flip sides

Charter schools take PEP meeting as chance to launch PR blitz

022410-pep_1
Charter school parents packed into last night's Panel for Educational Policy meeting to call for more city building space for charter schools.

Last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting was the second in as many months to be packed to the gills with parents and teachers passionately pleading their case.

But this time it was charter school parents, not teachers and parents at closing district schools, who drove to the meeting in busloads.

“What we are pleading for this evening is space,” Trevor Alfred, a parent at Explore Empower Charter School, told the panel. “We deserve it.”

At first blush, the level of passion, and sometimes anger, directed towards the panel could seem odd. Although 16 school space proposals were up for a vote, the board had never voted down a city proposal, and none of the charter school proposals on the agenda yesterday was defeated.

But charter school advocates, stung by what they felt was a bruise at last month’s PEP meeting on school closures, which was dominated by charter school opponents, decided to take the opportunity to launch a new public relations offensive.

“I think this is the defining moment for the charter school movement, as an advocacy movement, to wake up,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, who leads Democracy Prep Charter Schools’ political organizing.

Other charter schools in attendance included the Harlem Success, KIPP, Explore, Girls Prep and Achievement First networks, some of whom had never rallied parents to a public meeting before.

Girls Prep supporters raised their banners each time one of their parents or teachers spoke before the panel.
Girls Prep supporters raised their banners each time one of their parents or teachers spoke before the panel.

“As demand for charters has increased, so has the opposition,” said David Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools. “People realize that now, and are making their voices heard.”

Meanwhile, many of the most outspoken opponents of charter siting plans at individual school hearings were notably absent. And union officials, who last month called for the city to stop giving city building space to charters until district schools reach their class size targets, sat out the meeting altogether.

“It’s a sham; why come?” said Lisa Donlan, the president of a Lower East Side parent council and one of a few vocal critics who did speak.

(The board did fail to pass one proposal last night: a contentious plan to site an all-boys district school, Eagle Academy, at I.S. 59 fell one vote short of the seven votes needed for passage because of the absence of one mayoral appointee to the PEP, Jim Whelan, and the abstention of another, Linda Lausell Bryant.)

Charter school supporters point to opposition from elected officials as evidence that they are under siege. By launching a public relations offensive, they argue, they can persuade lawmakers that they’re on the wrong side of the issue.

As if proving their point, today a top target of charter school supporters, Harlem’s State Senator Bill Perkins, announced plans to hold hearings questioning charter schools starting in March. Although Perkins helped start the city’s first charter, he has since become an outspoken opponent of their growth.

Chancellor Joel Klein is championing this new wave of activism. He told reporters last night that he called charter school principals, at the request of the head of a charter network, to encourage them to bring parents to the meeting. And in a Daily News op-ed yesterday, Klein forecast a strong charter school presence.

Skeptics of Klein pointed out an irony: he’s trumpeting a system that works because parents want to flee the district schools that he manages.

As the proposals came to a vote close to midnight, one of the few charter critics on the board, Manhattan Borough President appointee Patrick Sullivan, voted “no” on the plan to let Girls Prep expand, saying that he questioned the school’s success.

The measure passed anyway, but afterward, a tearful Miriam Lewis Raccah, the head of Girls Prep, made clear that Sullivan’s criticisms had reinforced her view that charters need to put up a strong show against their critics.

“I feel a little bit of relief,” she said, “but it’s also a little bit infuriating.”

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.”