rally day

In Harlem, charter school parents and students target NAACP

Students and families protested today in Harlem against the NAACP's involvement in a lawsuit against school closures and charter school co-locations with district schools. (Chris Arp)

About 2,500 people rallied in Harlem this morning, calling on the NAACP to withdraw from its lawsuit with the teachers union against the city Department of Education. That lawsuit seeks to stop the closure of 22 schools as well as the placement of several charter schools in district school space.

Speakers at Thursday’s rally included charter school parents and teachers, Harlem Children’s Zone president and CEO Geoffrey Canada, and the actor Seth Gilliam from “The Wire,” whose child is a on a waiting list for a charter school. Speakers and attendees denounced the NAACP’s participation in a lawsuit they said would harm charter schools primarily serving students of color.

“Ms. Dukes, turn your back on this lawsuit,” said Kathy Kernizan, the parent of a student at the Uncommon Schools charter network, referring to Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

A letter to Dukes with signatures from charter school advocates was circulated through the crowd asking the organization to withdraw from the suit. A spokesperson for the New York City Charter Center, which helped organize the event, said that more than 2,000 signatures had been collected this week.

“We gotta demand quality education,” Canada told the crowd. “We have to be prepared to fight for that.” The city Department of Education’s proposal calls for two of the charter schools associated with the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Promise Academy charter schools, to be co-located inside district schools.

The charter center spokesperson said the protest, held outside the Harlem State Office building at 125th Street, was not the work of any one organization. But at least two groups appear to have taken leading roles: the charter center, an advocacy and support organization for charter schools in the city, and the Success Charter Network created by Eva Moskowitz. Many of the families at the rally had children at one of the Success network’s nine schools. (Seven of the network’s schools are named in the lawsuit.)

Click here for a slideshow of photographs from the rally.

A representative from the New York City Charter School Center distributed flyers with excerpts of the NAACP’s mission statement to people entering the rally. Center officials argued that the lawsuit contradicts the NAACP’s mission to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race based discrimination.”

In a telephone interview, Kenneth Cohen, the regional director for the NAACP’s Metropolitan Council, said that the lawsuit supports the organization’s mission. Fighting co-locations of charter schools inside district schools, he said, challenges the unequal distribution of resources to district schools. “We do want alternatives for our parents in those communities,” Cohen said, “but the bottom line is that it doesn’t mean you neglect the public schools also.”

Earlier this week, Dukes told GothamSchools that she would meet with parents who want to meet, but criticized plans for a rally.

It’s not clear what the exact consequences would be for the 18 charter schools named in the lawsuit if the NAACP and the teachers union are successful. The charter center spokesperson said that new charter schools, deprived of space they were counting on, could be prevented from opening, while existing charter schools could be evicted from their current spaces or prevented from enrolling new students.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operated by private boards and regulated by the state. New York education law does not grant charter schools funding for facilities. Arguing that the lack of funding is inequitable, the Bloomberg administration has offered some charter schools district space. The alternative for charter schools is to raise private funding to pay for leases or constructing new facilities.

At the rally, many parents described the lawsuit as an attempt to close charter schools. A flyer handed out to families at Harlem Success Academy 1 to organize the rally, obtained by GothamSchools, endorses that characterization. “WE NEED TO FIGHT TO KEEP OUR SCHOOLS OPEN,” the flyer says.

Charles Moerdler of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, the firm representing the UFT in the lawsuit, would not directly comment on the spokesperson’s characterization. Moerdler repeated the lawsuit’s claim that the proposed co-locations challenged by the suit violated decrees from the state education commissioner. “How the court addresses that is up to the court at the end of the day,” Moerdler said.

Cohen also disputed the claim that the suit was aimed at closing charter schools. “There might be a misconception there,” Cohen said. “We’re not fighting to close any school.”

Charter school parents and students, many of whom held signs calling on the NAACP to drop the lawsuit, made up the bulk of attendees. Parents from several Success charter schools said their children’s classes were starting later than usual to allow children to attend the rally.

Tracey Edwards, who attended the rally with her daughter Saniah Delrio, a first-grader at Harlem Success Academy Charter School 4, said she felt emotional about the rally. She praised her daughter’s school, saying it had allowed Delrio to read at her grade level and spurred her imagination. “I don’t understand why a school like this should be bothered with, want to be shut down at all when the kids are excelling,” Edwards continued.

Majella Dominguez, a third-grader at Harlem Success Academy Charter School 1, expressed enthusiasm for her school and for Thursday’s rally. “I think it’s great,” Dominguez said, “ ’cause they’re fighting for our school to get more space.”

Dominguez said one of the things she liked about her school was that it offered instruction on Saturdays for students who need it.

Zelda Owens said she learned about the rally only five minutes or so before it began. Owens, whose child attends Future Leaders Institute in Harlem — not one of the charter schools named in the lawsuit — said the issues raised in the rally affect all parents.

“As a lifelong Harlemite, I do recognize the fact that charter schools have given parents incredible options in educating our children,” Owens said. “And I believe that any option, one that adds tremendous demonstrated value, is something that all parents should fight for whether they’re in charter schools or not.”

Many charter school parents disputed the NAACP’s argument that charter schools located inside district space hurt district schools.

One parent at the rally, Julius Tajiddin, represented a district school, Frederick Douglass Academy II Secondary School, which is slated to be co-located with a Harlem Success school. Tajiddin, who said he is the chair of the school leadership team at Frederick Douglass, said the lawsuit is motivated not by a desire to limit choice, but to protect the needs of district school students.

He said that co-locations often force classes at district schools into hallways and stairwells. “It’s about resources,” said Tajiddin.


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.”