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Charter high school's founders announce resignation in a mysterious letter

A couple who founded an East Harlem charter high school three years ago abruptly resigned this week amid leadership reshuffling — but they aren’t going quietly.

Nicholas and Rita Tishuk, who founded Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation in 2010, took parting shots at the school’s board of trustees in a resignation email sent to friends and staff on Tuesday evening. In the letter, forwarded to Chalkbeat New York by one of its recipients, the Tishuks said they left voluntarily in the middle of the year because of unspecified actions from the board.

“We love the school and we are deeply saddened to be leaving mid-year,” the married couple writes. “However, given recent actions by Innovation’s Board of Trustees, we can not in good conscience remain at the school any longer.”

Exactly what those actions were are not specified in the email, which Nicholas Tishuk confirmed that he sent. (He declined to comment about the message’s contents.) But the Tishuks suggested that illicit activities might have taken place.

They cited “critical governance problems” and said they’ve handed over evidence to the city Department of Education that has led to an investigation. The school was authorized by the city to open in 2010 and will be up for a five-year renewal next year.

Frank Sala, the chair of the school’s board, declined to comment on the Tishuks’ departure. “We feel that the Innovation Board acted appropriately, with integrity and consistent with its fiduciary duties and the interests of our students and our school,” Sala said in a statement. “Because this is a personnel matter we will not otherwise comment.”

A spokesman for the department did not immediately confirm if an investigation is open into the school. The school’s website, www.innovationhs.org, which is registered to Nicholas Tishuk, has been down since at least Tuesday night.

A possible sign of brewing tension is that the school’s lawyer recently became its executive director. Stephen Falla-Riff was previously the school’s general counsel and director of operations, according to cached files found online. But his LinkedIn page now states that he is the school’s executive director, a position that a source familiar with the school said that he has held for “a few months.”

The school has also come into tension recently with others in the city’s charter sector. Last year, Nicholas Tishuk was among a handful of charter school principals who publicly stated their opposition to a rally organized by Success Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and other large charter management organizations. Tishuk, who was a teacher and administrator at the Renaissance Charter School in Queens before leaving to replicate the school’s model in East Harlem, favors a progressive approach that is rarely seen in charter schools serving mostly high-need students.

Renaissance is one of the city’s few charter high schools and has gained a reputation for taking in hard-to-serve students. Over one-third of its students have special education plans, higher than the city averages, making the school notable within the charter sector. In just its fourth year of operation, it hasn’t gotten a grade from the city because it hasn’t yet graduated any students.

The school has struggled to hold on to staff in its early years. The school reported 44 percent teacher attrition and 29 percent administrator attrition, according to data collected last year. And a review of minutes from monthly board meetings — which had been posted on the school website before the site was taken down — hint at ongoing staffing concerns at the school.

The school has its sights on turning itself into a career and technical school that trains students to be certified in computer science upon graduation. It applied to change its charter to reflect the direction over the summer and was named as one of 20 schools where the city would operate a computer science initiative beginning this year.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the school’s board.

A copy of the Tishuks’ letter is below.

From: Nicholas Tishuk

Date: January 7, 2014 at 5:24:28 PM EST
To: Nicholas Tishuk, Rita Tishuk
Subject: Nicholas and Rita Tishuk

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am writing you to share with you that Rita and I have resigned our positions at the Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation and that today was our last day as employees. We love the school and we are deeply saddened to be leaving mid-year. We will especially miss the students, staff and families.

As the school’s co-founders, Innovation has been the primary focus in our lives since 2008, when we first began the planning process that led to Innovation. However, given recent actions by Innovation’s Board of Trustees, we can not in good conscience remain at the school any longer.

We have provided detailed information and documents to our authorizer at the NYCDOE in this matter and an investigation is underway. We sincerely hope that critical governance problems can be addressed and the excellent work of Innovation can be continued. Our model of serving at-risk teenagers, many of whom are students with IEPs, overaged and undercredited student, ELLs or students coming in below grade level through project based and experiential learning is a powerful one and we strongly believe in its ability to serve communities such as Innovation’s in East Harlem.

While our time at Innovation has come to a close, Rita and I will continue our work in the education sector. We apologize for the form letter and we hope to have individual conversations with many of you in the coming weeks. We appreciate so much your support of our work and we look forward to continuing the relationships we have built over the years.

If you want to get in touch, please drop us a line: Phone:
[REDACTED] (Nick) or [REDACTED] (Rita) or via email:
[REDACTED] and [REDACTED]

Best,

Nicholas Tishuk
Rita Tishuk
Co-founders, the Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation

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