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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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede