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At Satellite III, blame for decline placed on short-term principal

The fall of Satellite III began the day Kenyatta Reid resigned as principal.

That was the story told and retold Thursday night at a public hearing about the Department of Education’s plan to close the Clinton Hill middle school.

After six years as the school’s beloved principal, Reid was selected in 2010 to start a new middle school and, according to his supporters, the city replaced him with an incompetent placeholder. For the next 10 months, they said, professional development stalled, school culture crumbled, and any semblance of progress achieved under Reid began to vanish.

That critical 10-month period — and the poor marks that followed — would provide the evidence on which the city based its plan to close the school. Last year, just 19 percent of students were considered proficient in reading and 34 percent were proficient in math. The school got a D on its most recent city progress report. But before that, the school had never earned a failing grade and was safe under Reid’s leadership.

The interim principal during that period, Ronald Wells, came under fire from parents and teachers who said he was an absentee leader. Wells was removed as principal of Martin Luther King High School, which has since closed, in 2002 and has been an interim principal at several schools since then.

“I don’t want to give one man that much credit, but he was definitely a catalyst” for Satellite III’s slide, said Monique Smalls, a PTA member.

Even a trio of elected officials have come together to place the blame squarely on Wells for the school’s poor performance.

“He mismanaged the school, was unresponsive, discontinued popular advanced programs for gifted and talented students, and provided little support to teachers and staff, devastating morale,” reads a letter penned by City Councilman Al Vann, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery. The letter was submitted at the hearing and is posted in full below.

Reid left Satellite III in 2010 to found the third outpost of Eagle Academy for Young Men, a small school that’s been highly touted by the the Bloomberg administration. Testifying Thursday in support of Satellite III, he said even he was baffled by the city’s decision to hire Wells to replace him.

“When I left, they put an administrator in there who, from the beginning, knew he wasn’t going to stay,” Reid said. “You don’t do that to a school, especially a small school. At a small school, leadership makes a tremendous difference.”

Wells left Satellite III last February — he ended up in Paul Robeson High School, which is being phased out — and was replaced by Beatrice Thompson. Parents said Thompson was a much more visible presence in the school and teachers said she was catching the school up on the citywide rollout of new curriculum standards, something that was neglected last year.

In his testimony, Reid urged the parents and teachers to continue fighting the DOE’s closure policies.

“There’s a system that they’ve created and they’re not following it,” Reid said. “They have to follow the rules. That’s what we tell our children everyday. So what we say to you is to follow the rules.”

Reid was one of dozens of people who spoke at the hearing, from about 100 school supporters who attended. One testimony included a performance by a string quartet made up of siblings who attend or attended from Satellite III. The two older siblings, Priya and Brian De Berry, now attend Medger Evers College Preparatory School.

“I just wanted to show you all what kind of students can come from Satellite III,” said the quartet’s father, Sean De Berry. The performance even prompted a brief break in the hearing so a Department of Education deputy chancellor, Kathleen Grimm, could shake each musician’s hand.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, will vote on the closure plan next month. A new middle school, M.S. 351, would replace Satellite III.

Here’s the letter that elected officials sent the city on behalf of Satellite III:

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