beating the rap

Ex-TAPCO principal back on city payroll after arbitrator's ruling

A disgraced former principal whose academic fraud drew personal condemnation from Chancellor Dennis Walcott is picking up city paychecks again after successfully escaping the city’s efforts to fire her.

The Department of Education moved to fire Lynn Passarella after an investigation found that she fudged academic records, misused funds, and falsified student transcripts as principal at Theatre Arts Production Company middle and high school.

But more than a year after charges were filed, an arbitrator ruled that termination was an “excessive” penalty — even though he agreed that Passarella, a 17-year tenured employee of the school system, had indeed committed much of the misconduct that investigators found and should not be allowed to lead a school.

In her defense, Passarella argued that she was set up to fail by an accountability system installed under the Bloomberg administration.

The case spotlights an issue that has long frustrated department officials, who argue that labor laws protect school employees from being fired for even the most egregious misconduct. While much of the scrutiny has focused on a small number of teachers accused of sexually inappropriate behavior who remain on the city’s payroll, the Passarella case shows that the legal process also affects educators found to have misbehaved in other ways.

“I find it unacceptable that an arbitrator would overrule us, but again that’s the way the law is designed and it shouldn’t be that way,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today, shortly after learning of the decision. Walcott has lobbied state legislators to give the chancellor the power to fire school employees accused of sexual misconduct only.

A report of the city’s probe into TAPCO was released in March 2012 and marked the close of a tumultuous era for the South Bronx school under Passarella, who opened the school in 1999. The school received high praise for overcoming long odds en route to earning 90 percent graduation rates and a top score on the city’s progress reports. The school’s marks earned Passarella $40,000 in bonuses through the Bloomberg administration’s performance pay program.

But the investigation challenged the school’s success story. Students received class credits regardless of their work, attendance sheets were tampered with, and an erasure analysis of state tests revealed that a high rate of answers were changed from incorrect to correct, investigators found.

Walcott was so disturbed by the findings that he stripped Passarella of her pay and, in unusually strong words, publicly pledged to seek her termination.

“The behavior uncovered in this report is dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities,” Walcott said at the time.

But the city’s efforts to fire Passarella were unsuccessful. The arbitrator, a neutral hearing officer assigned to review the legal case, determined in June that Passarella should remain on the department’s payroll at her old salary of $145,493, although he ruled that the department was justified in removing her from her position at TAPCO.

“[Passarella] still has a great deal to offer the NYC DOE, albeit not in the position of school principal,” the arbitrator, Joel Douglas, wrote in his ruling. He even cited TAPCO’s city scores and Passarella’s performance bonuses, both based on the fraudulent data, as evidence of a past record of success that should not be overlooked.

A spokeswoman for the Council School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals union representing Passarella, defended the decision.

“When a neutral arbitrator heard all of the allegations, he felt that a dismissal was unwarranted,” the spokeswoman said. “We agree with his decision.”

City officials said Passarella is currently a member of the “Absent Teacher Reserve,” the pool of educators who do not have permanent positions, and is working on finding a job within the department. She works in a Bronx office where her former school’s network is housed.

Several calls and messages to the phone number for Passarella’s office were not returned. But according to testimony provided in the arbitrator’s report, Passarella said that she quickly got in over her head at TAPCO, which opened as a middle school and expanded to include a high school.

She also argued that she was “the first victim of the principal empowerment theory,” according to the arbitrator’s report, a reference to the accountability model developed by Chancellor Joel Klein that gave administrators more power over how their schools are run in exchange for greater academic accountability. Passarella’s interpretation of this model was that “a principal should have virtual free rein in attempting to meet school objectives,” the report says.

“I didn’t avail myself to the nuts and bolts of the organizational pieces of running the school,” she told the arbitrator. “That was an oversight.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.