the plot thickens

Charter high school's founders announce resignation in a mysterious letter

A couple who founded an East Harlem charter high school three years ago abruptly resigned this week amid leadership reshuffling — but they aren’t going quietly.

Nicholas and Rita Tishuk, who founded Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation in 2010, took parting shots at the school’s board of trustees in a resignation email sent to friends and staff on Tuesday evening. In the letter, forwarded to Chalkbeat New York by one of its recipients, the Tishuks said they left voluntarily in the middle of the year because of unspecified actions from the board.

“We love the school and we are deeply saddened to be leaving mid-year,” the married couple writes. “However, given recent actions by Innovation’s Board of Trustees, we can not in good conscience remain at the school any longer.”

Exactly what those actions were are not specified in the email, which Nicholas Tishuk confirmed that he sent. (He declined to comment about the message’s contents.) But the Tishuks suggested that illicit activities might have taken place.

They cited “critical governance problems” and said they’ve handed over evidence to the city Department of Education that has led to an investigation. The school was authorized by the city to open in 2010 and will be up for a five-year renewal next year.

Frank Sala, the chair of the school’s board, declined to comment on the Tishuks’ departure. “We feel that the Innovation Board acted appropriately, with integrity and consistent with its fiduciary duties and the interests of our students and our school,” Sala said in a statement. “Because this is a personnel matter we will not otherwise comment.”

A spokesman for the department did not immediately confirm if an investigation is open into the school. The school’s website,, which is registered to Nicholas Tishuk, has been down since at least Tuesday night.

A possible sign of brewing tension is that the school’s lawyer recently became its executive director. Stephen Falla-Riff was previously the school’s general counsel and director of operations, according to cached files found online. But his LinkedIn page now states that he is the school’s executive director, a position that a source familiar with the school said that he has held for “a few months.”

The school has also come into tension recently with others in the city’s charter sector. Last year, Nicholas Tishuk was among a handful of charter school principals who publicly stated their opposition to a rally organized by Success Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and other large charter management organizations. Tishuk, who was a teacher and administrator at the Renaissance Charter School in Queens before leaving to replicate the school’s model in East Harlem, favors a progressive approach that is rarely seen in charter schools serving mostly high-need students.

Renaissance is one of the city’s few charter high schools and has gained a reputation for taking in hard-to-serve students. Over one-third of its students have special education plans, higher than the city averages, making the school notable within the charter sector. In just its fourth year of operation, it hasn’t gotten a grade from the city because it hasn’t yet graduated any students.

The school has struggled to hold on to staff in its early years. The school reported 44 percent teacher attrition and 29 percent administrator attrition, according to data collected last year. And a review of minutes from monthly board meetings — which had been posted on the school website before the site was taken down — hint at ongoing staffing concerns at the school.

The school has its sights on turning itself into a career and technical school that trains students to be certified in computer science upon graduation. It applied to change its charter to reflect the direction over the summer and was named as one of 20 schools where the city would operate a computer science initiative beginning this year.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the school’s board.

A copy of the Tishuks’ letter is below.

From: Nicholas Tishuk

Date: January 7, 2014 at 5:24:28 PM EST
To: Nicholas Tishuk, Rita Tishuk
Subject: Nicholas and Rita Tishuk

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am writing you to share with you that Rita and I have resigned our positions at the Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation and that today was our last day as employees. We love the school and we are deeply saddened to be leaving mid-year. We will especially miss the students, staff and families.

As the school’s co-founders, Innovation has been the primary focus in our lives since 2008, when we first began the planning process that led to Innovation. However, given recent actions by Innovation’s Board of Trustees, we can not in good conscience remain at the school any longer.

We have provided detailed information and documents to our authorizer at the NYCDOE in this matter and an investigation is underway. We sincerely hope that critical governance problems can be addressed and the excellent work of Innovation can be continued. Our model of serving at-risk teenagers, many of whom are students with IEPs, overaged and undercredited student, ELLs or students coming in below grade level through project based and experiential learning is a powerful one and we strongly believe in its ability to serve communities such as Innovation’s in East Harlem.

While our time at Innovation has come to a close, Rita and I will continue our work in the education sector. We apologize for the form letter and we hope to have individual conversations with many of you in the coming weeks. We appreciate so much your support of our work and we look forward to continuing the relationships we have built over the years.

If you want to get in touch, please drop us a line: Phone:
[REDACTED] (Nick) or [REDACTED] (Rita) or via email:


Nicholas Tishuk
Rita Tishuk
Co-founders, the Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.