mum's the word

New York City mayor keeps a low profile in announcing his high-profile diversity plan

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped into one of the most racially divided school districts in New York City and promised a “bigger vision” for promoting school diversity.

On Tuesday morning, that vision was unveiled — with no public appearances from city officials.

Neither schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña nor de Blasio held public events or press conferences to explain the plan, nor did they publicly take questions from reporters. In recent months, de Blasio has made appearances to promote initiatives large and small: to announce more air conditioning in city schools, an expansion of universal pre-K, and a summer reading drive. On Monday, both leaders appeared at a press conference about physical education.

The mayor and chancellor have faced criticism for not being aggressive enough in integrating the city’s schools and have often described the plan released Tuesday as their attempt to tackle the problem. The decision not to take questions about their plan or explain it in person, some observers said, may showcase their reluctance to embrace the cause.

“When the leadership of a school system and a city does not make a public statement or press availability, it signals something about their desire to truly make this a stake in the ground,” said Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland, who is currently the CEO of PDK International.

Their press strategy for making the announcement also contributed to the perception that they were not interested in a vigorous public debate.

Before the plan was unveiled, city officials approached several publications — including Chalkbeat — to offer exclusive glimpses at certain portions of it. But they insisted that reporters not contact outside sources for comment on the plan. (The city’s education department often asks for embargoes when it offers advance notice of policy announcements, but almost never asks reporters not to solicit outside perspectives.)

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said the way the city announced the plan is not unusual. He noted that reporters would be allowed to individually interview senior education officials Tuesday — including the chancellor.

“I would push back on the idea that we are taking fewer questions or doing less interaction with the press than we would normally do,” Mantell said in an interview.

Asked why there was no press conference to announce a plan that had been in the works for many months, a mayoral spokeswoman wrote in an email that “the mayor has spoken about this plan countless times and will happily continue to now that the plan is out.”

Key integration advocates have previously complained that there has not been sufficient public discussion of the plan before it was released, but Mantell said there would be a public process going forward. The city has created an advisory group that will evaluate the city’s current diversity goals and come up with formal recommendations by June 2018.

“The crux of the plan,” Mantell said, “is that we’re putting together a public school advisory group that is going put together public recommendations.”

Starr, the former schools chief, said the political sensitivity of school segregation may help explain the decision to not come forward with a full plan all at once.

School integration “deals with issues of white people recognizing the privilege that they have and it confronts the very design of the system that currently exists,” Starr said. “I understand the desire to put it out in bits and pieces.”

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.