double booking

Mixed schedule signals for families at schools slated for closure

Junior Edmund Cintron, a student pilot at August Martin High School, speaks at the school's closure hearing Monday.

A scheduling conflict has parents at some “turnaround” schools miffed that they’re being asked to be in two places at the same time.

The Department of Education is hosting four meetings this week for parents whose children attend the city’s lowest-performing schools under federal accountability laws. The borough-wide meetings are intended to help parents learn about options for transferring out of their current schools through No Child Left Behind’s “Public School Choice Program.”

But the department is also hosting public hearings about proposed school closures at the same time, putting families who wanted to attend both events in a difficult spot. At Monday night’s hearing for August Martin High School in Jamaica, Queens, parents said they felt conflicted about which meeting to attend after receiving a postcard advertising the transfer meeting over spring break and phone messages about the closure hearing this week.

“I didn’t know which meeting was more important,” said Helese Crawford, whose husband attended the Queens transfer meeting at John Adams High School, about three miles down road, at the same time as the August Martin meeting. “Thankfully, because we’re together, we were able to go to both.”

Laura Brown said she had planned to attend the transfer meeting to learn about options for her ninth-grade daughter — but then she drove by August Martin and recognized other parents and teachers outside the school.

“I saw that everybody was here and I thought they cancelled the other one,” she said.

Others who attended the meeting said they thought there were more sinister reasons for the double-booking.

“I believe it was sabotage,” said Cleavon Evans, president of the school’s alumni association. Evans first confronted Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg about the scheduling conflict at the end of the hearing and accused the DOE of intentionally hosting the meeting to muffle opposition at the hearing.

Sternberg said he wasn’t aware of the conflicting event but said he would work with parents to make sure they were given access to information from both meetings.

About 100 people attended the hearing for August Martin, a career and technical school that opened in 1971 and is named after the former Tuskegee airman and first African American commercial airline pilot.

About 300 students are enrolled in the school’s aviation program, which is the only city school program that lets students take solo flights and, in some cases, earn a private pilot license as part of graduation. The program has produced dozens of professionals working in aviation, including the general manager of the Newark Airport and a director of security at John F. Kennedy Airport.

A picture of the postcard sent home to the families of children who attend the city's lowest-performing schools.

The aviation program would return after the school reopens with a new name, new principal, and new staff next year, according to the Educational Impact Statement the city released about the turnaround plan. At Monday’s hearing, Sternberg repeatedly promised that the program would remain intact, thought it wasn’t enough to quell some concerns.

“They’ve promised things in the past that they’ve gone back on,” said Ricky Davis, a pilot and the school’s aeronautics instructor.

Patrick Johnson, a senior who is one of two dozen aviation students who flies on a weekly basis, wore his pilot stripes to the hearing and said that he worried that closure would tarnish August Martin’s legacy as a pioneering professional school for black students.

“It’s a disrespect to August Martin to take his name off this school,” Davis said.

Sternberg said that a new school name would be voted on by the school’s new school leadership team but that it could retain the name “August Martin” in its title.

Sixty-seven percent of August Martin’s seniors graduated last year, giving the school a four-year graduation rate several points above the city average. Supporters of the school said that figure was proof that the turnaround plan was not motivated by concern for the school’s students.

“This is about a mayor who doesn’t believe in humans, got into a fight with the union, lost, and is now taking his revenge out on schools,” said Leo Casey, a vice president of the United Federation of Teachers.

But Sternberg said the graduation rate masked more troubling numbers. Of the 421 students who entered the school in 2007, just 157 graduated four years later, he said. That means that as many students transferred out of the school or the system during the four years as graduated after them.

Plus, August Martin has one of the lowest college readiness rates of the 23 high schools the city proposed to close in January: Just 3 percent of last year’s graduates were college ready, according to the city’s metrics.

“We have to think about the students who didn’t make it through,” Sternberg said.

Another scheduling conflict is bound to occur on Wednesday, when the city hosts a school transfer meeting in Brooklyn at the same time as a closure hearing for Bushwick Community High School. Department officials did not respond to requests for comment about the double-booking.

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.”