mic check

Students prepping for protests get activism lesson from OWS

Occupy Wall Street activists Justin Wedes (right), and filmmaker Kevin Breslin (center) speak to a small group of students and staff at Paul Robeson High School, including English teacher Stefanie Siegel (left).

This week, the subject of Justin Wedes’s regular after school meeting with Paul Robeson High School seniors was part lesson on activism and social media, and part strategy session.

Meeting in the East Brooklyn school’s first-floor student lounge, which in the past year has served both as a place to unwind at the end of a long school day and a place to strategize ways to challenge the city’s school closure policy, Wedes detailed the plans to protest at the meeting where city officials will vote on which schools to close.

Wedes, who is a former city teacher, vocal opponent of school closures, and high-profile Occupy Wall Street organizer, is marshaling activists from within schools to join the Occupy movement in commandeering the evening PEP meeting, effectively prohibiting the agenda proceedings.

Wedes said he has spoken with students and teachers at a handful of city schools this winter in preparation for the event, including Herbert H. Lehman High School and Legacy High School for Integrated Studies.

On Thursday, the city’s Panel for Education Policy is scheduled to vote on half of this year’s controversial slate of school closures. In past years, protesters have delayed the evening vote until the early hours of the following morning. Wedes said the goal is to prohibit the vote from happening at all.

“We’re going to occupy it. We’re going to shut it down,” he said to the gathering of a half-dozen students and staff from Robeson. The PEP “won’t be able to vote.”

Under the banner of “Occupy the Department of Education,” an Occupy Wall Street spin-off, scores of educators, students and people unaffiliated with the public education system have used civil disobedience to derail or shut-down a number of public meetings where the chancellor and other education officials have appeared this school year. One meeting hosted under the auspices of the PEP, was cut short after droves of chanting protesters used the “people’s mic” to take over and staged a walk-out; but unlike tonight’s meeting, it was a special meeting on the Common Core standards with no formal agenda or voting period.

As a city teacher, Wedes made it his goal to inform students about political issues, and he became a leader in protests against school closures and chemicals in schools. But since resigning from teaching in 2010, he has devoted virtually all of his energy to activism, emerging as a spokesperson in the Occupy movement. Through it all, he has been meeting with students — most often at Robeson, but also at Lehman High School in the Bronx and elsewhere — to galvanize them to act against policies they feel marginalize them.

Wedes said the routine of past PEP meetings‘—where PEP members have never voted against an agenda item—demonstrates the need for a drastic change.

“We’ve been through this for years and years,” he said. “You can have hours of public comment, and every single parent and teacher and principal, every student and soon-to-be student who’s not even old enough to be in school can make the most heartfelt plea to these schools to keep their school open, and then at four in the morning, after 7 hours of public comment, motion to vote and then in 30 seconds all those schools are shuttered.”

Several Robeson students said they planned to attend tonight’s meeting to tell DOE officials about the detriments of rising class sizes, and how the phase-out policy has impacted their high school careers.

“I just hope that this whole thing stops, and it ends sooner rather than later,” said Ana Leguillou, a senior who has been active in past protests. “Everything fails, but you have to keep trying and trying in order to succeed. It may be too late for us but that doesn’t mean we should just stop altogether. If we can prevent other schools from meeting the same fate that we are going through…that’s what drives us to keep fighting against it.”

Wedes said the protesters will use a popular call-and-repeat speaking tactic, called a “mic check,” or a “people’s mic,” to drown out the Department of Education’s official microphone.

“Everybody will have a chance to speak, on the People’s mic—On our mic, not on theirs,” he said. “Even schools that aren’t slated for closure should come out ,and will come out.”

The thrum of OWS and the movement’s signature tactics have inflected many school protests this year. Last week, students at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School shouted “mic check!” several times before speaking at the school’s closure hearing. And several OWS activists taught students from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, Lehman High School, and others how to use the “people’s mic” during a protest at Union Square.

Wedes has been meeting with Robeson students on an almost weekly-basis since 2010 he said, to talk about activism and plan student efforts to protest DOE measures, such as the decision to phase-out Robeson due to poor performance. Most recently, Wedes invited the filmmaker Kevin Breslin to campus, where they screened a documentary about OWS on a computer in the student lounge after school. Following the viewing, the group discussed issues of racism, class, police power, social media and nonviolence around OWS and other movements.


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.”