Classic Journalism

Secret recordings and charges of ‘fake news’: How two award-winning student journalists exposed their principal’s missteps

Mehrose Ahmad and Sumaita Hasan ran the Townsend Harris High School newspaper, The Classic, which recently won a national student-journalism award.

Last Dec. 8, the managing editor of the Townsend Harris High School newspaper, The Classic, recorded a remarkable scene on her iPhone: Her classmates at the celebrated Queens school were staging a sit-in.

As the editor, Mehrose Ahmad, defied the school’s cell-phone ban to record rows of students sitting shoulder to shoulder against the fourth-floor lockers, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Sumaita Hasan, interviewed her classmates and provided commentary for those watching the video live on the Classic’s Facebook page.

Hasan explained that the students were protesting the school’s interim principal, Rosemarie Jahoda, whose unpopular policy changes the paper had written about just days before. Ahmad then recorded an education department official sharply questioning students about their grievances while Jahoda stood by silently and watched, a spectacle that outraged some viewers.

Within days, the school’s parent and alumni associations — citing the Classic’s reporting — had called for Jahoda’s ouster, while the paper’s video of the protest went on to rack up more than 30,000 views.

“The beauty of our coverage was that it was so sudden,” said Hasan, now a freshman at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College in Manhattan. “From there, it just took off.”

At a time when news organizations are fighting for credibility, the coverage at Townsend Harris has been seen as a powerful display of journalistic persistence and accomplishment.

In the months following the sit-in, Ahmad and Hasan cultivated confidential sources, obtained secret recordings, and filed public-records requests as they chased the biggest story of their fledgling careers: the controversy surrounding Jahoda and the search for a permanent principal.

In the process, they confronted unresponsive officials and accusations of “fake news” even as their paper’s readership swelled and the city’s major news outlets scrambled to match their reporting.

For their leadership, Ahmad and Hasan and their colleagues at the Classic were recently awarded a 2017 Courage in Student Journalism Award from the national Student Press Law Center. Earlier this month, the pair flew to Dallas with the paper’s faculty advisor, Brian Sweeney, where they accepted a $1,000 prize and a standing ovation from thousands of fellow student journalists.

“They were the right kids at the right time,” said Sweeney, an English teacher who tapped the duo for the Classic’s top posts when they were only juniors. “The magnitude of what they were doing was not lost on them, but they were never overwhelmed by it.”

After the sit-in, the journalists began to aggressively report on staff and student complaints about Jahoda, who had arrived at Townsend Harris that September after clashing with teachers while serving as an assistant principal at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science.

In quick succession, they wrote about longtime Townsend Harris faculty members searching for other jobs, Muslim students alleging that Jahoda responded insensitively after another student harassed them, and Jahoda using profanity during a staff meeting. (Jahoda did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but she has previously called some of the allegations against her inaccurate.)

Other schools might have blocked their student papers from running such explosive stories, in light of a past Supreme Court decision that limited students’ First Amendment rights. But the 33-year-old Classic, which dozens of students contribute to each year, is uniquely protected: By tradition, incoming Townsend Harris principals (including Jahoda) sign an agreement not to censor the newspaper.

The editors used that freedom to undertake hard-nosed investigative reporting, which often required convincing school staffers to share sensitive information about the principal.

“The secrets that these two kids held could have destroyed a number of people,” Sweeney said.

The pair continued reporting on Jahoda during winter break.

After combing through hundreds of comments on an online petition opposed to her appointment, they tracked down teachers and students who had tangled with her at her previous school. That led to a story about a Bronx Science graduate who said Jahoda had prevented her from receiving accommodations for a visual impairment — allegations that other newspapers later reported on and the education department investigated.

Officials never restricted the duo’s reporting, but they sometimes appeared frustrated by it.

Jahoda eventually stopped responding to the newspaper’s requests for comment. In response, the Classic published an open letter signed by 22 editors under the headline, “Ms. Jahoda, it’s time to stop being ‘unavailable.’” They also staked out her office for hours at a time.

Later, an education department official insisted that “fake news” was being circulated about the school. Ahmad and Hasan took the accusation personally, penning a letter to the mayor, schools chancellor, and superintendent in defense of their reporting, which often kept them at school until late in the evening.

“Calling something ‘fake news’ just because it gives a negative portrayal of you — that’s just wrong,” said Ahmad, who now attends Barnard College in Manhattan. “It completely dismisses all the hard work we’ve done.”

This spring, as the city decided whether to appoint Jahoda as the permanent principal or someone new, the Classic covered every twist and turn of the search.

When Ahmad and Hasan learned that 38 people had applied for the plum position, they requested the list of candidates under the state’s Freedom of Information law using a template they found online. (Their request was denied.) Undaunted, they waited until finalists for the job arrived at the school to meet with a hiring committee, then dispatched reporters to conduct flash interviews in the hallway.

In late April, some five months and dozens of stories after that first sit-in, the Classic learned that the city had decided on a permanent principal. Determined to report the news first, Ahmad and Hasan pre-wrote two stories ahead of the announcement: one in which Jahoda was given the job, and another in which she was replaced.

On April 20, members of the school’s leadership team told a large crowd of students, teachers, and parents gathered in the school library that Brian Condon, a principal from the Bronx, had been chosen for the job. The crowd was still digesting the news when the Classic posted its article under the headline: “JAHODA’S OUT.”

Ahmad, who is now an arts editor at her college newspaper, recently reflected on her award-winning partnership with Hasan. She said part of their success stemmed from divvying up reporting duties, but most important was their shared sense of mission.

“We’re never deterred,” she said. “Nothing can really stop us.”

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”

in the zone

Denver Public Schools proposes changes to how elementary school boundaries work in two areas of the city — for different reasons

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders at Whittier ECE-8 School sit in a line on the playground.

Elementary school boundaries in two different parts of Denver would change under a proposal that’s set to be among the first voted on later this month by a new school board.

It calls for students living in the Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods in far northeast Denver to be part of two new enrollment zones, and students living in Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West in north-central Denver to be part of another new zone.

Enrollment zones are essentially big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily the school closest to where they live, or their first choice. That has led to complaints from some families in zones with lots of students but not many excess seats, such as the zone in the booming Stapleton neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said they’ve taken into account lessons learned from the district’s 11 other zones in designing the new ones they’re proposing. Students in the new zones would have “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

“We’re trying to take the best of previous zones and some of the benefits of boundaries” and blend them together with this proposal, Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, told the school board at a work session Thursday.

The reasons for creating these new zones, officials said, have to do with enrollment.

The far northeast is one of the few regions of the city with vacant land ripe for developers to build more single-family houses, which are desirable commodities in Denver’s hot real estate market. One developer, CP Bedrock, is planning to build near Pena Boulevard nearly 1,800 housing units, which the district predicts will yield hundreds of new students.

About 1,100 of those units are in the boundary of just one elementary school, Lena Archuleta Elementary, which is already full with more than 500 students, Eschbacher said.

The district’s proposal is to create two enrollment zones on either side of Tower Road. Each would have three schools in it. The zone to the west of Tower Road would encompass Archuleta, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone to the east would encompass Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

District planners considered redrawing the current boundaries to accommodate the new CP Bedrock development and the thousands of other new housing units planned for the area, Eschbacher said. But that wouldn’t align with the district’s philosophy that pressing families to research their options and choose the school that best fits their child will make that child more successful, nor would it leave wiggle room for any future housing development, he said.

In north-central Denver, the enrollment pressures are the exact opposite. The gentrifying neighborhoods have lost so many students that there are about 800 more elementary school seats than elementary school students living there, Eschbacher said.

The school board voted last year to shutter one low-performing school in the area, Gilpin Montessori, and not replace it due to declining enrollment. The district created a temporary enrollment zone to give Gilpin students priority this year at several nearby schools.

The proposal would create a permanent zone encompassing four schools: Whittier, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

Two other schools that are physically located within the zone boundary would not be part of the zone, Eschbacher said. One school, Polaris Elementary, is the district’s magnet school for highly gifted students. The other, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, is located on a busy thoroughfare in the same building that houses the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, it would be impossible for yellow school buses to service the school, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova explained. The school is currently an all-choice charter without yellow bus service. If it were to be included in a zone, the district would have to provide transportation to zone students choosing to attend.

If the zone is created, district officials said they would re-evaluate including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School once construction in the area is completed.

The district has in the past successfully used enrollment zones as a way to compel families to participate in school choice, and as a way to integrate schools, which has had mixed results. At Thursday’s meeting, Cordova said zones also allow for a more even distribution of students who enroll mid-year. Highly mobile students often end up at boundary schools and not at all-choice charters, she said. In a zone, all schools must reserve seats for mid-year arrivals.

“We believe in equity,” she said. “Research shows late-arrival kids … need more supports.”

All three proposed zones would feature a mix of district-run and charter schools. Because officials predict the zones will have more seats than students, Cordova said no family should feel forced to attend a type of school they don’t like. Because of that excess capacity, officials said it’s likely all zone students would get into their first-choice schools.

The seven-member school board, which includes three newly elected members, is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on whether to create the zones. The school choice process starts in February.