The Homestretch

On road to college, track star leaves troubled past in the dust


As the salutatorian of Boys and Girls High School, Johanna Jimenez will deliver a speech tonight titled “A Race Called LIfe.”

For her classmates at Boys and Girls High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, many of whom have experienced hardships and overcome steep odds on the path to graduation, the title is a metaphor. But Jimenez, a top middle distance runner who is headed to college on a track scholarship, takes the idea literally.

“Basically, life is like a race. You set goals, then stay focused and work hard to achieve them,” she said, explaining her speech.

Jimenez’s life has been less of a marathon than a series of hurdles. She overcame her mother’s mental illness, foster homes, and her own insecurity to graduate from high school at the top of her class. There she joins another student-athlete, valedictorian Folashade Frazier, who will attend the University of Michigan.

Together, the pair provide glimmers of hope at a school that seems perpetually at risk of closure. Absorbing some of the community’s neediest students, Boys & Girls has a poor attendance rate and an even lower graduation rate. Detaching kids from their troubled personal lives is often the first hurdle teachers must clear before they can even begin instruction.

Born in Puerto Rico, Jimenez and her older brother, Nathaniel, were given up at an early age by their mother, who suffered from mental illness. She lived in three foster homes and one group home between the ages of 7 and 12.

But although her life was upended time and again during these years, she says her vision to do something great never wavered.

“I just wanted to be known,” explained Jimenez, whose 94.1 grade point average included two Advanced Placement classes in the school’s honors program.

On the track, Jimenez is nearly as elite. She was a member of the school’s city championship 3200 meter relay team. She is tall and thin with a long and powerful stride and her shy, easy-to-smile personality belies a fierce competitive drive. “She didn’t let anything get in her way from improving,” said her coach Renee Sterrett. “She’s worked so hard.”

Jimenez will run at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and has continued to train this summer. On Saturday, she and Sterrett traveled to Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island, where she was racing the 800 meters. Sitting in the stands, Jimenez thumbed through the recent plays on her mp3 players and talked about her time in foster care. She struggled to explain how its magnitude has shaped her.

“Everything that happened in my life, it happened for a reason,”  she said, shrugging. “I guess that’s why I’m so determined.”

She wasn’t always that way. She was insecure and damaged, said Melva Fernandez, the woman who adopted her when she was 12. “I could tell that she was not treated how a human being is supposed to be treated,” Fernandez said.

Under Fernandez’s roof, Johanna found stability for the first time in her life and thrived. Fernandez is a tough-love mother who had already raised six of her own daughters. She said Johanna was, at best, a mediocre eighth-grade student.

“When she first came and showed me her report card, I saw it and I said, ‘No, this is unacceptable. That can not happen,’” Fernandez said.

By freshman year, Jimenez joined the track team and dedicated herself to studies. She also joined the dance team and drum line.

“When I saw I was doing good, I felt good,” said Jimenez, who keeps in regular contact with her birth mother. “To me, school is a getaway from all my problems. All the problems I had in my life.”

Her teachers and mentors say they believe her perseverance enabled her to overcome.

“Anything she did she always did to the best of her abilities. She stood out from day one,” Linda Fung, an English honors teacher who taught Johanna for two years. “I can say she’s one of the best students I’ve ever had.”

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.”