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HVA charter high school's high-profile principal resigns abruptly

The high-profile principal hired to turn around a struggling charter high school has resigned abruptly, just months into the school year.

Jason Griffiths, who left one of the city’s most selective high schools to take over at Harlem Village Academy High School over the summer, is no longer at the charter school, according to a letter sent to families on Tuesday. The school’s academic dean, who came to HVA with Griffiths from Brooklyn Latin School, will take over for now.

Griffiths resigned because of “personal reasons related to his family and his health,” according to the letter sent to families. Griffiths, who became a father this summer, did not respond to requests for comment. The school also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hiring Griffiths was a coup for the school, which boasts some impressive student achievement data and its own East Harlem building but has struggled to maintain enrollment, retain teachers, and keep discipline under control.

Its previous principal, Laurie Warner, resigned in February and the school operated without a leader until Griffiths came on over the summer. An HVA official said earlier this year that she left for personal reasons.

Now, Griffiths’ resignation is a blow that comes at a time when Harlem Village Academies, the network that operates the high school, needs to prove that its struggles are in the past. The network announced this fall that it aspires to open a graduate school to train teachers.

Parents and students outside the school on Wednesday said the latest departure is unsettling.

“This is the second principal that’s left in a year — we’re in limbo,” said Leslie Betancourt, the mother of a sophomore daughter and a son in eighth grade at an HVA middle school. “I feel like the foundation is falling apart.”

Betancourt said several teachers left at the end of the last school year — around the time the previous principal also left. Students said some of the teachers told them they had been asked to leave. The school, including founder and CEO Deborah Kenny, has not fully explained the turnover to parents, Betancourt said, adding that emails she sent to Kenny had not been answered.

“There’s something going on in the school system [HVA] that they’re not telling us,” Betancourt said. “We expect honesty. What we see and hear going on is different from what they’re telling us.”

Multiple students said changes had been made under Griffiths but that order had not yet set in.

“It’s hectic. Theres’s no order. They lose control because there’s not one person making decisions” due to the principal turnover, said a sophomore whose parent asked that the student’s name be withheld. “Teachers get frantic.”

The sophomore and another student said that, under Griffiths, the school had ended a demerit system that former teachers said had until recently been the school’s primary — and excessively punitive — approach to student discipline. But they said the system changes and the departure of several teachers had made this year feel less stable than last.

“I feel like last year was way better,” the sophomore said. Of Griffiths, he added, “I feel like he was struggling to cope with us.”

Griffiths told DNAInfo over the summer that he was attracted to HVA because of its small size and liberal arts focus, which make it similar in some ways to Brooklyn Latin. He also planned to add the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, which Brooklyn Latin offers, at HVA.

But the two schools are also very different. At HVA, high school students were originally admitted to the network’s two middle schools in fifth grade by lottery, many with significant academic ground to make up. Brooklyn Latin, on the other hand, accepts students based on their scores on a citywide exam required to be eligible for ultra-selective specialized high schools. While Brooklyn Latin, which is in Williamsburg, is the least selective of the specialized schools, its students are among the city’s highest-achieving and most driven.

“I know this is going to be a lot of work but I’ll have a lot more control,” Griffiths told DNAInfo. “And if we have failures we’ll have the opportunity to fix them or they’ll be my fault.”

Students on their way into classes today said they thought recent changes would allow the school to function even in Griffiths absence. And one said the school’s track record of frequent turnover had prepared it to weather the latest departure.

“We didn’t have a principal last year,” said Alana, a junior who declined to share her last name. “Now he left — it won’t change anything.”

The school’s complete letter to families is below:

Dear Families,

We are writing to share with you that Jason Griffiths has resigned as Principal of HVA High and that effective immediately our Academic Dean, Cari Winterich, is the interim school leader, focusing primarily on the academic program. Ms. Winterich has been leading our teachers this year and we anticipate a smooth transition.

Mr. Griffiths informed us that he made the decision to resign for personal reasons related to his family and his health. As has been the case during Mr. Griffith’s leave of absence over the last month, Ms. Winterich, along with the faculty and staff, will continue to serve the needs of our students and families.

This news is difficult for all of us in the HVAH community. We have shared this information with your child today and have provided a forum with teachers and counselors to support students who need time and space to process the announcement. If you have any questions, we invite parents of 9th and 11th grade students to call Abena Koomson at 646—— and parents of 10th and 12th grade students to call Aria Gee at 347–—–. We encourage you to contact us, and we will reach out as soon as possible.

Most importantly, the HVA High team remains committed to our students. We care deeply about the well-being, academic achievement, and personal growth of every student. To this end we will continue to focus on academic rigor, authentic assessment, and our transition to the International Baccalaureate Programme. We will continue to strengthen our culture and to work hard to help students cultivate the independence they will need for success in college and beyond.

Thank you for your support and partnership.

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