetically waved a handwritten sign at the oncoming traffic that read, “honk your horn for student Metrocards.” A passing MTA bus driver blared his, and students cheered.

Kammie Sifonte said that if the budget plan passes, she would most likely transfer to her zone school, as would many of her classmates at School of the Future. “We’re an accelerated high school, so we have kids from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island,” she said.

Other students were more pessimistic. “I probably wouldn’t go to school,” said Louis Shanoc, 16, a sophomore at Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design.

“I would still have to take the bus to get to my zone school,” added Amanda Hernandez, 15, also a sophomore at Art and Design.

Losing subsidized transportation to school was a further hardship in an environment where students are already losing services at their schools, they said. Hernandez and Shanoc, along with Arts and Design junior Jhaton Watson, 15, listed a litany of cuts to foreign language and arts programs their school has already sustained. “They’re cutting things at our school, but they’re making us pay to go there,” Hernandez said.

A parent outlined how her family's expenses would be affected by having to pay for an additional two monthly MTA passes for her children.
A parent outlined how her family

Adults sprinkled themselves throughout the crowd. City Councilman Charles Barron, who is running for Council Speaker, worked his way down the block, shaking students’ hands, flanked by his wife, State Assemblywoman Inez Barron. Teachers, parents and political organizers mingled with the teenagers.

Organizers blasted Jay-Z’s and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” from loudspeakers and the crowd of students began to sing along, waving their signs as if at a concert, their voices rising over city traffic.

“For all the political guys that are here, this is really just a bunch of kids who used their technology to get together,” said Ed Goldman, a retired teacher at Brooklyn Tech who heard about the protest through students’ online organizing.

Jordan Orvam, a senior at Our Savior Lutheran High School in the Bronx, said he started a Facebook group to protest the cuts after reading about them in the Daily News on December 13.  When he logged on again hours later, he said, 7,000 people had joined the group. More than 73,000 people have joined the online group in the week since he started it. With the help of community organizers, he and other students in the group organized the rally in four days.

Kyle Maer, a sophomore at Bronx High School of Science who organized the Facebook group with Orvam, said students are trying to organize protests at every city high school on the day students return to school after their winter holiday, which begins this week.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”