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.”

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.