turnaround tales

A student walkout starts week of "turnaround" protest at Grady

Grady High School students protest the city's "turnaround" plan after a walkout today.

A new phase in school closure protests opened today as hundreds of students at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School walked out of classes this afternoon to protest the city’s plan to “turn around” the school.

The plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced last month as a way to obviate negotiations about teacher evaluations with the teachers union, would require Grady to be closed and reopened with a new name and at least half of the teachers replaced. Grady is one of 33 struggling schools facing turnaround this year.

Grady students were the first to hold a closure protest since Thursday’s massive Panel for Educational Policy, where thousands of protesters railed against 23 school closure proposals that were approved. Now the city’s attention is shifting to the turnaround schools, whose closures are likely to come before the panel in April.

Department of Education officials explained the plan to confused students and parents at the Brighton Beach school late last month.

There was little confusion today as students executed a protest that was tightly scripted by members of the student government. After a rally on the sidewalk outside the school, students marched around Grady on a path that abutted the Shore Parkway and passed a police substation. Their cries of “Save our school!” caused neighborhood residents to lean out of windows and elicited a honk of support from an ambulance driver parked outside a home for the elderly.

Even one of the dozens of police officers who had been summoned to make sure the rally did not get out of hand showed compassion, telling a group of students, “I sympathize for you guys, I really do. I had two sons who graduated from here.”

Members of the student government said they hatched the plan to defend the school after learning about the turnaround plan last month. Grady went from a D to a B on the report card the city uses to assess schools, they pointed out, and some of its vocational programs — including construction and automotive repair — don’t exist in many schools. If the school changes overnight, they worried, the credits in each “shop” that students have accumulated might not transfer over.

“We really need our school to be saved,” said Marika Mattheson, the student government secretary.

Most students said they hadn’t found out about the turnaround plan or the protest until a student-led meeting on Friday or even this morning. A staff member who stood outside the school to corral students on the sidewalk — and who reassured some anxious protesters that they wouldn’t be suspended for leaving the school building — said students had kept the action under wraps until about half an hour before the 1 p.m. walkout time.

Students said they had planned an entire week of action that would include an hour’s trip to City Hall and even an attempt to “Occupy Grady” by camping in tents on the school grounds.

Jonathan Pamphile, a junior in the school’s media arts program, said students had already been working on a mural and other activities to celebrate Respect For All week, the city’s week to promote tolerance and oppose bullying. He said the week had an important message as the city contemplates Grady’s fate.

“We just want the mayor to respect us as students,” he said.

Oshin Powell, a senior, said she was determined to graduate this year and go to college. She said she would be let down if her teachers weren’t staying behind to be there when she came to deliver updates about her success.

“We have a real bond with the teachers,” said Kareem Lewis, 18. “We’re not going to have that bond anymore. … I just don’t know if Mayor Bloomberg will listen.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Members of the Newark school board in February with Mayor Ras Baraka and former Superintendent Christopher Cerf.

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, they will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The departure, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the finalist shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”

Mixed messages

Strange graffiti scrawled on New York City education department headquarters, police say

Strange graffiti was scrawled on the education department headquarters.

Before 7 a.m. on Tuesday, cryptic messages were scrawled on the Corinthian columns of Tweed Courthouse, the historic education department headquarters in lower Manhattan.

The message meant to be conveyed by the graffiti, written in royal blue spray paint, was unclear. It was largely a rambling series of words related to social justice such as “unconstitutional murder lower economic education feudal class” and “superior erudite tyrants,” according to the New York City Police Department.

An investigation has been launched, but police said no description is available of who might have left the graffiti or why.

The education department’s maintenance team quickly began cleaning up the mess with a large pressure cleaner.

Tweed Courthouse is a New York City landmark and we’re disappointed that someone would vandalize the building,” spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

The courthouse was designated as a landmark in 1984, and became the education department headquarters in the early 2000s after extensive renovations.

It took two decades to build and was completed in 1881, according to city records. Construction was interrupted by the trial of the legendary Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed, who embezzled money through the project. He eventually was tried in an unfinished courtroom there and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Police didn’t say what types of charges or fines the tagger might face.