Manhattan’s long-struggling High School of Graphic Communication Arts was supposed to turn a corner this year. But instead, students and staff throughout the school say a recent string of poor leadership decisions is threatening the school’s ultimate fate.
The toilet plungers that students were told to wield as hall passes last month — until the Department of Education ended the practice — are a distressing symbol of much larger problems at the school, they say.
A month into the school year, longstanding programs are in disarray, materials and personnel are languishing unused, and many students have had such inconsistent schedules that their teachers say they have learned far less than they should have by now.
“They are all so off-track right now that the first projects we have, I can’t really truly grade them as I normally would,” one teacher said about students. “I’m going to have to try to make up the knowledge somehow, but I don’t know how yet. They should be much further along than they are now.”
GothamSchools spoke with nearly a dozen newly hired and veteran staff members under the condition of anonymity, as well as other people close to the school. The staffers span the school’s grade levels, program offerings, and organizational hierarchy.
All said that the ultimate responsibility for the problems should fall on Principal Brendan Lyons, who took over at the school last year and was the department’s pick to lead it through “turnaround.” The aggressive overhaul process for 24 schools was halted this summer after an arbitrator ruled the city’s plans violated its contract with the teachers union.
Under Lyons’s leadership, the staffers said, school administrators have neglected to claim thousands of dollars in state aid for career and technical education; cut the school’s music program and given away many of its instruments; placed students in classes outside of their majors; converted an empty classroom into a dump for unwanted instructional materials; and rewritten students’ schedules so many times that some teachers have not been able to assign any projects or grade them.
“There are a lot of programming issues with my kids — basic things that should have happened but didn’t happen,” said one staff member whom Lyons asked to teach at the school this year.
“We continue to provide support to Brendan Lyons and High School of Graphic Communication Arts,” said Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. “We are looking into the concerns and taking them seriously.”
Lyons declined to comment for this article.
Lyons became principal in 2011 after four years as an assistant principal at a small school in the Bronx and a stint in the department’s central technology division. Initially, many teachers said they saw in the young administrator a chance to work together to set the long-struggling school on a stronger path.
But once the department empowered Lyons to lead the turnaround effort, which included requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs, his leadership style took a more heavy-handed turn, according multiple people familiar with the school.
“A lot of principals did it in a dignified way,” a source familiar with the school said about the rehiring process. “Others didn’t — some did it in a horrific way.”
Lyons fell into the latter camp, the source said. “There was no compassion. That will never be repaired and it continues to this day.”
The arbitrator’s ruling rolled back changes made at the 24 schools that were supposed to undergo turnaround, so any teacher who wanted to return to Graphics could, even if Lyons had already cut him or her loose. Since then, Lyons’s team has frozen veteran administrators out of staff meetings and reassigned their duties to newer assistant principals, according to a new hire. Some of the veterans are still making six-figure salaries, but they are allowed to do little more than serve as hall monitors and physical education and safety supervisors.
That leaves newer staff members struggling to execute the tasks needed to make the school run effectively, the new hire said. “I’m already working 50 to 60 hours a week, and I don’t feel like I’m able to give the kids what they deserve,” the staffer said.
The biggest problems have centered on students’ programs. Some students were placed into courses they had already taken, while others were assigned to courses they never intended to take. Most students in the law and journalism programs, for example, were re-assigned to photography and visual arts courses this year, several students and staff members said.
Department spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said in a statement that “the students taking journalism and law will continue to do so,” but multiple students and staff told GothamSchools that there are currently no classes in those programs.
“We are not offering any of our kids law or journalism classes, and the kids … are not happy about it,” a staff member said. “It’s really sad because they came to the school with the expectation they would graduate with a focus on law and journalism, and now they will graduate with only half their programs.”
“They took law away. I came here for law. I wanted to do it,” said junior Justin Carter. “Now I’m doing visual arts, but I’m not a draw-er — that’s not me.”
Graphics’s career and technical education certifications could also be in jeopardy, sources said, because the school is receiving less state funding for CTE supplies than it has in past years after neglecting to apply this summer for a pot of state funds for that purpose. Plus, many certified CTE teachers left the school in June during the turnaround turmoil, because Lyons’s plan for the replacement school included changes to some programs, staffers said.
Still, with the staff turnover and the reduction of several programs came confusion and disorder. As we reported in September, many students arrived at Graphics for the new year with schedules for classes they did not request, in subjects they already passed or never planned to study — including one calculus class with so many students it filled three classrooms.
At several points throughout the first week of school, the auditorium hummed with the voices of close to 100 students with missing schedules, sources said. Many waited there for hours while staff members worked overtime to write new schedules. And on at least two days, sources said, administrators discharged hundreds of students by lunchtime because they didn’t have any afternoon classes scheduled, even though department officials said this would be a safety violation.
“Letting students leave before their day is over is irresponsible and shows a lack of caring or planning,” an administrator said. “Anytime we allow students to step out unescorted, we are encouraging them to cut class. This is unacceptable in a school with severe attendance issues.”
A month later, most students say their scheduling problems have been resolved, but the long-term effects linger in the form of missed assignments, extra homework, and frustrated teachers.
Evelis Cespedes, a junior, said teachers have assigned hours of make-up work and told her to expect a progress report on the first month of classes, but no preliminary grades. Students will receive final course grades in January, she said.
“It benefits us because we can make up the work we missed, but others will want to slack off until December,” she said.
A handful of teachers said the scheduling snafus have made it much harder to teach their students new material. They said this is because students’ schedules have been changing so frequently that they couldn’t count on a student who showed up to class on a Monday to be there again the following week.
“It’s impossible. You can’t give them grades or even get to know their names,” said one teacher. “I can’t blame them for getting bitter and angry.”
Another teacher said she typically assigns students a project in the first month of school that takes multiple days to complete but couldn’t do so this year.
“I have a lot of newcomers, so I based their grades on work from projects they did during previous classes,” she said, adding, “Scheduling has always been something of a problem, but never to this degree.”
In one class on a recent morning, another teacher asked the two dozen students to raise their hands if their schedules had changed two or more times this year. Half raised their hands. Some said they had received their most recent new schedule less than a week ago.
“And have any of you passed the Regents [exam for this class] already?” the teacher asked. One hand stayed in the air.
“Then you don’t belong here,” the teacher said, frowning. “This is supposed to be a make-up class.”
Teachers said students who don’t know where they’re supposed to be during the day are a common sight in the Graphics hallways. But several staff members said the most bracing visual of the school’s disorganization could be found in room 310, just off the auditorium.
That room used to house a robust music program with a piano, a drum set, and a host of other musical instruments, sheet music stands and chairs, they said. But this year it became a densely packed dumping ground for hundreds of textbooks, course materials, and other materials — including an askance stepstool, an American flag, and a television. Administrators instructed teachers to toss materials into the room that were left behind by departing teachers after they received their classroom assignments in August, staff members said.
“I’d like to call it a book room, but it’s not a book room. It’s a disaster,” one staffer said last week.
Some staff members said the school still has much potential to improve. But they are on edge as they await the latest high school progress report card release this month, and with it the city’s latest list of high schools it could close. One staffer said he initially believed Lyons was putting the school on a path to success but has lost confidence in the wake of the recent turmoil.
“I liked him,” when he arrived in 2011, the staffer said. “He was young, good with technology. He really sold me on his plan. And then he bamboozled me.”