Cathie Black's school visits take her to the good, skip the bad

Chancellor-designate Cathie Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today.

More than a month after being named the next schools chancellor, Cathie Black has yet to see the system at its most troubled.

Black has been to 13 schools, making stops in each of the five boroughs and in schools at each grade level. The majority of schools she’s visited have earned either an A or a B on their annual progress report, meaning they are in no danger of being closed for poor performance. She has been to five “C” schools, none of which are on the city’s “to-be-closed” list.

Asked today if she thought she was getting a “realistic” view of the city’s schools, Black said she had.

“I’ve been to the South Bronx, and that’s about as realistic as you can get, and I felt the same thing,” she told Daily News reporter Rachel Monahan. “The principal has been there for four years. And I asked if [the school] looked like that four years ago, and she said no it did not look like that. So that comes from leadership.”

Black visited Medgar Evers College Preparatory School today, a high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that admits students based on their middle school test scores and other academic measures. Nearly all Medgar Evers students graduate with a Regents diploma and some go on to top universities. President Obama praised the school back in July for giving its students the opportunity to earn college credits at the Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York before they graduate from high school.

Department of Education officials allowed only four reporters to enter Medgar Evers with Black today. Descriptions of the visit were provided by Sharon Otterman of the New York Times.

Black visited four classrooms today, spending 45 minutes at the school and chatting with students as she passed through. In a Mandarin class, students sang her a welcome song and performed a dance with bands of colored cloth.

“Some of you may not know this, but I have been in magazine publishing, and we have a company in Shanghai and Beijing, and we publish seven magazines in China,” Black told the class.

“It’s been very exciting to see the growth in China. So maybe someday one of you will have a good job at a magazine in China. Good luck to you all, and keep studying,” she said.

Administrators at the school said they were proud to have boosted the graduation rate from 60 to 95 percent in the last decade. They said they wished Black had spent more time in the school.

“That was the speed of light,” said Assistant Principal Delroy Burnett of Black’s visit.

Medgar Evers Principal Michael Wiltshire said he didn’t have time to thoroughly explain his school’s philosophy to Black. But he hoped she would walk away remembering his school as one “that believes in the total education of the child,” he said.

“It’s not just the academic development of the child; it’s the holistic development, where we take into consideration the total child. That I think is what the city lacks,” Wiltshire said. “They’re not talking about the total education of the child; they’re talking about test prep.  We’re not into that.”

Black will officially become chancellor on January 3. Asked how she planned to spend the holiday, she replied: “Studying.”

List of schools Black has visited:

PS 172K Beacon School of Excellence: Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The school has shown success with its large population of ELL students and was one of the first schools Klein visited when he became chancellor. Progress report grade: A

PS 109X Sedgwick: Morris Heights, Bronx. For her first visit to a public school as chancellor designate, Black went to P.S. 109, an elementary school with a large population of Latino students who’ve recently immigrated and are not fluent in English. Progress report grade: A

PS 111Q Jacob Blackwell and PS 78Q: Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan chose these two schools in her district for Black to visit. Both of them have a majority of low-income students and are ethnically diverse. Blackwell got a C on its most recent progress report and P.S. 78 got a B.

PS 33M Chelsea Prep: Last week, Black spent an hour at this elementary school in Chelsea with Times’ reporter Susan Dominus. She chatted with students and suggested that the school hold a “pet day,” so everyone could bring their pets to school. Later, she noted this was not a very practical suggestion.   Progress report grade: A

PS 185K Walter Kassenbrock: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This elementary school routinely posts high test scores and has become very popular, so it now has to manage an overcrowding problem. Its gifted and talented program is being phased out. Progress report grade: C

PS 71X Rose Scala: Pelham Bay, Bronx. A K-8 school where about half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Roughly 60 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year, which was about the citywide average. Progress report grade: C

PS 329K Surfside and I.S. 239K Mark Twain: Coney Island, Brooklyn. Surfside is a K-5 school where the majority of students are low-income and minority. It has few students who are learning English, but has a high percentage of special education students. About 44 percent of its 3rd graders passed the state’s math and reading tests last year. Progress report grade: C. Mark Twain is a nearby selective middle school that admits students from all over the city and sends many of its students on to the specialized high schools. Students audition for the school’s art, music, and dance programs and take written tests for other subject areas like science and creative writing. Progress report grade: A.

Hillcrest High School: Jamaica, Queens. A large high school that reorganized itself into seven programs in 2006, Hillcrest has a four-year graduation rate of 69 percent, which is higher than the citywide average. Like many high schools in Queens, it is overcrowded. Progress report grade: C.

IS 75R Frank Paulo: Staten Island. A middle school where about a quarter of the students are low-income and students in all grades score above the citywide averages on the state’s math and reading tests.  Progress report grade: B

Medgar Evers College Prep: Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A 6-12 school that admits high performing students from all over the city. Students have access to more AP classes than your average high school can offer, and many graduate having already earned college credits. Progress report grade: B

PS 376K: Bushwick, Brooklyn. An elementary school where nearly all the students come from low-income families and most are Latino. P.S. 376 has a gifted and talented program and it also has a large number of students who are recent immigrants and don’t speak English. Progress report grade: B.

Photos taken by Ed Reed of the mayor’s office:





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.”