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Principal under scrutiny steps down as closure plan proceeds

The city’s bid to close Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers will proceed without the principal who helmed the school during its recent slide.

Department of Education officials said Wednesday, moments after a public hearing about the closure plan, that this is Sharon Smalls’ last week as principal at Jane Addams.

Smalls’ resignation comes as city investigators are scrutinizing how her administration handed out course credits after teachers reported that she had been giving students math and history credits for classes such as cosmetology and tourism.

Smalls was present at the closure hearing but declined to comment on the investigation or her resignation.

Stephen Tavano, the United Federation of Teachers chapter leader at Jane Addams, told reporters that morale among teachers has been down since the news broke three months ago that the crediting problems had put some students at risk of not graduating and that an investigation would begin.

“The staff is down in the dumps. We’ve been stressed under her so-called leadership,” Tavano said. “It’s emotional for the teachers and guidance counselors.”

But of the dozens of teachers and parents who took the microphone at Wednesday evening’s hearing to defend the school’s career training programs, few mentioned Smalls. Two of the teachers told me during the hearing that they were not aware of her resignation.

Through tears, several teachers and graduates told Department of Education officials that the school deserved to stay open because of its 82-year legacy in the Morrisania, Bronx, community and its state-certified Career and Technical Education programs in nursing, cosmetology, and tourism.

Patricia Capella, a special education teacher who coordinates the school’s work-study program, said Jane Addams is a highly regarded household name in the city’s nursing industry.

“Why is that? Because our students know the skills they need to be successfully employed. Why is that? Because that’s what we teach,” she said.

“The DOE has not taken into account how far we have moved these kids forward. These kids would not come to school if it wasn’t for cosmetology, if it wasn’t for nursing,” said Damaris Mercado, a cosmetology teacher. “Do not come here and tell me we’re going to be replacing you with another CTE school like all the work we have done means nothing.”

The city is proposing to open two new CTE schools — a New Visions charter school and a district school — at the Jane Addams campus in September.

The department official in charge of school closures, Marc Sternberg, defended the city’s plan and said poor leadership alone had not caused the school’s academic woes. Just 45.3 percent of students who entered the school as ninth-graders in 2006 graduated on time in 2010.

“This is a school that has been in distress for a long time,” Sternberg said. “At the same time, we have other schools here in the Bronx and citywide serving a similar student demographic, producing incredibly great results.”

In a rare defense of the closure plan, one parent — who was spirited out of the auditorium immediately after her speech by department officials — said in Spanish that she hopes the school does close. She blamed academic policies and a poorly managed computer class for her daughter’s depression.

Wilfredo Pagan, the Bronx representative to the Panel for Educational Policy, which is set to vote on the closure proposal next month, told officials he hoped they would continue both to support the school and to scrutinize whether any improprieties had taken place. He told GothamSchools that he had not yet decided whether to support the closure plan. The panel, which is dominated by mayoral appointees, has never rejected a city proposal.

Tavano told officials the school has “the capacity to turn around immediately.”

“We are at a school that has not been friendly for the past four and a half years,” he said. “We need a new principal, one that is both ethically and morally sound. We need an effective manager, one that will follow rules and laws.”

Before the hearing, librarian Tina Chrismore plastered the school’s entryway with a montage of photography and student newspaper clippings from the 1920s to the present, and distributed copies of past student newspaper articles.

Chrismore began working at Jane Addams in 2007, when Smalls was hired, after years in the financial services industry. She said her experience at the school has been so rife with management problems that she is considering returning to the business world.

“Nobody wants to work in these conditions,” she said. “I don’t know how these people think they could run a business — no company would run this way in the real world.”

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