leadership change

After sparing Harlem’s storied Wadleigh middle school from closure, Richard Carranza shakes up its leadership

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

In one of his first moves as chancellor, Richard Carranza saved a politically connected performing arts school in Harlem from closure. Now, the education department is moving forward with a leadership shakeup at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts in a bid to turn the school around.

Starting Monday, Kyleema Norman — a former principal who now works with low-performing schools in Brooklyn through the city’s Renewal turnaround program — will take the helm of Wadleigh on an interim basis, replacing Daisy Fontanez.

Norman’s task is a steep one. The middle school has long been considered low-performing and has had difficulty attracting students — enrolling fewer than a hundred students in recent years. Since 2014, not a single one of its middle schoolers was considered proficient in math on state tests, and Carranza has said the school’s performance is “not acceptable.”

But despite the school’s performance, Wadleigh has survived at least two attempts to shutter it, owing partly to strong political backing from the NAACP, the Harlem Chamber of Commerce, alumni, and elected officials.

In 2011, when the Bloomberg administration targeted the school for closure, famed philosopher Cornel West and then-public advocate Bill de Blasio rushed to the school’s aid. As mayor, de Blasio’s education department targeted the middle school for closure last year, but Wadleigh was spared after pushback from local officials and members of the school community.

“Chancellor Carranza is very clear that [the education department] is supporting us,” said Norman, the incoming interim principal, adding that she hopes that she is ultimately selected to stay. “I hope to prove myself to be someone of record, and a lasting leader of Wadleigh.”

The decision to save Wadleigh’s middle school could offer a hint that Carranza is more apt to give long-struggling schools a second chance instead of closing them. The schools chief will have to make more of those decisions in the coming year, especially among the 49 other remaining schools in the city’s controversial Renewal turnaround program.

But given Wadleigh’s political history and the fact that Carranza doesn’t yet have a long track record of making closure decisions in New York, it’s difficult to know whether Wadleigh offers any real clues about how Carranza will approach school closures in the future.

As part of the shakeup, the school will join a network of schools supported by New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that helps support and supervise a group of schools. A separate middle school in the same building, Frederick Douglass Academy II, also receives support from New Visions, which will help foster collaboration between the two schools, officials said.

The high school will also receive additional funding for its arts programs, and the school will continue to be in the city’s Renewal program, which gives struggling schools extended learning time, access to additional teacher training, and a collaboration with a nonprofit organization.

Less clear is what benchmarks Wadleigh will be expected to reach for the shakeup to be considered a success. Education department spokesman Doug Cohen pointed to goals the school is supposed to reach as a member of the Renewal program for struggling schools.

Last school year, though, those benchmarks were set so low that Wadleigh’s middle school could actually perform worse on measures including student attendance and reading proficiency and still hit its goals.

Cohen said last year’s goals would remain in place, and, “we’re working with the principal and community to review the metrics and develop new, shared short-and long-term accountability measures that work best for the school.”

Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of Wadleigh’s parent association, said the leadership change has left her feeling optimistic.

“We hope that this change is for the best for our children and for the school,” she said, adding that she hopes the new principal brings a more consistent sense of school discipline in managing student behavior. In terms of academics, Taylor-Stephenson said, “We didn’t think expectations were set high enough, and without expectations being set, it was mediocrity.”

Norman emphasized her track record turning around struggling schools. As principal of Brooklyn’s Academy of Urban Planning, she helped usher in double-digit percentage increases in graduation and attendance rates, officials said. And she also noted her arts background, which includes training on the viola and experience with modern, jazz, tap, and African dance.

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College who has studied the city’s school turnaround efforts, said the leadership shakeup could make a difference, but that might not be enough.

“I think they’re putting a lot of weight on the change in leadership and the idea that a new principal can change the school,” Pallas said. But whether the school would face closure if it doesn’t start improving is far from clear.

“There are some schools that are Teflon coated,” Pallas said.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.