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At a struggling school, an anonymous letter to a new principal sparks a backlash

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Richmond Hill High School Principal Neil Ganesh was the subject of an angry letter from "concerned staff members" last week.

Soon after the anonymous letter appeared in some staff mailboxes last week at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, it began to circulate among teachers and students, who found a copy that had been left in the school library.

The mayor had stood in that library just weeks earlier when he visited the long-struggling school to hail its progress within his new school-improvement program and praise its second-year principal, Neil Ganesh. But the letter told a much darker story.

Ganesh “obliterated” trust at the school, “ripped” a popular assistant principal from her English classroom, and forced out other longtime administrators through “relentless bullying,” charged the letter signed by “concerned staff members.” The letter also claimed that Ganesh gave preferential treatment to former colleagues he hired, failed to prevent student bullying and violence, and took credit for improvements that began before his tenure.

Staff members were soon debating whether the authors had crossed a line by publicly and anonymously making such accusations, and whether they might derail the momentum and desperately needed good publicity from the mayor’s visit. This week, teachers union officials held a members-only meeting at the school to “clear the air,” as the school’s union representative put it.

Interviews with over 20 Richmond Hill staffers and students reveal a more complicated situation than the one portrayed in the letter. They described a school where discipline problems remain and suspicion lingers as a novice principal finds his footing, but where new policies are showing promise and a sense of hope for the school’s future is sprouting.

At the same time, the letter has brought into sharp relief a nagging question posed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” turnaround program: Can school leaders produce rapid improvements at low-performing schools by working with their existing staffers, even if some of those educators are wary of the changes?

It also exposes the strain felt by the educators and administrators at those schools, who the mayor has said have just two more years to make major gains or face closure.

“That’s a huge amount of pressure,” said Charles DiBenedetto, an English teacher who is the school’s union representative. “There are times I want to come home and scream because I feel so beat.”

A new principal gets pushback

When Ganesh arrived at Richmond Hill in fall 2013, the second new principal in two years, the 2,300-student school was floundering, several people said. Fights were common, many students skipped class, and seniors sometimes learned days before graduation that they had too few credits to graduate.

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited  Richmond Hill in March to tout recent progress the school has made. (Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Richmond Hill in March to tout recent progress the school has made. (Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

“It was a school that was out of control,” said Vishnu Mahadeo, executive director of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council and the school’s former parent association president.

Ganesh, who worked at nearby Jamaica High School before it closed and was raised in Richmond Hill, began to strictly enforce the school rules — so much so that the school gave out the most suspensions of any school in the city last year. According to the letter and sources at the school, three assistant principals have either been been removed or pressured to leave since Ganesh arrived, and several teachers have left or been moved from their classrooms. (Sources said city officials took two teachers out of their classrooms because they are under investigation.)

Staffers who are critical of Ganesh, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, said he has failed to communicate his vision for the school. One teacher said the administration was playing a “gotcha game,” searching for misconduct to document, and that some teachers’ ratings went down this year. Echoing the letter, another staffer complained that several people who have been hired from the Jamaica High School campus receive special treatment.

Ganesh referred questions to the education department press office. A spokeswoman said Ganesh is committed to communication and treating staff fairly, and that he is working to create an environment where all educators meet his high expectations.

“Turning around a struggling school is difficult work, and requires difficult decisions,” said spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “Schools need to have the right leadership, and each leader must work hard to ensure their students have the high quality assistant principals and teachers they need to raise achievement.”

Teachers take sides

Some teachers see the school moving forward under Ganesh. To them, the anonymous letter seemed unprofessional and unproductive, the work of a small group of disgruntled staffers.

Richmond Hill is a large high school in Queens that is part of the city's new turnaround program for low-performing schools.
Richmond Hill is a large high school in Queens that is part of the city’s new turnaround program for low-performing schools.

“This was a specific plan to sensationalize a certain faction’s feelings,” said Christine Rossiello, a science teacher who has worked at Richmond Hill for 18 years and worries that the letter could detract from the school’s recent progress. “I don’t want people messing up Richmond Hill’s chance to be successful for a change.”

A history teacher who came to the school this year from the Jamaica High School campus said certain teachers have discussed the letter with students in order to “divide the school and create a chaotic situation.”

“Students are coming up to me and asking, ‘How did you get here? Who brought you here?’” the teacher said. “I have never been in an environment like this where I’ve seen this kind of dirty politics and teachers sharing this kind of information with students.”

The tensions come as Ganesh tries to spearhead a new type of school transformation.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city closed many struggling schools and replaced them with new schools and different teachers. Bloomberg also tried to replace at least half the staff members at two-dozen troubled schools, including Richmond Hill, but was blocked by a labor arbitrator.

By contrast, de Blasio’s turnaround program aims to overhaul chronically low-performing schools by giving their existing staffers more training and resources. While many Richmond Hill teachers have embraced the program and Ganesh’s new policies, some have resisted, said Mahadeo, the former parent-association president.

“For the first time,” he said, “the teachers in this school are actually being asked to do the job they are paid to do.”

Along with extra resources for the school, the Renewal program also brings added oversight. Officials now regularly visit the school, fueling anxiety among some staffers that they are constantly being evaluated. Others are suspicious that the retired principal sent to coach Ganesh is acting as a “puppetmaster,” as one teacher put it.

Teachers on all sides seem to agree that Ganesh could better explain his ideas and what the Renewal program means for the school.

“There needs to be more communication,” said English teacher Daniel Garretson. “A lot of teachers feel stressed and uncertain.”

Shoots of ‘green’

While few would say Richmond Hill has undergone a complete reversal since Ganesh took over, several teachers and students said it has taken a sharp turn in the right direction.

Principal Ganesh implemented a new system to help students keep track of the credits and exams they need to graduate.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Principal Ganesh implemented a new system to help students keep track of the credits and exams they need to graduate.

One of his first moves was to get staffers to share and analyze student data. Then he created a color-coded system for students called “Are You Green?” that tracks their earned credits, passed Regents exams, detentions, and attendance rate, which he posted throughout the school (using ID numbers instead of names to protect student privacy).

Guidance counselors seek out students who fall out of the green zone and, through an “Adopt a Senior” initiative, staffers are responsible for guiding off-track students to graduation. Students who are behind are sent to after-school or lunchtime tutoring, or attend evening or Saturday classes. While the school’s graduation rate still lags far below the city average and actually fell in Ganesh’s first year from 58 to 52 percent, the number of students on track to graduate has increased 7 percentage points since last year, officials said.

Meanwhile, reported violent incidents are down and suspensions had fallen by 72 percent in March from that time last year, from 444 to 126. However, the cause of the declines is up for debate.

The letter said fights and theft continue, but the administration is not reporting them. A teacher said one student who recently attacked a classmate got off without a suspension, while another who smelled like marijuana was sent back to class.

“They’re trying to make the numbers look better,” she said. “The teachers have no recourse.”

But other teachers said the school is just following the city’s updated discipline code, which restricts the offenses that warrant suspensions. Some students said the school’s new detention system seems harsh and arbitrary — one girl said she currently has 26 unserved detentions for offenses like being late to lunch or violating the dress code. But several students also said the school generally feels safer under Ganesh.

“There are less incidents,” said senior Tyquan Desilva. “I think the school’s getting better.”

As Ganesh enacts his policies, the school is also benefitting from its placement in a high-priority group within the Renewal program that has received the most help so far. The city gave it money to expand the Saturday classes, assigned it four on-site math and literacy coaches for teachers, and trained the ninth-grade teachers in a writing program that has been used to revamp low-performing schools.

“Obviously there are some issues here,” said Rossiello, the longtime science teacher. “But there are hundreds of people who work here every day to make sure Richmond Hill is on the up and up.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.