meet the new bosses

City picks new leaders for two of its most troubled high schools: Boys and Girls and Automotive

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

A Bronx assistant principal will take over Brooklyn’s troubled Boys and Girls High School, officials said Monday, over the objections of some staffers and alumni who had rallied behind a different candidate.

Grecian Harrison, an assistant principal at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School for the past 13 years, will become interim-acting principal of Boys and Girls, which has emerged as the face of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-stakes effort to revamp the city’s lowest performing schools. The school’s previous principal decided abruptly last month to leave less than two years after the city recruited him for the job.

Officials also announced Monday that Automotive High School, another long-struggling Brooklyn institution, will get a new principal: Kevin Bryant. Bryant currently runs Frances Perkins Academy, a tiny school that shares a building with Automotive but boasts a far higher graduation rate.

Automotive has faced setbacks similar to Boys and Girls: The state has labeled both schools “out of time” to make drastic improvements, and Automotive’s principal also recently left the flailing school. Both schools are part of de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which infuses low-performing schools with extra resources and classroom support.

“These are the right principals to continue the hard work of turning a school around,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “I know they’ll be strong instructional leaders and support students, teachers, and families.”

The decision at Boys and Girls comes as a major disappointment to some staffers and alumni who had thrown their support behind Allison Farrington, the popular principal of a small high school housed inside Boys and Girls’ campus. Last month, representatives of Boys and Girls’ teachers, parents, and alumni signed a letter to Fariña backing Farrington and two other candidates — but not Harrison — and asking for a greater role in the selection process.

Beyond allowing them to submit their recommendations, the selection process had given those groups “no real voice in determining who the next principal will be for this historic educational institution,” the June 27 letter said. Ultimately, the city rejected their recommendations and opted for Harrison, who most recently oversaw the ninth grade, social studies department, and physical education at Smith.

On Saturday, Brooklyn City Councilman Robert Cornegy wrote Fariña asking her to postpone any announcement until she had reconsidered “the community’s request” to appoint Farrington. He added: “I believe it is grossly unfair to the BGHS community to select an instructional leader from outside the community,” according to the letter, which was obtained by Chalkbeat. (Cornegy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he has previously said he would be “pissed off” if he was not able to participate in the selection process.)

The education department’s hiring rules authorize superintendents to choose interim-acting principals, though the chancellor must approve them. After that, a committee of parents, students, and union representatives must have an opportunity to interview at least three principal candidates before the superintendent makes a final decision. In the case of Boys and Girls and Automotive, the city entered into an agreement with the teachers and principals unions that requires principal candidates at those schools to apply to an additional committee as well.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Grad Center, said it appeared the city had adhered to the rules and the agreement in appointing Harrison as an interim-acting principal. However, he said that by not discussing the decision ahead of time with people at the school, the department may have made it harder for Harrison to unify the school community around her.

“By acting in what appears to be a high-handed manner,” he said, “they are hobbling their own candidate.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said Superintendent Michael Alcoff met with the Boys and Girls community before making his selection “to discuss how seriously he was taking this process,” and added that he will continue to meet with them.

Once the premier high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Boys and Girls has declined precipitously in recent years. Since 2010, its enrollment has plummeted by 85 percent, and its graduation rate remains 20 points below the city average.

Its previous principal, Michael Wiltshire, raised the school’s on-time graduation rate 8 points, to 50 percent, and sharply reduced the number of suspensions it gave out. Harrison now faces the daunting task of maintaining those gains while stabilizing the high-profile school, which shed three-quarters of its teachers last year.

“As a proud Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy native, I am committed to building on the progress and continuing to improve student achievement at Boys and Girls High School,” she said in a statement released by the education department.

Bryant faces a similar challenge. Automotive’s four-year graduation rate was even lower than Boys and Girls’ last year: 46 percent, compared to the city’s 70 percent average. It now serves just 380 students — only slightly more than Boys and Girls’ 340 — at a time when Fariña is closing or consolidating very small schools.

However, in a slight glimmer of hope, the state recently removed the school from its list of “persistently struggling” schools.

“I look forward to working to strengthen instruction, increase student support, and improve outcomes at Automotive High School,” Bryant said in a statement.

Frances Perkins’ graduation rate climbed from 46 to 73 percent under Bryant, officials said. His new role will be “master ambassador principal,” meaning he will continue to oversee some aspects of Frances Perkins even as he tries to revamp Automotive.

Wiltshire, the former Boys and Girls principal, held a similar role but struggled to simultaneously run two schools. In leaving Boys and Girls, he has returned to overseeing just one school.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.