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Exit strategy for a closing school's principal: Relocate upstairs

Two new schools are coming to the Washington Irving High School campus this fall, but Mayor Bloomberg mentioned only one when he visited the building this week to tout 54 new small schools opening in September.

The principals-to-be of the venture capitalist-backed Academy of Software Engineering and dozens more new schools stood by Bloomberg’s side as he touted the city’s success at replacing large, dysfunctional high schools with smaller schools.

The other new school, Union Square High School for Health Sciences, will share more than a street address with Washington Irving, which the city is closing due to poor performance. Its focus is a spinoff of one of Irving’s programs, and its proposed leader, Bernardo Ascona, has been Irving’s principal since 2008.

Ascona says he applied to lead the new school shortly after the city announced that it was considering closing Washington Irving. Now, some students and teachers say they feel slighted that he sought a way out even as they rallied to keep the school open. They also question why, for the second time in four years, the city has offered a plum new job — the same salary for fewer students and a clean slate — to an Irving principal.

“It’s unfair, particularly when the management hierarchy always seems to land on their feet,” said Gregg Lundahl, Irving’s union chapter leader. “The staff at Washington Irving work very, very hard. [Ascona] was only expecting us to do what he had been told to tell us to do, and as we can see it didn’t work out so well.”

“He failed to make this school successful,” said Anna Durante, a junior. “Once you have a game over, you don’t get an extra token to restart.”

City officials say they are confident in Ascona’s leadership, and Ascona said his move will allow him to bring positive changes to the Irving campus faster than if he had stayed on as the flagship school’s principal.

When Ascona became principal in 2008, Irving was already suffering from low student performance and graduation rates. City officials hoped he would be able to reverse the school’s downward spiral, but the school’s progress report grade has yo-yoed from a C to an F since then. In 2010, the state told the city it would have to overhaul Irving, and city officials planned to funnel extra resources to the school through the federal school improvement program called “transformation,” meant for low-performing schools that show promise of improving.

But in late 2011, officials changed their minds, and placed Irving on the list of schools to begin closing this year. Shortly after, Ascona interviewed for the position of principal at the health sciences-themed small high school, he told me when we spoke at a March high school fair, where he was promoting the new school.

“When I came to Irving, I think we improved tremendously. I was happy they’re letting me stay,” he said. “From my perspective, I get to stay with my kids and Washington Irving, and start something new.”

He said the new school is already set to improve over Washington Irving by bringing a more robust science program to the building. The school will feature extra advanced science courses and two tracks — for would-be dental assistants and pharmacists — that he said would reach an untapped market of Manhattan families.

Ascona isn’t the first Irving principal to move into a different principal’s office in the same building. Denise DiCarlo, who preceded him as Irving’s principal, left her post to open Gramercy Arts High School in 2008 — after two years of F grades on city progress reports.

At protests and Irving’s closure hearing, teachers described Dicarlo’s move — which Ascona will mirror — as a first nail in Irving’s coffin. Gramercy, they said, was attracting the type of high-performing students who once flocked to Irving’s theater program. Without those students, they said, Irving’s performance statistics were doomed to fall. In the years since the school opened, students across the Irving campus say they have come to view Gramercy as “the good school” and Irving as “the bad one.”

Several students said on a recent afternoon they were unfamiliar with or unmoved by Ascona’s plan to leave Irving. But they speculated that the presence of another new school would replicate tensions that already exist between Irving and Gramercy.

“Everyone says that Gramercy is better than Irving. They get more stuff than us. They have better programs than us, they can do more things. We’re … the ‘ghetto school,’” said Ashley Adams, a senior at Irving.

But Adams said the characterizations weren’t always accurate. “They say Irving is bad, but we have students who graduate from the International Baccalaureate program,” she said, referring to a college preparatory program that enrolls a small number of Irving students.

City officials, including deputy chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, say Irving’s shortcomings are bigger than any one person.

”In a school that is struggling, a culture develops that exists in the school that comes from teachers, students, and administration, where the expectation is that students are not able to achieve,” Polakow-Suransky said at the school’s closure hearing in January.

David Bloomfield, a CUNY education professor, said principals should not necessarily be held uniquely responsible for a school’s low performance. But he said the pattern at Irving raises questions about the city’s own accountability credo, which includes an emphasis on principal performance.

“Tweed’s record of pointing the finger is questionable,” he said. “It just seems odd that they seem to put great stock in the school’s leadership, but are pointing out failure.”

Asked why Ascona is a good choice to run a new school in a building where he currently runs a closing school, Department of Education officials said they are confident in his leadership. They cited his commitment to student safety, parent outreach, and small learning communities at Irving as evidence that he would be able to shepherd another school to stronger results.

Teachers at the school did not dispute those qualities, but they said Ascona’s planned departure had further chipped away at already low morale.

“Mr. Ascona worked very hard to keep us open, and I understand how he needs to look out for himself,” said one teacher who asked not to be identified. “But I have children, like Mr. Ascona, and no one is going giving me a new job.”

Students said they worried his move would also take teachers and other resources away prematurely. On a March morning, several classes were displaced while workers installed smartboards inside some classrooms, and another teacher who asked not to be named said he was told they were installed in preparation for the opening of the new schools.

Ascona declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did invite me to an open house at Washington Irving for his new school in March. Clad in a white lab coat, he struck an upbeat, forward-looking tone as he led a crowd of 50-some parents and eighth-graders on a tour of the seventh-floor science lab.

With Ayorinde Ayetiwa, an Irving chemistry and physics teacher, by his side, Ascona touted Irving’s robotics team, in addition to the new, science-focused programs his school would offer, and partnerships he was building with local colleges. He also held court in the Irving library — shuttered to students this year after Ascona cut the school’s librarian in 2011 — alongside two other new schools, including the software-themed school.

“We hope all the schools tonight will offer you some choices,” he told families at the conclusion of a presentation. “The important thing is that you do what’s best for you.”

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