calling for backup

Educators on front line of desegregation debate say city must take the lead

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union's executive board.

Confronting one of the nation’s most segregated school systems, New York City’s schools chief recently said she is searching for ways to alleviate the problem “organically,” without mandating changes.

But that approach won’t suffice, several educators and parents said during a discussion Tuesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. With enrollment policies and parent choices together fueling a system where more than half of schools qualify as severely segregated, they suggested that small-scale remedies that rely on local buy-in will fall short.

“The segregation wasn’t organic, and the integration is not going to be organic either,” said Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a grade 6-12 school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn where many schools remain racially isolated.

Michelle Baptiste, a teacher at P.S. 92 in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, put it more bluntly.

“I don’t think that we can look to the Department of Education,” she told the crowd. “They haven’t taken any leadership.”

The relatively rare public criticism of the education department by employees reflects the frustration felt by some educators — and some parents and advocates — who had hoped that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s emphasis on social justice would spur aggressive action on school segregation. Instead, Fariña has only recently started to call school diversity a top priority, and her most significant initiative on that front has been signing off on diversity plans at seven schools.

The comments also highlighted a tension in the de Blasio administration’s approach to integration: Officials are seeking solutions that entire communities will embrace, yet middle-class parents have long demonstrated that they will staunchly oppose changes that limit their access to sought-after schools.

In practice, that has meant that the city recently backed enrollment changes designed to promote diversity at the seven schools that developed their own plans, but postponed a zoning change on the Upper West Side that was fiercely resisted by some parents. To advocates, the backlash there and in response to a similar rezoning proposal in Brooklyn made clear that more widespread integration will only happen if the city forcefully pushes for it.

“The DOE needs to be the one to take responsibility for this,” said Miriam Nunberg, a Park Slope Collegiate parent who co-founded a group that is trying to reform the District 15 middle school admissions process. “Asking different communities to be responsible for integrating schools on a case-by-case basis is not going to work.”

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones moderated the panel.

The panel, part of a series of talks titled, “Why New York? Our Segregated Schools Epidemic,” was moderated by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has reported extensively on school segregation. Her child attends P.S. 307, which was at the center of the Brooklyn rezoning debate last fall. (Her husband, Faraji Hannah-Jones, is co-president of P.S. 307’s parent-teacher association and was on the panel.)

She started the talk by offering some sobering statistics: While about 70 percent of students citywide are black or Hispanic, those groups make up over 90 percent of the population at more than half of city schools, according to a 2012 Times analysis. Meanwhile, half of the city’s white students are concentrated in just 7 percent of schools, DNAinfo found.

The panelists laid the blame partly on the city and partly on individual parents.

Some middle-class parents choose to cluster at popular schools that enroll more white students and fewer poor students than the city average. But parents make those decisions within a system of zone lines, school-choice policies, and selective schools that ends up sorting students from different backgrounds into different schools.

“You have a lot of parents who want to do the right thing, who want to enroll their kids in integrated schools,” Nikole Hannah-Jones said, “but the choices of schools are very minimal.”

Advocates note that even if de Blasio is off to a slow start, his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, seldom addressed school segregation or took steps to tackle it head-on. Meanwhile, Fariña has asked a top deputy to explore possible enrollment-policy changes that could promote diversity.

“Diversity is very important to me,” she said recently. “It’s how I’ve lived my life as a teacher, a principal, and even as a parent.”

But as policymakers debate the best path toward integration, a few panelists described the daily reality of schools that are separated largely by race and class.

Baptiste, the teacher at P.S. 92, where more than 90 percent of students come from low-income families, said staffers can become overwhelmed by the number of students who arrive scarred by the effects of poverty. She said she refused to send her own son to the school he was zoned for because it had a similarly high concentration of low-income students.

“That’s what I was trying to get away from,” she said. “That kept me up with night terrors and sweats.”

Nathaniel Okoroji, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, called that school “deeply segregated.” While it has more racial diversity than some of the city’s other eight elite “specialized” high schools, just 16 percent of students last year were black or Hispanic.

Okoroji said that he and other black students often face racism and “anti-blackness” from other students.

“It’s very toxic,” he said. “It’s very hard to learn to the best of your ability when you’re always worried what that kid next to you is going to say.”

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

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

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it 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 change, 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 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?”