visions and revisions

New Queens school with high hopes battles scheduling crisis

Queens Metropolitan High School under construction, April 21, 2010. Jim Henderson/Creative Commons

A year-old Queens high school that expanded to meet community demand is struggling under the weight of its own ambitions.

Located in a suburban section of Queens, Queens Metropolitan High School promised rich course offerings and a rigorous academic program to its 650 ninth- and 10th-grade students. But the ambitious plans left little room for error, and because of staff changes, space issues, and poor planning, Queens Metropolitan students have gotten new schedules as many as 10 times since September.

On Monday, up to three periods of classes were canceled for many 10th-grade students, who sat in the auditorium and cafeteria as administrators feverishly worked to hash out new schedules, according to accounts from parents, students, and staff.

At a PTA meeting Tuesday night, parents also complained that some classes are without teachers, physical education instruction isn’t happening, and that their students aren’t receiving grades for some coursework.

Principal Marci Levy-Maguire told the two dozen parents at the meeting, who included City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, that she is working “night and day” on fixing the schedule debacle.

“Programming has been problematic. I fully admit it. We are continuing to work to address it so students are programmed properly,” Levy-Maguire said. “I can say nothing more than I apologize, and I wish it were different. We are making plans to have this resolved.”

Several teachers who had been assisting with trouble-shooting schedule revisions pulled out of the process on Sunday, saying that they did not want to give up teaching time to complete administrative tasks, according to an email that GothamSchools obtained.

Levy-Maguire said last night that she was getting help from other sources, including her Department of Education network and a programming consultant from outside the school. Later this week, she said, a technology intern would address problems with the school’s scheduling software, BlackBoard. The system recently failed to register changes staff had entered, compounding scheduling woes, Levy-Maguire said.

Levy-Maguire declined a follow-up interview today.

But at the PTA meeting, Levy-Maguire, a graduate of the city’s Leadership Academy for new principals, suggested that her administration was simply in over its head. Under pressure from elected officials and families concerned about crowding elsewhere, the school has enrolled far more students than originally planned.

“We didn’t know how much we needed to plan last year. I had no idea how much we would have to plan as early as February,” she said. “This school feels like a small school to people. But we’re a big school, and we didn’t have the systems in place to run a big school.”

Queens Metropolitan’s size puts it at odds with the vast majority of new high schools opened during the Bloomberg administration. Most new schools are small, with about 100 students and just a handful of teachers in each grade, and one criticism of them has been that they often do not offer the numerous elective and extracurricular options that many large high schools boast (sometimes with scheduling problems of their own). Among her goals in opening Queens Metropolitan, Levy-Maguire has said, was to give students those options in a neighborhood school.

Those options will have to be slimmed down, Levy-Maguire told parents after one mother asked — but did not get an answer to — a question about whether her son would receive credit for the three elective classes he was enrolled in until now.

“Next year will not be the same,” Levy-Maguire said. “I over-burdened the school. I gave your kids lots and lots of choice. I need to limit those choices unfortunately. I cannot offer your kids as many electives this year as I would have hoped to.”

Some of the electives—which include financial literacy, Regents prep in Geometry and Chemistry, and “twenty-first century skills”—could be eliminated by early December, she said.

DOE officials said the scheduling problems, which they promised would be resolved before the start of the next marking period, would not cost students credits or seat time.

Other issues are also in the process of being resolved. One, about teachers’ workloads, is the subject of a union complaint. Evelyn Goldschmidt, the school’s UFT chapter leader, said close to a third of the school’s teachers have filed complaints charging that their packed schedules had them working more time than their contract allows.

In an email to staff on Monday, Levy-Maguire announced that teachers working more than their contractual schedule would be paid overtime. Substitutes might take over some of the elective classes, she said, and members of the Absent Teacher Reserve who rotate through the school each week could supervise others.

And scheduling conflicts between Queens Metropolitan and two other schools in the brand-new building over the gym and locker room have prevented students from having physical education instruction so far this year.

Levy-Maguire confirmed at the meeting that students were not held accountable for PE attendance or participation this marking period because classes could not be held.

“We had to hold kids accountable for something,” she said, so students were graded on a pass-fail basis for handing in required forms and getting their height and weight checked. Those assessments will change once regular P.E. instruction begins after the scheduling conflicts are resolved, she said.

“I have an impression from my son that he has not had one day of gym class,” said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who has two children at the school. “I don’t understand why a person can’t just look at a student and say we have this many teachers, this is the schedule. We could do it by hand.”

Crowley also said her son has complained that no lessons are being taught in chemistry since the teacher left at the end of October. “I’m worried that he’s not meeting basic standards,” she said.

Marc Pagan, whose son is in 10th grade, raised similar concerns about the chemistry class. “I’m hearing the exact same thing from our son,” he sad. “There’s the occasional substitute. [Students] come in with work, and they’re told they don’t have to do any of it. And that’s a Regents class. They’re being set up for disaster.”

Levy-Maguire responded that she is searching diligently for a new chemistry teacher, but the position is tough to fill.

In an email to her staff last week, Levy-Maguire vowed that the school would emerge from the ongoing troubles more organized and prepared to serve its students.

“I know we are becoming a stronger team not because of the challenges we face, but because of how we face them together,” she wrote.


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.”