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Principal hiring process contested at tumultuous Robeson HS

A high school that is slated to close just lost its second principal in a year, and community members are agitating to play a stronger role in selecting their next leader.

Katherine Kefalas, the embattled interim acting principal of Brooklyn’s Paul Robeson High School, was removed yesterday, Department of Education officials confirmed, and a new interim principal, Ronald Wells, was named.

Students and teachers say Kefalas, who had shepherded South Shore High School in the final months before it closed, was never a good fit for Robeson and wasn’t giving the school what it needed to improve.

“We needed someone strong, passionate, and committed, who believed in our community and our students and had experience to stand on,” said Stefanie Siegel, a longtime Robeson teacher. “She had none of this and to make it worse she was afraid, defensive, and didn’t listen or respect the knowledge, history, and experience here. … She was not the right person for Robeson and that was obvious from the minute she stepped in the building.”

But they are also saying that want more control over who their next principal will be. “We don’t want an inexperienced principal to take over a school in crisis,” 10 members of the school’s student government wrote in a statement.

Robeson was one of 19 schools whose closure plans were stopped by court order last year. In February, the Panel for Educational Policy voted — for the second time — to close it and open a technology-themed school in its place.

The man the city selected to step in has been a principal before. Ronald Wells headed Manhattan’s Martin Luther King High School before it closed and has served as interim principal at other schools.

“In order to meet the needs of the community and to ensure we are supporting the school, Dr. Ronald Wells will serve as the principal assigned while we undertake the C-30 process,” said DOE spokeswoman Barbara Morgan. “Dr. Wells is a strong leader and we feel this is the best fit for the Robeson community during this time.”

The C-30 process, used to fill open principal slots, is at the heart of the demands being made by Robeson’s student government and a student activist group called Robeson Unite, which says it is fighting to keep the school open. The process requires that School Leadership Teams — which are made up of parents, teachers, the principal, and, in high schools, students — be consulted before a principal is selected, but the ultimate decision is left up to the district superintendent.

That’s not enough, say student leaders who are calling for a committee of students and parents to be allowed to identify candidates. “We demand that we have a community and student voice within the selection of a new principal,” wrote the student government members. “We have the right to this demand because this is OUR SCHOOL and we, as students, have to face the consequences of whatever happens to us.”

Community members also want the process sped up. Robeson has been without a permanent principal for more than a year, since longtime leader Ira Weston was pulled from the school in February 2010 amid a a flurry of accusations, including one that he had come drunk to work. Siegel said officials explained at a faculty meeting today that the C-30 process could not begin until allegations against the previous principal were resolved. That process has officially been launched now, department officials said today, with the goal of a permanent principal being selected selected by the end of the school year.

Wells told teachers at Robeson today that he intends to apply for the permanent position, Siegel said.

Wells himself is no stranger to quick leadership switches. In 2002, Wells was removed from Martin Luther King after two violent incidents at the school in two months. Since leaving that school, he has been assigned to vacant principalships and has also worked in the DOE’s safety and suspension divisions.

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