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Harlem charter school parents demand board members' ouster

Parents at the Harlem charter school placed on probation last week are staging a revolt against members of the school’s board of trustees.

About a quarter of parents at the year-old New York French American Charter School have signed on to a letter demanding that board chair Johnny Celestin resign, according to a parent who has been active in organized the protest. The parents plan to present the letter to Celestin at a board meeting tonight and have already alerted him to their plans, according to the parent, Jenna Chrisphonte.

The letter accuses Celestin and a second board member, Sochenda Samreth, of neglecting board duties and failing to support the school’s finances and operations. Parents told GothamSchools that the board members rarely visited the school, did not communicate with parents, blocked new members from joining, and made some decisions privately, in violation of open meeting laws.

When it placed the school on probation last week, the city Department of Education cited the board’s approach to informing the community about approaching meetings as one of several “serious violations” of state law and the school’s own charter.

Claire Zaglauer, a parent who is set to join the board after being elected last week to lead the school’s parent-teacher organization, said she thought some of the problems cited in the probation report had been resolved since the city’s May visit but the board did not inform DOE officials. For example, she said, the school actually asked parents to sign off on the city’s own discipline policy in September, yet the DOE was not told that a discipline policy was in place.

“I believe that the main reason the DOE has gotten an unclear picture is because of the lack of communication from the board,” said Zaglauer, who teaches kindergarten in bilingual French class at another public school.

The conflict illuminates a tension in charter school governance: Unless board members have broken the law, the only tool authorizers have to address their activity — or lack thereof — involves putting the school’s very existence in jeopardy.

The arrangement is meant to prevent authorizers from meddling in the operations of charter schools, which are supposed to be free of day-to-day oversight. But it also means that families can be penalized when board members fall short.

Zaglauer said parents at NYFACS worried that their children’s academic performance was to blame when they first learned that the school had been put on probation.

In contrast, she said, things are on the right track after the school’s rocky first year that included several leadership changes. She praised the school’s rare French dual-language curriculum and noted that the school brings together African-Americans, immigrants from Haiti and Senegal, and European French speakers. Students who entered without knowing a word of French are speaking the language in the halls, she said.

“I think that the change tonight of the board will make a huge impact. If that impediment is removed the school will soar,” Zaglauer said.

Some parents said the school’s problems go deeper than the board. Fatmata Britton — who said she is looking for a new school for her second-grade daughter who she said has special needs and has been suspended multiple times — said the school’s leadership hadn’t planned adequately before opening last year. Eighteen months into the school’s existence, it is on its third principal.

“Parents should wait until the right people are running the school,” Britton said. “They need to close down and reevaluate what they’re doing.”

Dirk Tillotson, who directs a charter school incubator run by the New York State Charter Schools Association, said NYFACS has grappled with challenges that face many mom-and-pop charter schools: a lack of resources, little experience in the charter school world, and staffing struggles. The school is also spending a significant portion of its funds to rent private space on West 120 Street.

Plus, he said, when consulting with the school early in existence, “I felt like they had real challenges with the board understanding and being able to carry out its responsibilities.”

Celestin did not respond to efforts to reach him. According to his profile on LinkedIn, a professional networking account, he has a business background and is the president of a nonprofit called the Haitian Fund for Innovation and Reconstruction. On the school’s application, Celestin is listed as the proprietor of a bakery that is now defunct.

Zaglauer said the ball in in Celestin’s court as the school nears tonight’s board meeting but said the consequences if he clings to control could be fierce.

“The only way we will know for sure is if he actually does it or sends an email saying he will do it, but those things haven’t happened,” she said. “I feel that if he does not step down there will be an all-out riot by the parents.”

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