transfer-mation

As schools' closure hearings begin, their students get a way out

Students who attend schools the city is shuttering for poor performance will be allowed to leave, under a new policy that the Department of Education is rolling out at school closure hearings that begin tonight.

For the last decade, the Department of Education has closed schools — more than 150 in all — through a phase-out process in which no new students enter but existing students stay on until they graduate, up to three years after the closure decision. By the time the schools finally close their doors, only barebones staff and program offerings remain for the final students.

“The past policy was sort of like saying, ‘We’re going to get divorced in two years but we have to live together until then.’ It was not tenable,” said Clara Hemphill, who has reported about the impact of closures on schools and students as the editor of Insideschools. “It seems only fair that children should not be trapped in a school that the DOE has deemed to be failing.”

Now, the department will give each student in phaseout schools a list of higher-performing schools to which they can apply as part of the regular transfer process. When the department decides which transfer requests to approve, students from phaseout schools will be assigned first, starting with the neediest students who are looking for a new school.

With the first crack at open seats going to students in closing schools, other students eligible under federal rules to leave their struggling schools could have a harder time getting transfers.

The policy change comes as the Bloomberg administration’s school closure policies come under increasing attack — including from mayoral candidates and legislators. It also is the latest shake up of enrollment rules since State Education Commissioner John King warned the city that its policies had created unacceptably high concentrations of needy students in low-performing schools. At many schools the city has closed, performance had fallen as populations of English language learners, poor students, low-scoring students, students with disabilities, and overage students increased, often after other nearby schools were shuttered.

“How do we ensure where there are concentrations of [high-need students], there are adequate supports?” King said last year. “If not, how do we think about the enrollment system to make sure that students have access to schools that will provide the support that they need?”

Last year, the department committed to distributing midyear enrollees, who tend to be higher-need, across a wider array of high schools. It also pushed selective schools to admit more students with disabilities. Still, the schools it proposed for closure this year have many high-need students.

King has signed off on the new transfer policy, according to Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of school closures and new schools. He said department officials would promote the change at closure hearings that are set to take place at more than two dozen schools over the next two weeks. “We’ve got to do our job to make families know that this is an option,” he said.

Sternberg said the department made the change “because of a moral imperative we feel to provide all families with options.” He said he had been particularly struck by speaking with the mother of a third-grader at P.S. 64 in the South Bronx, where parents have asked the department to intervene in the school’s poor performance.

“This mother and child have been zoned for a school that has not been getting it done and now she will have the opportunity to exercise her right to choose a better option,” Sternberg said.

The transfer option will be extended to all 16,000 students at the 61 schools that are in the process of phasing out or will begin phasing out if this year’s closure proposals are approved next month by the Panel for Educational Policy. (The panel has never rejected a mayoral proposal.) But Sternberg said the department could not guarantee that all transfer requests will be honored.

“We do not — despite our best efforts — have the volume of quality seats that we need,” he said. “We will do our best to accommodate as many of those applicants as we can.”

Students whose transfer requests are not approved or who do not ask to change schools will still get the support they need, Sternberg said. The department groups phaseout schools in support networks that are focused on their unique issues, and officials say performance often ticks upward in schools’ final years, as students and teachers grow more focused.

Jawaun Daniels, a ninth-grader, said he would try to leave Bread and Roses High School, one of the schools with hearings tonight, if its closure is approved — “especially if the teachers get changed,” he said.

But Jaquan Strong, a 10th-grader, said he would want to say, as did Davontay Wigfall, who said he would not want to give up Bread and Roses’s basketball team.

Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who works with students in some schools that are facing closure, said she would want evidence that higher-performing students would not end up leaving most often. She also said she worried whether principals would want to take in high-need students from low-performing schools, or be able to serve those students if they did enroll.

Letting students transfer, Conway-Spiegel said, is a poor substitute for not assigning them to strong schools in the first place. “It seems like it’s too little, too late,” she said.

And Hemphill said she thought the transfer policy would be unlikely to improve conditions in the school or even for students who decamp for other environments.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Hemphill said. “The schools will be in a death spiral for a couple of years, there’s still going to be some kids to save, and it still causes lots of disruption for the kids — but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

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.”