Rezoning battle

New diversity plans, same disputes in Upper West Side school rezoning

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents attend a previous District 3 meeting.

A bitter rezoning battle on the Upper West Side doesn’t seem any closer to resolution after city education department planners released a new proposal on Wednesday.

Community Education Council members questioned why schools in Harlem haven’t been considered, while parents who would be zoned out of high-performing P.S. 199 continued to push back.

The dispute has highlighted inequities in District 3, where some schools serve mostly poor students and others have very few. City officials have said they are trying to address overcrowding and increase diversity through the rezoning, which has dragged on for more than a year now.

Council President Joe Fiordaliso lamented the nasty turn the debate has taken, saying parents have taken to criticizing each other, and even parents being “stalked.”

“That is shameful,” he said. “We are neighbors.”

The latest plan would keep high-achieving but jam-packed P.S. 452 in its current site, rather than moving it 16 blocks away to a building that faces a public housing complex. In a new move, the school’s zone would become smaller so it could accommodate students from outside, who would be admitted under a yet-to-be-determined policy that includes student diversity as a consideration.

Though some parents mounted a vocal campaign against moving P.S. 452, school staff and others support moving the school, which would free up much-needed space in their shared building.

“Early on, a lot of opposition to this was about the distance…The benefits of having our own building far outweigh that short-term issue,” said Hilda Blair, a parent at P.S. 452. “We will all have new friends with a new community. We have ties with our current families and we’ll keep those. I don’t think any of that is at risk by moving the school.”

Highlighting the delicate task facing planners, the new proposal keeps zone lines around P.S. 75 largely intact. The PTA there had raised concerns that redrawing their boundaries to include more higher-income families would threaten Title I funding, which is disbursed to schools with high student-poverty levels.

But the sticking point remains around P.S. 199, a sought-after school with some of the longest kindergarten waiting lists in the city.

Residents of Lincoln Towers and other nearby buildings have fought to remain in P.S. 199 and elected officials from the city and state have joined their cause. Sarah Turchin, DOE’s director of planning for Manhattan, said keeping Lincoln Towers and the other buildings in the P.S. 199 zone could “compromise our ability to promote diversity.”

“We did look at all of the feedback we received within the context of our larger goals: to alleviate overcrowding and promote diversity, which are goals we share with the CEC,” Turchin said.

The dissenting parents would be rezoned to P.S. 191, a school that serves more minority and low-income students and has much lower test scores.

“It’s very frustrating when you’re trying to do the best for your child…and it’s ripped from your grasp,” said Megan Arazi, a parent who would be zoned out of P.S. 199. “The alternative is not an appropriate replacement.”

The principal and parents at P.S. 191 have insisted their school is on the upswing and have repeatedly encouraged parents to come visit.

“There are a lot of misconceptions,” said P.S. 191 Principal Lauren Keville. “I think it’s really important to actually come and see, talk to our parents… about the great work that’s happening.”

Residents have questioned whether cutting their buildings from the P.S. 199 school zone would actually help with either overcrowding or integration, because new high-rise buildings would be zoned to P.S. 199 under the city’s plans. One man waved a public records request addressed to the education department for their data supporting their enrollment projections — a request he said has gone unanswered.

“Why did you not listen?” he asked city planners. “This process — these lines — make no sense.”

Audience members burst into applause when Councilmember Noah Gotbaum echoed the same concerns.

“There’s no transparency here,” he said.

DOE officials said they can’t release some data because of student privacy concerns, but that they will work to make other information available.

Meanwhile, some council members are pushing for more ambitious plans that would impact more of District 3. Councilmember Kimberly Watkins, chair of the zoning committee, pointed to under-enrolled schools in Harlem.

“We owe it to them to offer a solution,” she said.

District Superintendent Ilene Altschul said the city has started reaching out to schools in the northern end of the district. Turchin suggested the city could undertake a new rezoning process to address schools in that area.

The latest proposal is the third to be put on the table. A final zoning plan is expected in October, with a CEC vote in November.

Charter appeals

Siding with local district, Tennessee State Board denies two Memphis charter appeals

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
B. Fielding Rolston, chairman of Tennessee State Board of Education

Tennessee’s education policymaking body is switching course this year to side with the state’s largest school district in denying two charter school applicants.

On Friday, the nine-member Tennessee State Board of Education unanimously rejected the appeals of two charters that sought to open all-girls schools in Memphis next fall. The charter applicants will now have to wait until next year and reapply with Shelby County Schools, which had rejected their applications this year, if they so choose.

The decision on Friday stands in contrast to the state board’s dramatic overruling of the local board last year that resulted in the first charter school authorization by the panel in Memphis. That essentially added another state-run district in the city, and the State Board of Education joins just one other state in the nation to also operate as a school district.

The board acted in accordance this year with recommendation from Sara Morrison, the executive director of the State Board of Education, in the denial of appeals by The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders.

The vote comes a month after the Shelby County Schools board turned down their applications,  along with nine others. After a charter applicant is denied by the local school district, they can appeal to the State Board of Education and be re-reviewed by a six person committee.

Morrison told board members that both charter applicants failed to meet requirements in their plans for school finances (Her analysis specified that one of the schools relied too heavily on philanthropic donations).

She added that the applications did not fully meet standards in the other two categories measured: operations and academics.

Board members accepted her recommendations on Friday without questions.

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

In an email, Chin disputed the union representative’s allegations and said many staffers did not want him to leave.

“Only a small number of teachers were unhappy with my leadership because they were held to a higher expectations [sic] and or were investigated for inappropriate actions,” he said. “I have received many emails from staff telling me they are very sorry and that it was a pleasure having me as their principal.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from the outgoing principal of Flushing High School, Tyee Chin.