highlight reel

Seven things you need to know about the second PEP meeting

Seven takeaways from this week’s second marathon Panel for Educational Policy meeting, for those who don’t have time for 6,000-plus words, minute-to-minute updates:

1. Sometimes a delay is just a delay.

Forty minutes before the panel meeting was set to begin, a DOE spokesman informed reporters by email that the city was withdrawing PS 114 from closure consideration, at least for the moment. Parents and teachers from the school greeted the news with hope that the DOE was reconsidering closing their school, which suffered under the leadership of a notorious principal for years.

From 5:21 p.m.:

Just after receiving the e-mail about P.S. 114, Anna walks by a group of people holding signs that argue for keeping 114 open. “I read them the DOE’s e-mail, and they start cheering,” she reports. “They hadn’t been told they were off the list tonight.”

P.S. 114 parent Jimmy Orr tells Anna: “We’re overwhelmed. If it’s true, we’re elated. It’s a delay, but it gives us hope that we can turn things around.”

But a day later, it’s clear that the DOE doesn’t intend to reconsider closing the school. P.S. 114’s closure has been postponed until the March 1 meeting of the PEP.

A DOE spokesman, Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, said the department delayed the vote because officials needed more time to respond to public comment, which they’re legally required to do.

“We felt like we wanted more time on this particular proposal to offer more responsive answers than we had ready,” he said. “We have a legal responsibility to make sure we’re responding to all the feedback we get.”

Asked if the city was acting out of concern it might be sued by the teachers union, Zarin-Rosenfeld said that wasn’t a consideration. Last year, the union successfully sued to keep 19 schools open after a court found that the city hadn’t followed the laws governing school closure. Though the union has taken a special interest in P.S. 114’s case, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers said it hadn’t threatened to sue.

2. The teachers union and charter school advocates have different ideas about how to get their points across.

On Tuesday night, Success Charter Network sent hundreds of parents to Brooklyn Tech, and many stayed until the wee hours of the morning, with sleepy young children in tow, until they could each comment publicly. Last night, the United Federation of Teachers held a rally outside the hearing and then filled the auditorium with supporters.

But just over an hour into the meeting, most of the union supporters walked out. We haven’t heard from the union with an official explanation for the walkout, but here’s an idea planted by one participant:

Anna reports passing a man walking out. He’s wearing a UFT t-shirt and waving students out of their seats.

“They don’t care about us,” he tells them. “They’re not listening.”

3. People are thinking ahead to next year.

Some of the most vocal attendees last night were a group of students from Samuel Gompers High School, which wasn’t on the chopping block at all.

From 6:14 p.m.:

One of those chanting is Dalcean Prdomo, a senior at Gompers High School, a career and technical high school in the Bronx. The school isn’t on the closure list tonight, but students from Gompers have been actively protesting closures anyway.

Anna reports running into them at a closure hearing at Columbus High School, also in the Bronx. Prdomo tells Anna he has the sense that Gompers could easily end up on the closure list next year, so he feels he should speak out against the process now.

We also heard by email from Megan Hester, a research associate at Annenberg Insitute for School Reform, which provides technical assistance to the Coalition for Educational Justice, a collection of community groups. “Gompers is on this year’s PLA list, so students there see the school as next up for closing … thus their turnout for the hearing tonight,” Hester wrote. PLA refers to the state’s list of persistently low-achieving schools.

4. Cathie Black’s leash isn’t getting any longer.

The new chancellor drew fire after mimicking the boos of some of her detractors late Tuesday night. Last night, she registered nary an emotion and barely opened her mouth.

From 9 p.m.:

The whole night, she’s been almost expressionless: sitting quietly next to a bottle of water.

WNYC’s Beth Fertig says Black did render one hint of emotion. When a woman at the microphone said her name was also Cathy, Black smiled thinly.

And while department officials told Anna at midnight that Black might speak to reporters after the hearing’s conclusion, just 40 minutes later reporters were told that Black would be “unavailable for comment.”

Last year, then-Chancellor Joel Klein huddled with reporters after the school closure Panel for Educational Policy meeting ended — and that was at 4 a.m.

5. Even when they vote for a plan, the mayor’s appointees aren’t always thrilled about it.

Philip Berry, one of the mayor’s appointees to the panel, spoke wistfully about Norman Thomas High School before saying he cast his vote for closure.

From 12:20 a.m.:

“I have watched the quality of that school decrease steadily over the years,” he says. ”On one level it pains me to see that we have to close Norman Thomas. On the other hand, we are finally taking the type of action we should be taking.”

Then, after the closure votes, the panel turned its attention to reviewing a handful of contracts. One of them, for a package of online learning services, drew raised eyebrows from mayoral appointee Lisette Nieves, who said, basically, that schools in the process of phasing out aren’t pushed to offer top-notch educations.

From our 12:51 a.m. dispatch:

“I did vote for the phase out,” Nieves says. “But there’s a difference between saying leadership is committed to providing a basic service versus an advanced servive. I just want to make sure there’s an incentive. I don’t inherently buy into the idea that there’s an incentive.”

6. Long hearings like the two this week come with a price tag.

At the end of the night, Anna snapped a picture of about a dozen School Safety Agents filing for overtime. The city has scheduled two PEP meetings for March (one on March 1, the second March 23), as well, which could mean more long nights and more overtime.

7. The following phase-outs and co-locations were approved:

These schools will be phased out:
P.S. 260
P.S. 332
M.S. 571
Frederick Douglass Academy III’s middle school
John F. Kennedy High School
Christopher Columbus High School
Global Enterprise High School
P.S. 102
Performance Conservatory High School
Norman Thomas High School
Beach Channel High School
Jamaica High School

These co-locations will move forward:
P.S. 325 with P.S. 260
New school P.S. 241 and Leadership Prep Ocean Hill with P.S. 332
Brooklyn East Collegiate with P.S. 9 and M.S. 571
New high school 11X508 in the Christopher Columbus campus
New high school 11X508 in the Christopher Columbus campus
New high school 11X511 in the Performance Conservatory High School building
New high school 27Q351 in the Beach Channel building
New high school 28Q350 in the Jamaica building

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”