stranger things

Is Park Slope principal Jill Bloomberg under investigation for ‘communist activities’? Here’s what we know about the odd allegations

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Some of Bloomberg's supporters outside the courthouse in May.

Jill Bloomberg, the outspoken and popular principal of Park Slope Collegiate, appeared in federal court Monday to ask a judge to temporarily halt a Department of Education investigation against her.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, Bloomberg alleges that the city launched its probe in retaliation for her activism on behalf of her students. “What speech is prohibited?” she asked outside the courtroom. “The speech I am most known for is anti-racism.”

The investigation started, according to the suit, soon after she complained to the Department of Education about how sports teams were allocated to the four different schools that comprise the John Jay Campus in Park Slope, where her school is based. Bloomberg wrote that Millennium Brooklyn, the school with the largest percentage of white students, has a separate sports program shared with its affiliated Manhattan high school, and together they had more teams than the other schools in the building combined.

In March, the suit alleges, an investigator from the Office of Special Investigations, an arm of the DOE, visited Park Slope Collegiate and told Assistant Principal Carla Laban that the investigation pertains to “communist activities taking place at the school.”

The city denies any retaliation against Bloomberg. It argues that it first received a confidential complaint in May 2016 that Bloomberg was “actively recruiting students to participate in a political party,” later identified as the Progressive Labor Party. (The website for that party does acknowledge communist ties; Bloomberg says she is not a member.)

Bloomberg’s alleged political advocacy is a violation of two Chancellor’s Regulations, the city argues, which “prohibit the use of school facilities, equipment and supplies on behalf of political organizations.”

Bloomberg’s attorney Jeanne Mirer said in court that the allegations were false, and were having a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of both Bloomberg and her colleagues.

“People who support civil rights and integration have long been called communists,” Mirer told the judge. “That’s why this investigation is so dangerous.”

Teachers, students and other supporters of Bloomberg, many wearing matching black anti-racism T-shirts, lined the walls of the courtroom. At one point, the city’s attorney suggested that the mere presence of so many supporters was proof that the investigation hadn’t had a chilling effect on school staff, prompting murmurs of disapproval from those gathered.

When the hearing adjourned, Bloomberg’s supporters gathered outside the courtroom.

“I’ve worked for her for over a decade,” said Sarah Vega, a special education teacher at the school. “I’ve never seen her furthering any political agenda whatsoever. She fights against racism, but I don’t really consider that partisan politics.”

Maya, 13, an eighth-grader at Park Slope Collegiate, also backs Bloomberg. “It’s just upsetting that she’s being accused of stating her own political views when she’s just stating the facts that racism is here,” she said.

“I don’t see what that has to do with communism,” her mother agreed.

At least one parent at the hearing took a more neutral stance. “So far, I believe the procedures are being conducted fairly and hopefully we’ll have a fair outcome,” said Josh Eckert-Chu, whose son is a sixth-grader at the school.

Judge Paul Gardephe will rule on Wednesday whether to let the investigation proceed. The city’s Law Department declined to say what the penalty against Bloomberg might be if she is found to have broken any rules.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”