power struggle

City eyes Bronx AP to take over troubled Boys and Girls High School

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has seen two principals depart since the Renewal program started.

The city is preparing to appoint a new principal to lead long-struggling Boys and Girls High School, according to multiple sources, and is leaning towards an assistant principal from the Bronx.

If the education department chooses Grecian Harrison, an assistant principal at Alfred E. Smith High School, it will have snubbed the choice of staffers and alumni at Boys and Girls. They have coalesced around Allison Farrington, the founding principal of Research and Service High School, a small school for struggling students housed inside Boys and Girls’ historic Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn campus. Sources said an announcement could come as soon as Monday.

The city has scrambled to find a new leader for Boys and Girls after Principal Michael Wiltshire decided last month to leave the school after less than two years. His abrupt departure has shaken the school at the center of the city’s high-profile turnaround program for troubled schools, leaving its future uncertain even as it remains under intense pressure to improve.

Once dubbed the “Pride and Joy of Bed-Stuy,” Boys and Girls has shrunk in size and stature in recent years. Its enrollment plunged from 2,300 students in 2010 to 340 today, and its graduation rate trails the city average by 20 points.

Wiltshire slashed the school’s suspension rate and helped lift its graduation rate 8 points, to 50 percent. But as the school braces for yet another new leader, it risks shattering those fragile gains.

Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson is said to favor Harrison to take over Boys and Girls, according to sources. (Harrison did not immediately respond to an email, and was not at Smith on Friday.) However, the education department may not have the final say: The city signed an agreement in 2014 that gave the teachers and principals unions a role in choosing any new leader for the school.

Last month, Boys and Girls’ teachers-union representative — along with members of the school’s alumni group, parent-teacher association, and school-leadership team — signed a letter to Fariña backing Farrington, along with two other potential candidates. On Friday, as word spread through the school that officials favored Harrison, the alumni group emailed Fariña to declare Farrington their chosen candidate.

Farrington referred questions to the education department, but multiple sources said she had interviewed for the position and was scheduled to meet with Fariña last week before the meeting was unexpectedly cancelled.

Boys and Girls staffers and alumni said she is extremely popular among those who know her. To assist Research and Service students who are impoverished or homeless, she created a food pantry in the building and installed a washer and dryer, said Sam Penceal, a leader of Boys and Girls’ alumni group. She has also lured students to school on Friday by cooking them breakfast, and offers them after-school and Saturday tutoring.

“This is the sort of thing that ought to be a model of what needs to happen in” Boys and Girls, Penceal said. A person who works at Boys and Girls said that community is “1000 percent backing her.”

The letter writers asked Fariña for more input in the principal-hiring process. “We deserve the right to select a leader from within our campus village who will hit the ground running in the right direction on Day 1,” they wrote.

People at Boys and Girls said they had not met Harrison, despite their calls for a role in the search. On Friday, as Harrison’s name circulated as the department’s top pick, several people connected to the school complained about being shut out of the decision-making process.

“They talk about community engagement,” one Boys and Girls staffer said, “but when we’re engaged, they don’t listen to us.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye did not answer questions on Friday about the principal search, but said a decision was on the way.

“We look forward to building on the progress of Boys and Girls with a new principal, whom we expect to announce soon,” she said in a statement.

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.”