school closing season

At three hearings, one idea: City's plans would undo successes

Eighth graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C), along with sixth grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer between testimonies, chanting the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Casey Baker)
M.S. 45 eighth-graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C) and sixth-grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer at a hearing about the school’s proposed closure. They chanted the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Carey Reed)

A citywide sprint through dozens of public hearings about the Department of Education’s plans to close, open, and move schools this year continued on Wednesday with spirited meetings at multiple schools.

At M.S. 45 in East Harlem, which the city wants to close at the end of the year, supporters said the school was on the verge of turning around after years of poor leadership. Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, on the chopping block for the second time in a year, got praise for serving its many immigrant students. And at the Tilden Campus, also in Brooklyn, students and teachers argued that three schools’ success could be undone if a new charter school moves into the building.

The hearings are a required part of the city’s process to close or open schools. The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the plans March 11.

M.S. 45

Frustrations ran high at M.S. 45 S.T.A.R.S. Prep Academy as community members pleaded with city officials to allow the school’s current principal more time to continue making improvements.

“Give her a chance. Give her a chance,” many in the crowd clapped and chanted, as officials tried to end the hearing about the the city’s plan to close the school in June. The 50 students, parents, graduates, teachers, and community members who gathered at the East Harlem school were referring to Alexa Sorden, who took over as interim acting principal in September.

“This year feels like no other year,” said Radames Vasquez, a student in his third year at M.S. 45. “When Ms. Sorden came in the school this year, there was a whole lot of garbage from last year and she cleaned up the garbage real fast.”

Sorden replaced Tomasz Grabski, who was assigned to S.T.A.R.S. Academy in the fall of 2010 after leaving his previous school amid parent protests.

According to a 2010 New York Times article, Grabski resigned from Muscota New School in Inwood after parents accused him of being ineffective and petitioned the city for his removal. Parents at S.T.A.R.S. said he carried his ineptitude with him to M.S. 45. They said he would lock himself in his office, allowing students to roam the halls and be disruptive.

CAPTION (Photo: Casey Baker)
Interim Acting Principal Alexa Sorden listens to supporters of M.S. 45 argue for the school’s future. (Photo: Carey Reed)

“I don’t understand how it is that you, the DOE, knew we were a failing school, yet you put a failing principal in our school,” said Providencia Padilla, parent association president and an M.S. 45 alum.

But Marc Sternberg, the department official in charge of closing and opening schools, said enrollment and performance were so low at S.T.A.R.S. Academy that it should close at the end of the year. In its place, the city has proposed allowing Harlem Village Academy Leadership, which already shares the building on First Avenue and 120th Street, to expand.

Enrollment at S.T.A.R.S has gradually declined from 306 sixth through eighth graders two years ago to 142 students today. Nearly a quarter of students are English language learners, and a fifth require special education services.

Sternberg said while the school may receive many applications, only a small percentage of applicants placed M.S. 45 as their first choice.

Still, the school has committed supporters. Eighth-grader Kweisi Mullings took a few moments to gather courage before addressing the audience and panel, which included Monica Cofield, the head of the school’s support network, and Senior Supervising Superintendent Donald Conyers.

“Please do not close our school down,” Mullings read from his mobile phone. “Give us a chance.”

–Carey Reed

Sheepshead Bay High School

As evidence that her school is doing a good job, despite its lagging scores, Sheepshead Bay’s current student government vice president offered up herself as Exhibit A.

“I came here as a foreigner, knew very little English, knew very little about this country, and Sheepshead nurtured me,” said senior Asma Begum, reading from her notes. “Now I’m in AP English class and I’m very proud of myself.”

English Language Learners make up 25 percent of the students at Sheepshead Bay, which the Department of Education has proposed phasing out and replacing with smaller schools. Over 100 current and former students, parents, and teachers joined department officials and the District 22 Community Education Council for a hearing about the closure plan on Wednesday evening.

CAPTION (Photo: Andres David Lopez)
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm explains the city’s plan to close Sheepshead Bay High School at a hearing about the proposal. (Photo: Andres David Lopez)

“Please don’t close the school,” said Begum, who kicked off the public comment portion of the hearing. “If we are given the proper amount of time, we can improve.”

The city has proposed opening four high schools in the building as Sheepshead Bay phases out. The schools include a four-year high school and transfer high school operated by the Department of Education and two charter high schools operated by the nonprofit New Visions.

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the city’s decision to close Sheepshead Bay was based on its poor performance. The school’s four-year graduation rate is 51 percent, lower than the city average of 65.5 percent. Sheepshead Bay has also been identified among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state by the New York State Education Department.

It is also one of several schools that the city is trying to close for a second time. Last year, it was one of 24 schools slated for a form of closure called “turnaround” until a judge upheld a labor ruling that turnaround violated the city’s agreement with the teachers union.

An explanation for the school’s struggles came in the night’s most common refrain, offered by scheduled speakers and by members of the audience in spontaneous outbursts, “Sheepshead Bay takes everybody!” The school does not screen its students and has many students with disabilities, as well as English language learners.

“We are proud to have the underperformers in our school community,” said Maribel Pena, president of the parent teacher association.

Jay Appelblatt, an alumnus who has taught social studies at the school for 13 years, said the students’ many challenges made it hard for the school to raise its graduation rate. “When a kid gets here from Uzbekistan, not speaking one word of English, they’re not getting out of here in four years,” he said.

That’s not to say that teachers don’t try to pull students along, said senior Presley Guobadia.

“She grabs me and she walks me to class. She’s like a second mother to me,” Guobadia said of guidance counselor Sherry Satchell,

“And we have a lot of people here that are working just as hard, if not harder, to try to ensure these children get to where they need to go,” Satchell said. “We are not failures. These children are not failures.”

Principal John O’Mahoney, who was fined last year for violating city ethics rules, was silent during the hearing while sitting to Grimm’s right. He declined to comment for this article.

–Andres David Lopez

Tilden High School

Community leaders including City Councilman Jumaane Williams turned out at a third hearing held on Wednesday, even though no school was up for closure.

That no school is closing on the Tilden Campus is precisely the reason that the New American Academy Charter School should not move in, as the department has proposed, said Eric Waterman. Waterman, who is parent coordinator at the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, previewed the hearing in an interview with GothamSchools.

If a school were phasing out, there might be room for the charter school, Waterman said, but as it stands, all three high schools in the building are in good standing, and all would have to make sacrifices to accommodate yet another neighbor.

Kurt Hahn could lose seven classrooms under the department’s proposal, meaning that teachers would no longer have their own classrooms and the arts and culinary offerings could be at risk, he said. The two other schools in the building — It Takes A Village Academy and the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences — would also have to trim their offerings, he said.

Waterman said students were motivated to speak out at the closure hearing because they had not yet had a chance to voice their opinions about the proposed changes.

“This proposal was proposed and will probably be implemented without the community’s input. It’s something that the DOE has forced on our environment,” Waterman said.

Plus, he noted, while the city says the neighborhood needs stronger elementary schools, the charter school is a replica of a district-run school whose students have not yet taken any state tests.

“You can’t say you’re bringing in high quality when you haven’t rated it high quality yet,” Waterman said. “We’re smarter than that.”

–Philissa Cramer

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.”