unchartered territory

Head of charter school set to close fires back at teachers, DOE

The head of the Brooklyn charter school whose charter could be revoked is firing back at the Department of Education and the former teachers who reported her.

In a letter sent to parents on Tuesday, Sheila Joseph, superintendent of the East New York Preparatory school, called the DOE’s allegations that she artificially inflated her salary, violated its charter by shortening the school year and expelled nearly 50 low-performing students before they took state tests “unfounded and untrue.” Joseph also argued in the letter that the school’s high faculty turnover rate was necessary to preserve high standards for the students.

“No one enjoys faculty turnover, but just as we have high and uncompromising standards for our students we also will not compromise on faculty performance,” she wrote. Between the end of last school year and the beginning of this one, the school lost every teacher it had.

“Some of our best teachers are now here because others had to be let go,” Joseph continued. “I don’t take lightly the fact that there has been turnover. However, I will never allow your children to have anything less than the absolute best.”

Former teachers at the school reacted angrily to Joseph’s explanation to parents.

“She’s lying,” said one former teacher who was dismissed in June.

“You’re saying you let go of 100 percent of your staff last year because they were bad, but all of your students passed the test?” the teacher said. (The school had 100 percent of its students score proficient on state math exams last year.) “If so, you must have done something with the scores.”

Teachers accused Joseph of firing them in retaliation for wanting to leave and for reporting abuses at the school to the DOE, which put the school on probation last February.

“I knew this was coming,” the teacher said. “We opened this can of worms.”

Teachers described a school in which teachers were fired arbitrarily and replaced with staff with neither teacher certification nor undergraduate degrees. The principal of the school was fired almost immediately after announcing she wouldn’t return the following year after having differences with Joseph, teachers said. A former teacher described a main hallway decorated with pictures of the teaching staff. “You’d come in and you’d see another picture gone,” the teacher said. “You’d be like, oh no.”

In addition to expelling students, a teacher said, low-scoring third graders were sent back to second grade to avoid being tested. Teachers said that students with disabilities were either counseled out of the school or taught by teaching assistants who lacked proper certification.

One teacher said the school never gave her a copy of its charter; when she finally received it from the DOE’s charter school office, she discovered the school had received funds for technology and project-based learning that were never implemented. Another former teacher said that, even as Joseph gave herself a raise, she cut teachers’ hours and solicited donations from parents, citing budget cuts.

Mona Davids, head of the New York Charter Parents Association, who has argued that charter schools need to be more transparent and held accountable for more than just test scores, said the case of East New York Prep underscores the need for better parent grievance processes and teacher whistle-blower protections in charter schools.

“If you’re trying to tell us that everyone of those 48 [expelled] students’ parents didn’t want to complain about it — they couldn’t complain about it, because they have nowhere to go in the charter school system,” Davids said. The DOE opened its investigation of the school in response to complaints from parents, but Davids said the process must be more formal.

Davids said that as a charter school parent, she also hoped that teachers would one day be able to report improprieties they see in their schools without fear for their jobs.

“There should be whistle-blower protections for teachers in charter schools,” she said. “I’m not saying that all charter schools should be unionized, but with every job, there should be some some protections.”

The school and parents received a letter from the DOE on Monday night detailing the reasons behind the closure. The school has 30 days to respond before Chancellor Joel Klein makes a final decision. In the letter, Joseph says she will reply to the charges in that time.

Joseph is also convening a series of meeting with parents to defend herself and the school. The first of those meetings was held tonight, with three more to follow through the weekend. One former teacher also reported that the school’s parent coordinator is organizing a petition for parents who want to save the school.

The DOE is holding a meeting of its own at the school, next Wednesday, to explain the closure and offer help placing students in other schools.

A former teacher said she was confident that the schools’ students would weather the changes and find spots at other schools.

“The school doesn’t even need to be shut down, in my opinion,” she said. “[Joseph] just needs to go.”

Here is the full text of Joseph’s letter:

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.”