The Big Fix

City banks on new leadership to transform a Brooklyn school

This school year, GothamSchools and WNYC reporters will follow three New York City high schools as they try to improve. The following is an introduction to one of those schools: William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School.

gradyFor years, Brooklyn’s William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School struggled to break free from its reputation as simply a trade school.

“The ‘vocational school’ stigma continues to be a deterrent to students who see themselves as college bound,” the school’s leadership team wrote in its educational plan for the 2008-09 school year. Staff laid out strategies to make the school more challenging — and posted some gains — but the school continued to limp academically. About a fifth of the school’s 1,300 students were absent every day last year, and at the end of the year, not even half of the school’s seniors graduated.

Now, the city is hoping that millions of dollars in federal aid and a new principal will finally jumpstart Grady’s renaissance.

Earlier this year, the city announced the school would undergo the federal “transformation” model of school improvement. That meant the city had to replace Grady’s principal — Carlston Gray, who had headed the school since 2006 — and adopt new class schedules and bonuses for teachers who help their colleagues. In exchange, Grady would get as much as $2 million in federal funds per year over the next three years.

For a new leader, the city turned to Geraldine Maione, who had been principal at Brooklyn’s 3,500-student Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School.

This was an unusual move, because FDR is also on the city’s federal revamp list, and so the city was required to replace Maione there as well. But city officials said they liked the progress Maione had made at FDR, so they reassigned her to Grady, where she had worked for seven years in the 1990s, first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal. (Another Grady teacher during that time, Michael Mulgrew, is now the current teachers union president.)

Maione is Grady’s third principal since 2004. Rather than making a large number of dramatic changes right away, she said she prefers to ease in, getting to know the students and the staff. She also said she is still working with the city and state to hammer out exactly how much she can spend of the $2 million Grady could receive as a transformation school.

But she has already started spending some of the funds, hiring one “master” and two “turnaround” teachers. Those teachers will each work more hours and mentor their colleagues in exchange for large performance bonuses.

Maione has other plans for how to use the funds. Right now, Grady runs extended-day programs, but only for students who are working on recovering credit for classes they have repeatedly failed. Maione wants to experiment with giving extra time to all students. And she said she’d like to reduce class size, but federal rules won’t allow her to use the extra money to make that happen.

Grady had seen some improvement in the years before Maione arrived. The school’s graduation rate increased nearly 9 points since 2007, and more students were passing more classes. That progress was why city officials chose the transformation option for Grady, rather than more severe federally-approved strategies that require firing teachers or shuttering the school entirely.

But some teachers at the school said the school was still floundering and welcomed a new principal. “The data indicates we haven’t gotten any better,” one teacher told GothamSchools this summer when Gray announced he would be replaced. “There should be a change.”

Despite the slight gains, more than half of Grady’s students were dropping out. Barely more than half of the school’s ninth-graders were earning enough credits to go on to tenth grade. And from 2008 and 2009, the school’s grade on the city’s progress reports dropped from a B to a C.

Students also continued to complain about safety problems, with more than half of those responding to last year’s city survey reporting gang activity in the school all or most of the time.

Even with her slowly-but-surely approach to school improvement, Maione said she has focused on changing one thing right away: a school culture where students don’t hold high expectations for themselves.

“That is my main mission for now,” Maione said. “When that happens, all the other things fall in place.”

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.”