the bigger picture

Q&A with Automotive High’s principal: ‘There’s always pressure in this building’

Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola. (Photo by Geoff Decker)

There may not be another principal in New York City under more pressure than Caterina Lafergola.

The head of Automotive High School since 2011, Lafergola has been tasked with improving one of the two most notoriously low-performing schools in the city. For years, less than half of the students at the Greenpoint high school have graduated on time. It weathered a nasty labor dispute in 2012 and faced the threat of closure more than once. This year, a string of highly critical stories in the New York Post damaged school morale.

Speaking in her office after another meeting about her school’s future on Tuesday night, the 44-year-old Lafergola joked about where the stress has taken its toll.

“Look at all the gray hairs and wrinkles,” she said. “I’m really only 25.”

But she is both serious and defensive when asked to discuss her work in more detail. Last year, every Automotive employee — including Lafergola — had to reapply for their jobs. This year, the school is juggling the requirements of two school-improvement programs, including the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, which has brought new services and boosted the school’s budget.

Big challenges remain. Of Automotive’s 32 teachers, 14 had never taught before this month. A new state law means the school is also dealing with the threat of an outside takeover. And only a handful of parents attended the Tuesday hearing.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Lafergola said in an interview. “You gotta be tough.”

Chalkbeat asked Lafergola about what she’s learned from four years leading Automotive and what her plans are for the year ahead. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On why only a couple of parents attended the hearing
Tomorrow is back-to-school night and parents have to make a choice: When do I take off of work?

Our parents don’t live in the neighborhood. None of our children come from this area. And our parents have big responsibilities. It’s not that they don’t care about their kids. It’s that they have to sometimes make difficult choices.

On high stakes
I’ve been here since 2011, and in five years I think we’ve had three or four different kinds of reform. I think the stakes are always high. I don’t know that the pressure is any more or less this year. We’re a school that’s constantly under a microscope, so there’s always pressure in this building.

The biggest pressure is bad press. Bad press that’s not true. And it’s very demoralizing to the people in the building and the kids who know what’s going on in this building to read the trash that’s in the newspapers.

But in terms of support I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of targeted support before. I feel very optimistic this year, and I feel like the data today showed that we’re making progress. But we never get credit for what we do in this building.

On the challenges her students bring to school
They’re traumatized. Last year, one of our babies was murdered. Died like a dog in the street.

I mean, that’s traumatic. These kids suffer trauma constantly. They have adults in their lives, and not necessarily their family, that pigeonhole them into these slots without really ever taking a chance to getting to know them. They have adults who make promises and don’t keep them. They have adults who judge them. They have a society that judges them without ever getting to know who they are. So I think that our children suffer from a tremendous degree of trauma.

And I think that they suffer from a tremendous degree of ambivalence about what school has to offer them. I think that, in many cases, because boys engage differently than girls in a classroom, people often mistake their energy and their spirit for a lack of ability. But the problem is that we’re not channeling their ability properly. And so when we assume that kids don’t have potential, we treat them a certain way. And that’s the worst thing you can do to a child.

Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola. (Photo by Geoff Decker)
Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola. (Photo by Geoff Decker)

On her new teachers, and the ones who stayed
I have 14 brand spanking new teachers. That brings a challenge in itself. I think that it’s a learning curve for everyone, but we’re excited about the potential.

We have some veteran teachers that are new to the school, and then we have teachers that have been here who are the backbone of this school. We have our career and technical education staff, some of our deans. We had a teacher recently transition to an assistant principal’s position.

So the core of people that remained after the rehiring process from the previous staff — these are people who are truly committed to the vision of this school and truly committed to the students of Automotive High School. That’s not to say that the people that came before weren’t committed. But it’s a different kind of energy, it’s a different kind of work.

And I think that the new teachers, it’s hard for them too. This is only their 11th day of school. And kids, no matter where you are, when you’re the new person they’re going to push you to see how invested you are in your work.

On her biggest challenge, professionally and personally
Lots of compliance issues — just lots of different moving pieces — and still remaining true to the idea of knowing the kids and being in classrooms. You get pulled out a lot, last year especially. And especially at the end of the year with all the hiring. It was really difficult.

You can’t do this work unless you love it because it will chew you up and spit you out. I love the work. I love the kids. It’s what it’s about. But sometimes, especially in a situation that we’re in — the politics and the media — if you’re not really focused and you don’t know what the work is about, it’s very easy to fall prey to that diversion and not really keep your eye on the kids. There are days where I don’t leave here until 10 at night and I’m here at 6:30 in the morning every morning. It’s hard work. It’s not easy work.

As the principal, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. So you could be the best principal in the world, but people are only going to look at what mistake you made. That’s what they’re going to remember. They’re not going to remember all the kids you touched. They’re not going to remember all the positive changes you made. They’re only going to remember what they want to remember.

So that’s a challenge. But in my mind, I go to sleep with a clear conscience every night knowing that I’m doing what’s right for kids and that’s the only thing that keeps me going.

On the rollout of the Renewal turnaround program
I think that, comparatively speaking, I’ve been very fortunate with the support that I have received as the leader of this building and that the school has received as a whole. I think that what we’ve asked for, we’ve gotten.

I think that the restaffing was a huge move by the Department of the Education and the UFT [the city teachers union]. I have to give credit where credit is due. The UFT could have said no, we’re not doing this. People had to come to the table and agree to do this, and I think that the process here was done with fidelity. I think that we were fortunate because we were able to really have the difficult conversations, always guided by what’s best for kids.

On the hiring and re-hiring process
It was a very different process this time around. That’s what I’ll say. And the very same people at the table. Not on the city side, but on the UFT side. And the process was very different.

We were very thoughtful with the questions and how we crafted them. We were very thoughtful in what to look for. Those took hours. I think at one point it took days to create those questions and come to an agreement around what the decision would be for what to look for and how we would rate them.

On what hiring brand-new teachers has taught her
I don’t think the teacher preparation programs are in line with the realities of education today in urban schools. So I think that our prospective candidates were not always as abreast of best practices and understanding of the keys to good instruction as we would have liked to have seen. I think that maybe we need to start shifting the focus of teacher preparation.

On how the school has changed since she took over
When I took over this school, this place was a madhouse. There were 20-minute transitions [between classes], there were rampant gang affiliations, there were drugs. It was a disaster in here.

You walk in this building now, three minutes and they’re in the classrooms. The kids are happy to be here and that shows in the attendance.

There’s no rocket science here. It’s getting kids to come here because they feel safe. They feel valued and they feel like they’re getting an education. They’re being treated respectfully. Nobody talks about that.

Nobody talks about the fact that this school was one of the most violent schools in New York City. There’s a reason why there are metal detectors in this building. No one has been able to do what my team and I have done in the five years that I have been here. No one has been able to do that. And we did it because we treat kids like human beings and we listen to them and we get to the underlying issues so that they don’t manifest in negative behavior. Nobody wants to know about that.

How the Common Core standards are changing how her students learn
Say what you want about Common Core — I don’t necessarily like the rollout of Common Core — but I think that Common Core is producing a higher caliber of student. Because we’re creating kids who are thinkers.

I’m not saying that they’re coming on grade level, but I think that they’re coming with better skill sets. I think that we’re definitely seeing kids who are coming in with the stamina to write a paragraph, with the stamina to read a passage knowing how to annotate.

On running a school where 98 percent of students are boys
It just looks different. It feels different. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I would much rather work with my boys than anyone else, but when you’re dealing with adolescent males, and if you’re not equipped, and you don’t understand the male adolescent mind, it is difficult sometimes to reach them.

On Automotive’s approach to discipline
I’ll be honest, we do not do restorative practices. That is what we’re working toward now. We just do the Kathy Lafergola approach to kids, which is, be straight with them, be consistent, be honest, and be fair. And listen. And you know what? It works.

On getting a ‘F’ on her progress report from the city in 2013
I’m a perfectionist. I’m a competitive person. Never in my life have I had a “F” next to my name. I don’t even have words, and God knows I can talk.

We had a lot of work to undo and we have a lot of work to do. People want this instantaneous change, but if you read any of the literature it takes between five and seven years to turn around a school. So we’re well-positioned at this point to get to the tipping point, but it takes time.

new year

Here’s what Carmen Fariña’s top deputies have on their plates this school year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

As the person responsible for 1.1 million students, 75,000 teachers and 1,800 schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña can’t have eyes everywhere.

She has surrounded herself with a small team of key advisors tasked with executing her vision — a group that has stayed put during Fariña’s tenure. As Fariña’s fourth school year kicks off, here’s what her core group of deputies have been working on, and what’s on their agenda this school year.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson, Senior Deputy Chancellor, Division of School Support

Salary: $225,948

Her story: Gibson has served at virtually every level of school leadership — after starting out as a teacher in Queens over 30 years ago, she rose to become an assistant principal, principal, and a high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, re-empowering superintendents to directly oversee principals instead of the more diffuse system of networks that were created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

She’s also partly responsible for overseeing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $383 million Renewal turnaround program — an ambitious effort to improve schools that have long struggled, which is approaching a key three-year milestone. But despite being Chancellor Fariña’s second in command, she has managed to keep a fairly low profile and rarely appears in the press (except when she does).

What’s on her agenda this year: The education department is dramatically expanding the number of schools with embedded social services — known as ‘community schools’ — this year and Gibson will be responsible for making sure the rollout goes smoothly. She’s also working on efforts to make the city’s specialized high schools more diverse, and oversees the city’s network of field centers designed to provide teacher training and other support services to schools.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Corinne Rello-Anselmi

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, Deputy Chancellor for Specialized Instruction and Student Services

Salary: $216,219

Her story: A nearly 40-year veteran of the city’s public school system, Rello-Anselmi got her start as a special education teacher at P.S. 108 in the Bronx. After a dozen years of teaching, she worked her way up into supervisory positions, eventually becoming the school’s principal and revamping its literacy program. She made the jump to administrator in the Bloomberg administration, and was promoted to deputy chancellor to help oversee reforms designed to integrate more students with disabilities into traditional classrooms.

Advocates have repeatedly pointed out problems with the city’s special education system, including lack of access to key services. But some say Rello-Anselmi tends to be open to criticism, and is receptive to proposed fixes. “She has acknowledged the problems,” said Maggie Moroff, a special-education expert at Advocates for Children. “She’s not closing her eyes and wishing they would go away.”

What’s on her agenda: As the city continues to push all schools to serve students with a range of disabilities, Rello-Anselmi has said she will provide training and support to help schools adjust to the change. Although a working group is responsible for overseeing fixes to the city’s notoriously dysfunctional special education data system, Rello-Anselmi will be watching those changes closely.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose, Deputy Chancellor, Division of Operations

Salary: $197,425

Her story: Before joining the education department in 2009, Elizabeth Rose had a 20-year career in the media industry including at, a website that ranks employers and internship programs, and the vacation planning site Travelzoo. After turning to the public sector and cutting her teeth under Kathleen Grimm, the long-serving official in charge of school operations, Rose was elevated to deputy chancellor in 2015. She has frequently been called on to manage difficult problems, including the city’s much-criticized lead-testing protocol, and a controversial rezoning on the Upper West Side.

Joe Fiordaliso — who sat across the table from Rose during the Upper West Side rezoning negotiations as the District 3 community education council president — said Rose was particularly adept at handling contentious conversations with parents. “I’ve never heard a word from her that doesn’t have purpose,” he said. “She’s not someone you’re going to knock off her game.”

What’s on her agenda: Amid a citywide homelessness crisis, Rose is responsible for connecting the one-in-eight students who have faced housing insecurity with social workers and other services. She’ll also supervise the rollout of the city’s universal free lunch program, which began this school year, and would be involved in any new rezoning efforts.

Josh Wallack with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor of Early Childhood Education and Student Enrollment

Salary: $200,226

His story: Before working for the education department, Josh Wallack helped run early childhood programs at the Children’s Aid Society, and worked as legislative director to then-city councilman Bill de Blasio. So it wasn’t a surprise when he was tapped to supervise Mayor de Blasio’s signature effort to provide free pre-K to every city resident — a program that has widely been hailed as a success. Wallack, who was the first administrator to carry the title “chief strategy officer,” was later promoted to deputy chancellor of strategy and policy. But more recently, his title was changed again — to deputy chancellor of early childhood education and student enrollment.

Wallack has also spearheaded other high-profile projects, including the education department’s diversity plan, which some advocates criticized for not going far enough to support integration. Matt Gonzales, who has pushed the city to more aggressively address school segregation, said he respects Wallack (and once had the chance to talk with him in a more relaxed setting when they were stuck in a Texas airport together). “I’ve found him to be really interested in learning about the work that we do,” Gonzales said, “despite it being part of my job to push him as hard as possible.”

What’s on his agenda: For the first time, New York City is offering some families access to free preschool for three-year-olds, with plans to make it universally available by 2021. Wallack will oversee that effort, and will help the education department manage programs for children as young as six weeks old. He’ll also be responsible for carrying out the city’s diversity plan.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg, Deputy Chancellor Division of Teaching and Learning

Salary: $205,637

His story: Phil Weinberg began his career at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years. After rising to principal in 2001, Weinberg ran Telly “like the beloved mayor of a close-knit town” as the New York Times once put it, building “learning communities” within the school that helped shepherd students to graduation. In 2014, Chancellor Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

His tenure got off to a rocky start, with some early staff turnover under his watch. But he was seen as a key hire to advise Chancellor Fariña on the high school world, where she has less direct experience. He’s also managed many of the mayor and chancellor’s highest-profile initiatives, from universal literacy to making computer-science classes available to all students by 2025.

What’s on his agenda: Weinberg will be responsible for making progress on many of the mayor’s key “equity and excellence” programs, including making sure more high school students have access to AP classes, expanding algebra instruction to students before they reach high school, and ensuring students are reading on grade level by the end of second grade.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Milady Baez

Milady Baez, Deputy Chancellor, Division of English Language Learners and Student Support

Salary: $198,243

Her story: A veteran educator and native of the Dominican Republic, Milady Baez started as a bilingual teacher before rising to assistant principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 314 and principal at P.S. 149 in Queens. She rose to the role of superintendent under the Bloomberg administration, and oversaw more than a dozen schools and bilingual programs. Chancellor Fariña pulled Baez out of retirement to run a new office dedicated to English Language Learners, roughly 13 percent of the city’s student population, and was promoted to deputy chancellor in 2015.

The city has been under pressure from the state to expand bilingual programs, where native English speakers and English learners take classes in both languages, and Baez has been working to reach an ambitious goal of making those programs available to all English learners by 2018. She has earned praise from some, including Teresa Arboleda, president of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners. “I think she’s sensitive to the needs of that population,” Arboleda said. “She gets it.”

What’s on her agenda: Baez will be responsible for continuing the expansion of bilingual programs and helping train principals to better serve English learners.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”