troubled waters

New hire a first step in effort to bridge district, charter divide

An initiative designed to ease tension between district and charter schools in the city has moved slowly and largely under the radar this spring.

In December, then-Chancellor Joel Klein joined 88 of the city’s charter schools in signing on to a District-Charter Collaboration Compact, which mandates that charter schools “fulfill their role as laboratories of innovation” and requires the Department of Education to support city charter schools. The compact, which the Gates Foundation urged and is funding, emphasizes collaboration around issues of enrollment, space allocation, and instruction.

But after more than six months — which were bookended by Klein’s sudden departure and a contentious lawsuit over charter school co-location — little progress has been made toward fulfilling the compact’s requirements. In June, the New York City Charter School Center took a first step by hiring Cara Volpe, a former Teach for America employee, to be the city’s first district-charter collaboration manager.

Later, a not-yet-formed advisory council of district and charter school employees will help Volpe set priorities, according to city and charter school officials.

Volpe “will be expected to implement the council’s vision for identifying, establishing and implementing the partnerships, policies and programs that will help tear down the boundaries between great district and charter schools,” according to advertisement for the position, which the charter center posted online at GothamSchools’ jobs board, Idealist, and elsewhere.

Volpe’s work will come at a time when tensions around charter schools are at an all-time high. In May, the UFT and NAACP sued the city to stop 19 charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding, and a fierce battle for public opinion followed.

“The rhetoric around charter versus district schools has become far too heated, and work on this initiative could not come at a better time,” said Matthew Mittenthal, a Department of Education spokesman.

A search committee that included two charter school principals, a district school principal, a representative of the nonprofit New Visions for New Schools, and the head of the DOE’s charter schools office interviewed Volpe before she was hired.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to bring together district and charter school leaders and teachers and helping them work more collaboratively toward their shared goal of improving education for all children,” Volpe wrote in an email.

But critics of the city’s education policies say they are skeptical that Volpe’s position will easily soothe tensions between district and charter schools. In fact, they say, they are skeptical even of the city’s commitment to upholding the compact’s terms.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy, said last week he had not even heard about the compact.

“I think in order to deliver on the commitments that the district signed up for, many of them would require PEP approval,” he said, pointing to a promise that the city aim to grant charter schools equal space inside school buildings. “So I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it.”

Marc Sternberg, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for portfolio planning, met with Sullivan Tuesday afternoon to discuss the compact. “Marc and Patrick had a very productive conversation yesterday, one of many they will have about the District-Charter Compact moving forward,” Mittenthal said today.

But Noah Gotbaum, president of the Community Education Council for District 3, where space-sharing has long been highly contentious, said the city’s policy of awarding space in public school buildings to charter schools would always make collaboration unlikely.

“Are you asking them to compete or are you asking them to collaborate? Because you can’t have it both ways,” he said. “If the DOE is serious about collaboration, they will first ensure, before they do any co-locations, that there is adequate space to educate the kids in the public schools right now.”

The charter center is banking on Volpe’s stints in both district and charter schools to help her bridge the growing chasm between them in New York.

After graduating from the University of Virginia, Volpe started her career teaching sixth-grade science at Jane Long Middle School in Houston, as a member of Teach for America. Her next stop was at Houston’s KIPP Academy Middle School, where she taught math. She moved to New York City to become Teach for America’s Director of Alumni Affairs, and she also joined Community Board 7, where she served on the Youth, Education and Libraries committee.

KIPP Principal Elliott Witney remembered her humor and intensity as she peppered her students with questions. “Cara showed up recently to watch the children she taught years ago graduate from high school in Houston,” Witney wrote in an email. “When the children saw her, they rejoiced. That, in a nutshell, is Cara.”

New York City is not alone is posting slow progress post-compact. Other cities that signed onto the compact are waiting for progress as well. In Minneapolis, Al Fan, executive director of Charter School Partners, said a local advisory board is hoping to hire a collaboration manager but hasn’t yet. Fan said, “I don’t think anything is going to happen in Minneapolis until this compact coordinator is filled.”

Another participating city, Denver, has had more success, according to Debbie Robinson, senior communications officer at the Gates Foundation. The city has already created committees to tackle the specific issues of enrollment, special education and funding, she said. But Robinson wrote in an email that Rochester, Hartford, and New Orleans have all had difficulties filling the collaboration manager role.

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.”