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For skeptical parents, 'turnaround' principal change brings hope

Last week, hundreds of parents, teachers, and students crowded Long Island City High School’s auditorium for a hearing about the school’s planned “turnaround.” On Tuesday evening, just a dozen parents attended a meeting to hear directly from the Department of Education’s latest pick to run the revamped school.

Gathered in the school’s band room, they learned that Vivian Selenikas, the proposed school leader, speaks four languages (English, Spanish, Greek and Italian. They found that she started her career in the 1980s as a Spanish teacher at Richmond Hill High School, another school on the turnaround list. And they learned that she believes careful curriculum planning will lift Long Island City out of a slump of low attendance (the rate last year was 80 percent) and poor city progress report grades.

They also learned that Selenikas is not afraid to stand up and cha-cha. When the school’s cheerleading coach led parents through impromptu dance exercises at the end of the Parent Association meeting, Selenikas joined in.

As a Queens network leader, Selenikas is no stranger to the large high school on Broadway, which required help from her and other Department of Education officials last year to resolve massive scheduling problems.

“It’s important that someone who knew the community and knew the needs of this neighborhood helped to move the school forward, should the decision be made that Long Island City will no longer be Long Island City,” she said.

But many parents say they are worried that the city is not planning adequately for turnaround. Some say they are wary of the abrupt leadership change, which would be the third in less than four years. The current principal, Maria Mamo-Vacacela, came under fire last year for overhauling most students’ schedules two months into the academic year.

Mamo-Vacacela is one of several principals the city is replacing this year at the turnaround schools, though she is one of the few who would be eligible to stay on under the rules of the reform model, because she was only hired as principal in 2010.

Speaking to reporters last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott suggested that the principal replacements would create more stability at the schools than would otherwise exist if leadership stayed the same.

“We’re taking a look at the leadership and we’re making changes. Our goal is to stabilize the system,” he said. “This will have a direct benefit in impacting the students in a positive way. Our goal is to make sure we increase the leadership capacity and the teaching capacity in these schools.”

Selenikas said she would lead the creation of several new Small Learning Communities, including an academy for freshmen, and possibly an arts-focused community and a sports-focused community that would integrate the school’s many electives and clubs. She also wants to add more Advanced Placement classes to the 18 already on offer.

Selenikas, who served as a principal of the Bronx High School for Arts and Business and an assistant principal at LICHS before becoming a network leader, emphasized the importance of long-term planning as parents pressed her for details on how the school would prevent future scheduling problems.

“There will not be scheduling issues because a very smart group of people and I have started this month to think about September so that’s not going to happen,” Selenikas said. “It would be foolish to plan a school-to-school implementation of the Small Learning Communities and not start the work in the spring of the year before.”

“See, that’s my concern, between June 1 and September 1, how are they going to get everything in place,” said Anita O’Brien, a parent of two daughters in 10th and 12th grade at the school. “I’m glad to know that you’re starting to do that now.”

Selenikas was more vague about her plans for the more nearly 100 LICHS teachers whose jobs would be placed in jeopardy this summer if the turnaround begins. The federal reform model, which comes with millions of dollars in grant money attached to it, would require participating schools to replace at least half of their teachers.

But Selenikas echoed department officials who have said they would not impose a quota for rehiring, which would follow the union contract process used at other closing schools. The hiring committee will include Selenikas, two members picked by the teachers union and two members picked by the city.

“While every staff member will be excessed on June 30th, my pledge to all of you is, the only consideration will be to bring back the most highly-qualified staff,” she said, reflecting statements city officials have made in the past month. “If that means it’s more than 50 percent and we don’t get the $1.5 million, so be it.”

Many parents have said the main problem with the city’s controversial plan to close and “turnaround” 26 schools is the mystery surrounding how exactly their schools would change this year.

Alex Santiago, whose son is a sophomore, said he shares that belief. But he left the meeting with Selenikas feeling more positive about the turnaround than he did after receiving tidbits of information from his son over the past month.

“After hearing what she has to say, yes, she seems competent. And definitely experienced,” he said. “But I don’t want [my son] demoralized. I think the kids are under a lot of stress right now because there hasn’t been a lot of information about what it means that the school is closing.”

O’Brien — a 1995 graduate of the school who said she hopes her son, a seventh-grader, will apply next year — said she too was relieved that the proposed new principal already has some familiarity with the school community. But she still thinks the turnaround could do more harm than good.

“They’re making this out like they’re doing the best thing for the children, but what is this school going to look like? I can’t honestly say I want [my son] to come here in a couple years,” she said in an interview. But, she added, “When I found out she would be our new principal, I was comforted to know it was somebody who knows us. I was so worried that total strangers would be picking who gets to stay.”

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