the truant chase

New center aims to reduce number of students skipping school

Leslie Cornfeld, Mayor Bloomberg's chief policy advisor on truancy, shows the mayor, Commissioner Ray Kelly, Chancellor Dennis Walcott and others the room that will be used as the Truancy Center at West Harlem's Police Athletic League.
Leslie Cornfeld, Mayor Bloomberg’s chief policy advisor on truancy, shows the mayor, Commissioner Ray Kelly, Chancellor Dennis Walcott and others the room that will be used as the Truancy Center at West Harlem’s Police Athletic League.

Mayor Bloomberg’s latest effort to reduce the number of students skipping school is a truancy center housed in West Harlem’s Police Athletic League, one of the city’s 20 nonprofit youth development centers.

The center — which will include staff from the Department of Education, the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and the Police Athletic League — will offer Manhattan students services such as academic tutoring, mental health counseling, and school-based mentors.

The center reflects a more coordinated borough-wide approach than the city has used so far to help students stay in school. Since launching the anti-truancy initiative in 2010 amid reports that 20 percent of city students were “chronically absent,” or missed school more than 20 percent of the time, the city has sent letters home to parents, used celebrity wake-up calls, and paired students with in-school mentors to cut down on absenteeism. This year, 22,000 fewer students met the threshold for chronic absenteeism, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said today.

But those initiatives fell short of representing a comprehensive strategy for helping individual students, city officials said today.

“Police have always been able to pick up kids and sometimes return them to the school that they were at or drop them off at some central facility,” said John Feinblatt, a chief policy advisor to Bloomberg who has spearheaded the anti-truancy efforts.

“The real difference here is that once we identify a kid and identify that this is a real problem, chronic absenteeism, we have got all the resources here under this roof to try and work with that kid, work with his family, assign him a mentor, then work with the school that the kid’s from,” Feinblatt added.

The center will have space for up to 1,000 students who they can be sent there by their schools, their probation officers, police who pick them up on the street while they are supposed to be at school. Students can also choose to participate in PAL’s “Saturday Night Lights,” which targets at-risk youth. Then the staff will find different ways to solve the student’s absenteeism problems, which include assigning a student to an advocate at the center who will collaborate with a school-based mentor and providing training to parents on how to monitor their child’s attendance electronically.

“It’s got to start with figuring out who this kid is, diagnosing the problem, and then putting the partnerships in place that will make a difference,” Feinblatt said.

Leslie Cornfeld, the mayor’s primary advisor on truancy, said the Police Athletic League engagement center is a pilot that could be expanded citywide in the future, “if the outcomes are as we hope they are.”

To fund the center’s expanded services, the city is redirecting most of the $400,000 given annually to the Manhattan district attorney’s office by the Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator, another division of the city’s justice system. Officials said getting more students to attend school regularly would cut down on crime.

“Removing juveniles from the street and returning them to school decreases the likelihood that they will become either the perpetrators or victims of crime,” Kelly said. He also noted that there were fewer major crimes reported in schools last year than in any year since Bloomberg took office. Felony crimes were down 14 percent and arrests were down 34 percent, he said.

The city’s most recent anti-truancy initiative, the Success Mentor Program, reached more than 8,000 at-risk students last year and resulted in more than 80,000 additional days of school attended, according to the Department of Education. Students mentored through this program are 52 percent more likely to remain in school, officials 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.”