behind the music

At Celia Cruz HS, principal faces discipline after investigation

Students from Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, where Principal William Rodriguez faces discipline after an investigation, performed Friday at Grand Central Terminal.

A Bronx principal is facing discipline after investigators substantiated allegations that he played fast and loose with school funds.

The Special Commissioner of Investigation looked into allegations, first filed in 2011, that William Rodriguez, the founding principal of Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, billed the city for time he did not work. Investigators substantiated at least some of the allegations and delivered a report to Chancellor Dennis Walcott last month.

Asked about the report on Friday at Grand Central Terminal, where Celia Cruz students were performing to celebrate the station’s centennial, Rodriguez said he had not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. “Nothing has been substantiated,” he said.

But Department of Education officials were already deciding how to act on SCI’s findings.

“We are in the process of determining discipline,” Connie Pankratz, a department spokeswoman, said on Friday. A spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators confirmed that Rodriguez met with the union’s grievance department on Monday, a standard step whenever a school employee is facing sanctions, which could range from a fine to termination.

Teachers, staff, and students at the school say that whatever misconduct investigators found would be merely a symptom of deeper leadership problems. They say Rodriguez, an accomplished musician himself, poured school resources into Celia Cruz’s award-winning music program while leaving students without adequate preparation for college.

“Please don’t let the many accolades our students receive in music fool you,” one person at the school wrote in 2011 to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who monitors the state’s finances and investigates fraud. “The principal is out of touch with the needs of the students and staff. I’m begging you to please look into this matter.”

Among the allegations that investigators looked into was that Rodriguez forged time sheets to be paid for portions of the school day when he was not working and for work he did not actually do outside of school hours.

Copies of Rodriguez’s overtime timesheets from the 2010-2011 school year, which GothamSchools obtained, show that at a time when schools across the city were slashing their budgets, Rodriguez filed for overtime pay for attending student performances, high school fairs, and after-school music classes — expenditures that multiple other principals told GothamSchools are usually the first to be cut.

At a rate of roughly $44 per hour, Rodriguez took home more than $5,000 for the time, on top of his $150,000 annual salary.

The timesheets also show that Rodriguez did not punch in and out using a time clock on regular school days or have handwritten records approved by his supervisor, an option allowed when work is done off-site. Instead, he handwrote his timesheets and had the school’s business manager sign off on them. In their complaints to the city and state, staff members said they thought Rodriguez did not actually work most of the hours.

They also said Rodriguez asked a school employee to help out with his personal business during school hours. And they said Rodriguez’s side gigs, a weekly piano performance at Willie’s Steakhouse and a teaching gig at nearby Lehman College that a city spokeswoman said had been approved by the department’s ethics officer, sometimes distracted him from Celia Cruz.

On the evening of March 17, 2011, for example, Celia Cruz held parent-teacher conferences while Rodriguez was scheduled to teach a music history class at Lehman. “I brought a parent and another teacher to his office, and it was locked and it was dark,” one staff member said. “And that parent was angry.”

All of the teachers and staff members interviewed requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. But they said that while they were concerned about the possibility that Rodriguez was appropriating some of the school’s funding, they were more worried about other issues at the school that are not grounds for a city investigation.

Teachers, staff, and students said Rodriguez favors the school’s arts programs, which by all accounts are outstanding, but gives short shrift to academics, particularly math and science.

Students who enroll find a robust arts program with more than a dozen different ensembles, including an award-winning choir and a Latin music band that performed last year before Mayor Bloomberg’s State of the City address. More than 70 percent of the students who entered in 2008 graduated last year with a special arts designation on their diplomas, according to Department of Education data.

But just 18.9 percent of the students were college-ready, compared to 30 percent citywide. At the Brooklyn High School of the Arts, which also has an arts focus and enrolls very similar students, the college-readiness rate was 25.6 percent. Celia Cruz’s data took the biggest hit in math, where students’ average Regents exam score in Geometry and Algebra II was well below the 65 required for graduation.

On last year’s department survey, 73 percent of Celia Cruz teachers said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “The principal places the learning needs of children above other interests.” Ninety percent said they disagreed with the statement, “The principal at my school participates in instructional planning with teachers.”

Sources at Celia Cruz said an external grant is the only way the school can pay for Regents exam and SAT preparation classes and after-school tutoring. At the same time, the school budget funds a summer music camp, which enrolls middle school students in hopes that they’ll apply to Celia Cruz.

The summer program is open to “anyone and everyone” and is funded through overtime payments and grants, according to Assistant Principal Jerrod Mabry. “We find the money to make it happen because it’s so important for our outreach,” he said in 2011.

And while school funds support students’ travel to state music competitions, academic teachers rarely get help paying for field trips, teachers and staff members said. A history class’s planned trip to Washington, D.C., was canceled in 2011 because Rodriguez was unable to provide bus fare after students raised funds for their hotel rooms and activities, they said.

Two years ago, when she found that the school was cutting its part-time college advisor, whom staff members said worked for free in the application-heavy month of December, Janel Strachan, a 2012 graduate, said she grew so concerned about the school’s direction that she sent an impassioned plea for help to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“Not many of us would like to continue music after high school, and [we] are very concerned with our academics,” she wrote in the 2011 letter.

Until this year, the 438-student school had five music teachers and just three math teachers, where schools of this size have four math teachers. Strachan said her junior-year trigonometry class contained students who had passed the previous math course and also students who had not. The teacher essentially taught two classes at once, but all students got the same credits, she said.

“The admissions offices at the colleges I apply to are going to expect me to know trigonometry,” she said at the time. “But when I take the placement exam, I will fail.”

Now a first-year student at the University at Albany, Strachan said her fears have come to pass. In her first semester, she earned A’s in her music classes but D’s and C’s in science classes. She squeaked by in a basic statistics class by taking it pass/fail.

“New information was introduced to me and a lot of other people knew it already,” she said. “It made me feel pretty bad.”

This year, the school increased the number of math teachers to four and decreased the number of music teachers, also to four. But the most challenging math class at the school remains Algebra II/Trigonometry, according to department officials.

Teachers and staff members say students could be doing better if Rodriguez adjusted his priorities, or if a new principal brought a more even-handed approach to the school.

“We have an amazing music team — they’re so talented,” a staff member said. “Even if he cut a position or some resources, we’re still going to get a fine music program.”

Additional reporting contributed by Sarah Darville and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”