acute absenteeism

Attendance is low as storm-battered schools reopen in new sites

Channel View School for Research’s Craig Dorsi greets students who arrived at their host school this morning.

Thursday will mark a milestone in New York City’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy: All public schools will be open for the first time, Chancellor Dennis Walcott confirmed this afternoon.

But if today’s attendance figures are any guide, students from the most storm-battered areas likely won’t be there.

Today, 43 schools in heavily damaged buildings opened for the first time in new sites, some many miles away. Another 25 of the city’s 1,750 schools remained closed because they had no power or because the city had been using them as shelters. But for the vast majority of schools, today approximated a regular school day.

Citywide, student attendance today at schools that submitted attendance reports was 87 percent, according to the Department of Education, and 95 percent of teachers reported for duty. Mayor Bloomberg called the attendance rates “encouragingly high” during a news conference this afternoon.

But at most, 43 percent of students in relocated schools made it to their new sites as the city struggled to roll out new bus routes for tens of thousands of students.

Some relocated schools drew far more students than others. Two selective schools in Lower Manhattan, Bard High School Early College and Millennium High School, each posted attendance rates over 95 percent in their first day in temporary sites.

Several schools based in storm-battered Far Rockaway, on the other hand, had less than 10 percent of students show up today.

And at P.S./M.S. 114, previously housed in a school located just a block away from the water, just 2 percent of its 787 students showed up to one of the three host buildings. At P.S. 106, only 3 percent of 285 students turned up.

Walcott said the low attendance rates in some relocated schools masked progress. “I always want it higher but we’re pleased that people are glad to see their schools opening again,” he told reporters.

Principals and teachers at some of the relocated schools said today would be their first chance to find out what happened to many of their students — and to get a sense of how many might remain enrolled.

Department officials said enrollment had begun to fluctuate as families displaced by the storm picked new schools. Two Brooklyn schools have gotten influxes of 80 or more students, according to Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who said officials have started to detect “smaller spikes elsewhere.”

“Our kids are all over the place,” said Craig Dorsi, a teacher at Channel View School for Research, which had 15 percent attendance. “They’re in shelters, they’re staying with relatives.”

This morning, Dorsi waited outside and hugged students as they entered the Franklin K. Lane Campus, Channel View’s host. “It’s so great to see you,” Dorsi told students and parents who accompanied them on the trip. He later said he had been overwhelmed by the emotional reunion.

Just seven students from Channel View and Beach Channel High School, which together have more than 900 students, took a coach bus provided by the city to Franklin K. Lane this morning. The bus, which picked up students at Beach Channel Campus and arrived at 10:45 a.m. The department planned for high school students to get transportation after buses delivered younger students to their schools.

The shuttle bus was part of the city’s patchwork solution posed by an inadequate supply of buses and interrupted train lines. Other students who came today from Far Rockaway, where subway service remains interrupted, said they had not known about the shuttle and instead took a bus and two trains to get to Franklin K. Lane. One student, Ragib Shaumik, biked 90 minutes in swirling winds to get to school.

Parents still living in Far Rockaway also said they didn’t know that the bus service was available. Elaine Burns, a Channel View parent, accompanied her daughter Nubia on public transportation.

“She was a little nervous because she felt it was like the first day of school again,” Burns said.

Department officials said on Tuesday that they had only enough buses for half of the 20,000 students in relocated schools. For Thursday, the department was able to muster buses for just four more schools, leaving thousands of students still without transportation. The department is providing Metrocards and reimbursing families for gas and cab fare.

And the new bus routes that did take effect in storm-damaged neighborhoods — which department officials said they had planned out manually — were not without snafus on their first day.

“We had some problems which we anticipated we would,” said Kathleen Grimm, the department’s operations chief. “Some buses were late, some didn’t go to the right places, but by and large I think it went pretty well. … We’re continuing to try to secure more busing.”

The city received special permission today from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to let people drive school buses who do not meet regular qualifications, and to broaden the kinds of vehicles that can be used to transport students.

Transportation was not the only thing that disrupted the school day for students in storm-affected buildings. Dozens of schools remained without heat as snow began to fall across the city. And some students didn’t get much to eat: At John Dewey High School, teachers said no food had been delivered and students instead had eaten “granola bars for breakfast and cold green beans for lunch.”

“We served a cold lunch because the kitchen still does not have full power,” said Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. “Students were offered a deli sandwich, vegetable, fruit and milk.”

On Thursday, 13 schools that still do not have power will open in alternate locations, and students will return to three school buildings that have also served as shelters. Department officials said 28 schools could still lack heat.

Despite the tumult, Walcott said he was uplifted when he visited three schools today: P.S. 38 in Staten Island, where he said the principal estimated that 70 percent of families were disrupted by the storm; P.S. 13 in East New York, which is hosting Far Rockaway’s Scholars’ Academy; and Brooklyn Technical High School, whose top two floors remain a shelter for medically fragile evacuees.

In all of the schools, and in others he has visited this week, he said teachers and students “just want to get back to the lifestyle that they are used to” and are starting to do so. At P.S. 38, which had not reported attendance by 4 p.m., students had written essays about the storm, Walcott said.

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.”