Newsroom

One principal, two schools, and a high-stakes experiment gone awry

PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Principal Michael Wiltshire tried turning around Boys and Girls High School while still overseeing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

Long-struggling Boys and Girls High School was in such dire straits by 2014 that the city took a highly unusual gamble: It paid a successful principal a big bonus to take on the floundering school without making him give up his old job.

A year and a half later, it’s become clear that the deal has cost the city — and students at both schools.

The principal, Michael Wiltshire, has rejected the city’s school turnaround program but continues to earn praise from top education officials even though many say the unusual arrangement has gone off the rails.

Wiltshire has openly questioned a core tenet of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program: that each struggling school must partner with a nonprofit, which is tasked with helping treat students’ social and emotional needs. After repeatedly clashing with Wiltshire, Boys and Girls’ partner organization informed him this week that it will no longer work with the school after this year.

In addition, Wiltshire’s controversial plan to move his former school, the high-performing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, into Boys and Girls’ Bedford-Stuyvesant campus has caused a headache for the city. The proposal stoked suspicions at Boys and Girls that Wiltshire arrived at his new job with ulterior motives, even as Medgar Evers parents voiced concerns about the move. Still, the city went along with Wiltshire, turning his plan into an official co-location proposal — one whose future is now in doubt after a Medgar Evers leadership team officially rejected the move on Friday.

Finally, when critics questioned the idea of putting a single principal in charge of two schools when one of them is among the state’s lowest-performing, education department officials insisted that his role at Medgar Evers would be limited. But now, after Medgar Evers’ acting principal was removed from the school in March due to an investigation and has not been replaced, Wiltshire is devoting significant time and attention to his old school.

“It’s not working out for us at all,” said a Boys and Girls staffer who, like other employees and parents interviewed, requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “We need a dedicated principal.”

But if some people at both schools are questioning the arrangement, others continue to support it — including Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who praised Wiltshire at a City Council hearing this week.

“Having a principal who’s a master principal working in that building has made a difference,” she said about Boys and Girls. Wiltshire “is trying to simultaneously run another school, but I think it’s actually worked well.”

“Community school” clash

Wiltshire proposed moving Medgar Evers into the sprawling and largely unoccupied Boys and Girls campus in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Wiltshire proposed moving Medgar Evers into the sprawling and largely unoccupied Boys and Girls campus in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

As required under de Blasio’s “Renewal” turnaround program, Boys and Girls brought in a nonprofit partner whose charge is to help convert the low-performing school with a dwindling enrollment into a “community school” loaded with social services.

But Wiltshire has butted heads with its partner, the respected social-service agency Good Shepherd Services, almost from the moment he took over the school in Oct. 2014, sources there said.

The agency is contracted to provide counseling and a host of other support services to Boys and Girls’ students, three-quarters of whom live in poverty and 60 percent are considered “chronically absent.” But Wiltshire has only allowed Good Shepherd staffers to meet with students during lunch and has barred them from entering classrooms, sources said. (By contrast, other schools in the Renewal program allow nonprofit staffers to co-teach classes or to provide one-on-one help to students during lessons.)

And while the agency’s state grant requires them to provide a minimum of 15 hours of after-school programming each week, Wiltshire has only permitted them five, the sources added.

In addition, while the principals of some Renewal schools have embraced the nonprofit workers brought in to manage all the new social services as co-leaders, whom they meet with regularly, Wiltshire has not had a substantive meeting with his “community school director” for several months, the sources said. When the director and another Good Shepherd staffer asked the parent-association president last month to be added to a meeting agenda so they could explain what a community school is, Wiltshire intervened.

“Good Shepherd Services is a [community-based organization] whose sole purpose is to provide specific services for Boys and Girls High School,” he wrote in an email to the president and the staffers that Chalkbeat obtained. He went on to suggest that Boys and Girls is not a community school — at least not one managed by Good Shepherd.

“Which Community School are they going to speak about? Certainly not Boys and Girls HS,” he wrote. “I need some clarity on this matter before they are added to agenda, specifically on the school that they will be speaking about.”

Finally, after speaking with the school’s superintendent and the head of the community school initiative to discuss the situation, a Good Shepherd official emailed Wiltshire Tuesday to inform him that they would be parting ways after next month.

“It’s very important in a community school that the principal and the partner organization share the same vision for the school,” Michelle Yanche, Good Shepherd’s associate executive director for government and external relations, told Chalkbeat. “But in our case, Good Shepherd Services and Principal Wiltshire have different visions about what our shared work should look like.”

In an interview, Wiltshire disputed the notion that he had obstructed Good Shepherd’s work. He also said, “I don’t intervene in PTA decisions as to who speaks at their meetings.”

But he did not deny his aversion to letting students meet with counselors during the school day.

“At Boys and Girls, we have serious academic problems,” he said. “This is not about socialization and a feel-good thing; it’s about giving students the academic support they need.”

He said students can meet with guidance counselors for part of their hourlong lunch period, and they can participate in non-academic activities after school on Mondays and Fridays. He added that if students were allowed to visit counselors during the day, some would do so just to skip class.

“You have to be careful because some kids who don’t want to go to class will always have ‘social-emotional issues,’” he said, adding, “There’s no ‘social-emotional’ class. They need to pass their Regents.”

That attitude has deeply offended some Good Shepherd staffers, who believe that students who are suffering because of traumatic home lives need emotional support in order to excel in class. In fact, that is the philosophy underpinning de Blasio’s decision to convert every low-performing Renewal school — including Boys and Girls — into a community school.

Community schools “focus on all of a child’s needs – not just academics,” de Blasio said in 2014 when he unveiled the $400 million program. “They address a child’s mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being, in addition to their academic needs.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that Good Shepherd would continue to work with another school on Boys and Girls’ campus. She added that the department would help Wiltshire find a new partner organization, and “ensure both parties are contributing.”

A stalled move

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School in March 2015 and touted its progress under Wiltshire.
PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School in March 2015 and touted its progress under Wiltshire.

Only a few months after Wiltshire took the reins of Boys and Girls, he floated a plan that startled several people there: He wanted to combine the historic but long-declining school with Medgar Evers, his former high-flying school just two miles away.

The merger would involve moving Medgar Evers’ 1,225 students from their cramped Crown Heights building that has no gym or auditorium into Boys and Girls’ massive campus, which the city says is filled to just a quarter of its capacity. In return, Boys and Girls students would be able to take honors classes at Medgar Evers, and the schools’ teachers could train and plan lessons together.

Some Boys and Girls’ staffers and alumni saw the proposal as a covert takeover — especially after Wiltshire suggested calling the combined school Medgar Evers College Preparatory School at Boys and Girls High School. The tensions grew after Medgar Evers’ leadership team requested a separate entrance at the shared building so that their students would not have to pass through Boys and Girls’ metal detectors.

People in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community did not want “students from Medgar Evers to come in feeling more privileged than the students at Boys and Girls,” said NeQuan McLean, president of the local community education council.

Months after Wiltshire floated the merger, the education department issued a formal proposal to move Medgar Evers into the other building (though the two schools would remain separate entities). After Medgar Evers parents and faculty opposed the city’s proposal to move the school’s middle grades a year ahead of its high school grades, the department revised the plan to move all the grades at once.

But that did not quell their concerns and, on Friday, the school’s parent-faculty leadership team formally rejected the move. In an email to department officials this week, the team gave several reasons: Boys and Girls’ campus houses a school for students who may be up to 21 years old, Medgar Evers students would have access to just one of three science labs, and they would lose their proximity to Medgar Evers College, where some students take early-college classes.

Suddenly, a move for which Wiltshire has been lobbying for over a year is in peril — even after the city turned it into an official proposal and modified it to make it more palatable for Medgar Evers. Kaye, the department spokeswoman, said the agency is listening to the leadership team’s concerns and assessing the next steps.

But Wiltshire seems to have already bowed to the team’s wishes, and is changing his request.

“Medgar deserves really to have a campus of its own,” he told Chalkbeat. “Why can’t the city invest a few millions dollars into a highly successful school?”

Divided attention

Department officials have insisted from the start that Wiltshire would “support” Medgar Evers when necessary, but would only oversee the day-to-day operations of Boys and Girls.

“He will not be running both schools,” Kaye said in Oct. 2014.

However, several Medgar Evers parents said that Angella Smith, the former assistant principal who until recently was serving as acting principal, repeatedly responded to questions by saying she had to ask Wiltshire.

“She doesn’t do any decisions without checking with him,” one parent said before Smith was reassigned in March while the city conducts an investigation involving her. Another said this week: “It definitely felt like it wasn’t clear who was in charge.”

Since taking over Boys and Girls, Wiltshire has continued to visit Medgar Evers multiple times a week, according to people at both schools. After the city removed Smith without appointing a replacement, his presence has only intensified. A Medgar Evers teacher said he visits the school almost daily — sometimes staying the entire day; other times stopping by in the morning, then returning in the afternoon.

“Dr. Wiltshire is here practically every day,” she said. “I don’t know how he’s juggling it.”

In response to that description of Wiltshire’s near-daily presence at Medgar Evers, Kaye said in an email Thursday: “As a master principal, he is the principal at Boys and Girls and continues to support Medgar. This continues to be his role.”

Some people at both schools said they are uncomfortable with this dual role, but others said that Wiltshire has been able to pull it off without letting either school suffer. Lorna Fairweather, a Medgar Evers parent and leadership team member, said students at that school are continuing to thrive even as a handful of Boys and Girls students have been able to take advanced classes there.

“He’s doing a fantastic job with both schools,” she said.

Wiltshire shares that assessment. He noted Wednesday that Boys and Girls’ graduation rate has already increased under his watch from 42 percent in 2014 to 50 percent last year, while Medgar Evers’ has bumped up during that time from 92 to 96 percent.

“I think what I’m doing,” he said, “in terms of splitting my time in both the schools, is wonderful.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbian Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

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Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.