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Update: Principal’s removal from Manhattan high school stirs protest from parents and students

More than 600 people signed an online petition urging the city Department of Education to bring Principal John Wenk back to Lower Manhattan Arts Academy as of Monday, before some concerns could be quelled about the fate of the school’s arts programs.

Over the weekend, rumors began floating over social media that Wenk, the school’s founding principal, had been fired for pushing back against potential cuts to the programs, which included dance, acting, visual arts, drawing, music classes and art history as of last school year.

The petition was created Friday, the same day Wenk was officially removed as principal, and also called to save the school’s arts classes.

On Monday, Department of Education spokesman Doug Cohen said in emailed statements that Dr. Wenk “was not terminated”  but rather had agreed to resign by December 31 prior to an arbitrator’s hearing “based on performance and misconduct as principal.” Cohen added, “There are no plans to cut any arts programming at the school.”

Cohen did not elaborate on what the misconduct was but said that Wenk has been reassigned to the central office. “We’ve made the decision to reassign Dr. Wenk in the interest of students and families,” Cohen said, “and the superintendent is providing ongoing support to ensure a smooth transition.”

But Monday night, parents remained upset at news of Wenk’s reassignment and how it had been handled. 

Former student Jose Camacho launched the petition over the weekend after he saw social media posts about Wenk’s departure, then confirmed the news with people connected to the school.

It wasn’t clear if petition-signers were aware of the official reason Wenk was reassigned, but Camacho said his own attempts at asking school officials for answers were unsuccessful.

Chalkbeat obtained documents with a heading from the state education department’s teacher tenure hearing unit, which list the charges against Wenk. They include his allegedly misusing $80 in school funds, maintaining too large a ratio for classes that integrate general education students and those with disabilities, for not properly staffing some special-education classes, and for assigning multiple paraprofessionals to clerical work instead of to students or classrooms.

In some instances, students’ individualized education plans — commonly known as IEPs — were not fulfilled as required, and the document says Wenk “programmed” students and staff in a way that prioritized the arts over fulfilling mandates laid out in the IEPs.

Wenk also allegedly did not follow instructions or directives from district Executive Superintendent Marisol C. Rosales, though no further description of this alleged “insubordination” is provided. All of the allegations, except for the $80 in misspent funds, occurred since September 2017.

A publicly-listed number for Wenk was not in service, and he could not be reached for comment. The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union for principals, did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon, before Chalkbeat knew of the specific allegations.

After learning about the charges, Camacho said he still had questions about their validity.  He credited Wenk with allowing students to express themselves and providing the “push to believe in ourselves,” which he said kept him on track to graduation in 2014.

“I went on Change.org, and I started the petition to see if I got the reaction from people that felt the same way,” Camacho said. “And a whole bunch of people started writing to me and signing the petition. I said, ‘Let’s start a protest.’”

Camacho arranged a rally for 4:30 p.m. Monday outside of the school, where about a dozen people showed up.

The petition garnered 500 signatures in one day, according to the website. As of 2:09 p.m. on Monday, there were 612 signatures.

“John Wenk is one of the most supportive educators I’ve ever known,” one supporter wrote on the petition. “He was there for me from the first day when I came up to him and told him I didn’t want to be there until now. He continued to support my family even after I graduated. This is such an injustice.”

Catherine Fitz, who also signed the petition, said her daughter graduated from the school last year. She said Wenk is passionate about the job and has earned admiration from teachers and parents alike.

“It’s strange to me that the founding principal of a high school would be reassigned like this,” Fitz said. “It’s just astounding to me. I don’t understand pulling him out of the school that he created.”

The school’s parents association called an emergency meeting Monday night, where approximately 40 parents, students and alumni crowded into a small art-class room and, at many points, became heated while talking to  District 2 Superintendent Vivian Orlen, who emphasized that the school is not losing its arts program.

Although she said she couldn’t disclose the specific charges, Orlen said, “There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Wenk touched many of your lives.”

Still, parents blasted the district for not informing them about Wenk’s reassignment. “I shouldn’t find out the principal is gone from my child,” said one mother, to applause from the room. “I should find out from the district.”

“I have to say, I totally understand from a parent’s perspective that you heard it through your child,” Orlen said. But she added that she assumed there were “strong communication channels” between the leadership team and parents.

A parent who identified herself to the room as the school’s PTA president said Wenk came to their meeting last Thursday and informed parents who were there that it was his last day.

Orlen generally described the steps the district follows to find a new principal, which she said will involve getting feedback from parents and school “stakeholders.”