breaking news

City withdraws "turnaround" plans at two high-profile high schools

Students crowded the auditorium at a public hearing last week at Bushwick Community High School.

When the Panel for Educational Policy meets tonight to consider dozens of proposals for school “turnaround,” two high schools with a host of a heavyweight supporters won’t be on the agenda.

Bushwick Community High School and Grover Cleveland High School were among 26 schools that the department had proposed to close and reopen — with new names and new teachers — in an attempt to win federal school reform funds.

Department officials had said the schools needed radical interventions to help them improve. But today the officials said they had determined after listening to public comment and reviewing performance data that Bushwick and Cleveland didn’t need major changes after all.

The schools “have demonstrated an ability to continue their improvements without the more comprehensive actions that are clearly needed at 24 other schools,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a statement.

The about-face comes weeks after the department yanked seven top-rated schools from the turnaround list and just hours before the panel’s scheduled vote. It also comes after the schools received intense political and community support and, in the case of Bushwick, media attention.

Elected officials in Brooklyn turned out in force to support Bushwick, and the New York Times columnist Michael Powell championed the transfer high school. State officials said the school had been snagged unfairly in an accountability dragnet, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn signed on to the cause in a series of behind-the-scenes phone calls. Even a top department official signaled confidence in the school last week.

In Queens, elected officials had thrown their support behind all eight high schools on the turnaround roster. But Cleveland got extra attention from State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, chair of the Assembly’s education committee, who graduated from the school in 1976.

City officials said the decision about which schools to remove from the list was not politically motivated. Instead, they said, Bushwick and Cleveland had each received B grades on recent progress reports and ratings of “proficient” on a different measure of school capacity. A third school with those statistics, J.H.S. 80 in the Bronx, will remain on the turnaround list because its performance has been slipping, officials said.

The eleventh-hour reprieves echoes a similar move in February, when the department withdrew proposals to shrink or close two of 25 schools on the chopping block. One of those schools had received intense support from Harlem politicians.

Bushwick principal Tira Randall said Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, who had praised the transfer high school during its public hearing last week, called her at home early this morning to let her know the good news.

“The staff and students are so excited. I’m just delighted,” she said. “My assistant put it so eloquently this way: ‘We’re really thankful for this opportunity to turn around without closing.’ … The disruption in the continuity of services that we provide would have probably had some devastating effects on the school.”

But she said the school would not rest on its laurels. “In realizing that we’ve been given this reprieve we realize there is work that remains to be done,” she said.

Randall attributed the decision to the outpouring of support from politicians and and the press. “My gut told me that with all the support clearly the DOE would take a second look,” she said.

At Cleveland, Principal Denise Vittor hadn’t gotten word about the department’s decision shortly after 9 a.m. Reached in her office, Vittor said she and her staff were nervously gearing up for a long evening at the PEP meeting, where students and teachers planned to offer public testimony against the plans. “I was very doom and gloom today, so I hope it’s true,” she said.

When official word came from the just before 10 a.m., assistant principals and teachers heard clapping and cheers from her office.

Cleveland science teacher Russ Nitchman said he was relieved to hear the news but said the school has suffered after months of uncertainty about its future. Cleveland was supposed to undergo the “restart” school reform model and get close to $1.5 million in federal grant money this year. But that option was taken off the table and replaced with the more aggressive reform strategy in January after teacher evaluation talks between the city and UFT fell apart.

“It’s great they’re taking it off the list, but the bottom-line truth is the damage has already been done to a school when you’ve been through this much stuff. It’s been distracting our students from learning,” Nitchman said. “What we’re doing at the school next year will be the same whether it’s turnaround or not turnaround. We have our game plan.”

Nitchman said some teachers would lament the missed opportunity to receive extra federal funding, but the tradeoff would be worth it.

“Having less money hurts, but keeping our staff — which is an excellent staff — is probably more important,” he said.

Randall also said the reprieve was worth the loss of federal funding, which the school began receiving last year under the “transformation” model. “You can’t attach a dollar figure to the work that the staff puts in here,” she said.

Nitchman said he had been planning to attend the PEP hearing tonight and might still go to support the other schools. But he and many other teachers and students at Cleveland, he said, have already shared their concerns with city officials during a spring packed with protests.

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative to the Panel for Educational Policy who has proposed a resolution against turnaround that is also on tonight’s agenda, said he was thrilled by the news but would not let it overshadow his support of the seven other Queens schools that remain on the list.

“It hasn’t been explained to me why it came off the list,” said Fedkowskyj, who graduated from Cleveland in 1984. “We still have seven fights to make tonight.”

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.”