Teachers and staff at M.S. 51, a large middle school in Park Slope, filed into the gym during their lunch hour last March to drop their paper ballots into a box to declare “yes” or “no” in a vote of no confidence in their principal.
A group of frustrated educators had compiled their complaints in a three-page, single-spaced document, charging Neal Singh with “gross mismanagement of our school” and describing extensive concerns about safety, lack of communication, “capricious and arbitrary decision-making,” and interference with union activities, according to a copy of the document obtained by Chalkbeat.
When the votes were counted, two-thirds had voted in favor. The months that followed were acrimonious, culminating in June when the United Federation of Teachers filed a grievance that alleges a pattern of harassment and intimidation of union members. Forty-one staff members signed on, making it the largest so-called union animus grievance in UFT history, union officials confirmed.
The discord at M.S. 51 is a departure for a school that was known as one of the district’s “big three” middle schools, a sought-after choice with a competitive application process and reputation for challenging academics and an extensive arts program. It was also widely considered by teachers to be a plum assignment.
Singh took over the 1,100-seat school in August of 2020 at a difficult juncture: The administration was tasked with reopening the campus during the pandemic while also adapting to educating a student body with a wider range of academic needs following a major admissions change across the district in 2019. Tensions between administration and teachers have remained high ever since.
According to several signatories, the grievance is expected to go to arbitration. Some teachers decided not to wait for resolution. About a dozen have left since June, several teachers told Chalkbeat, including two assistant principals and half the arts specialists, a turnover rate that’s highly unusual for the school.
When reached by phone on Sunday, Singh declined to be interviewed and referred questions to the department of education. Department spokesperson Chyann Tull wrote in an email, “At New York City Public Schools, our first priority is to make sure that all students receive the high-quality care and education that they deserve. The district superintendent is actively supporting the school community at M.S. 51 to ensure that the environment remains successful for all.”
Some parents staunchly defended Singh, characterizing the complaints against him as a vendetta, inspired in part by racism on the part of disgruntled staff (Singh was born in Trinidad), and describing him as a beloved figure who has weathered a challenging stretch at the school.
‘An impossible time’ for a new principal to start
Singh was appointed acting principal at M.S. 51 after the long-serving head of the school, Lenore DiLeo-Berner, abruptly retired after 14 years, a month before the new school year began. (Singh was given the permanent post in February 2021). He had been an assistant principal at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, and before that an environmental science teacher at LaGuardia High School, where he won the prestigious Sloan Award for excellence in teaching in science and mathematics in 2012.
“It was an impossible time to start,” a veteran teacher acknowledged. (All seven M.S. 51 teachers we spoke with — former and present — asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals or to avoid jeopardizing grievances against the principal.)
Students and teachers were adjusting to hybrid learning — back part of the time in the classrooms and art studios but not really back to normal. And the school was also still adjusting to a demographic shift in students. Last year, more than half of the school’s students came from low-income families, up from nearly a third the year before the admissions change, according to public data.
Teachers told Chalkbeat that they were eager to establish a good rapport with the new principal. A former English teacher said she hoped that Singh, a person of color, would be the right leader to “help support a new learning community that included people of different backgrounds.” The veteran teacher said, “A lot of staff did try to give him the benefit of doubt as long as they possibly could, because people understood it was an unprecedented time.”
But the goodwill did not last.
Early on Singh made a series of decisions that seemed ill-considered to some parents and staff, often undertaken without consulting either, parents and teachers told Chalkbeat. He removed the lockers so students had to carry their belongings around all day. He canceled first period homeroom, which many parents and teachers felt had helped create a sense of community in a large school.
In the union document prepared for the no-confidence vote, teachers charged that Singh did not establish clear boundaries for the school’s out-to-lunch policy, a cherished ritual in which students are allowed to spend their lunch period in the surrounding neighborhood. Too few staff members monitored students leaving the building, they said, and students were able to range farther from the school building. Some students either returned late or not at all, leading to confusion and anxious efforts to locate them.
These changes occurred amid heightening behavioral issues for students. Some had suffered “social and emotional damage” from the stress of the pandemic, one teacher noted, and there was bound to be some fallout, even if most were excited to be back at school. “Kids had all kinds of scars from what had happened, but we were not given support to deal with that,” she said.
Teachers and parents reported that fights were erupting outside the building and in the hallways. Children were also cutting class, vaping and smoking pot in the bathrooms, pulling fire alarms, and bullying other students, the teachers and parents said. The school issued 33 suspensions last year, according to public data. That was up from 19 in 2018-2019, the last full school year before the pandemic.
Incidents were a “daily occurrence,” according to Mia Overall, whose son was persistently bullied, along with two of his female friends, by the same group of kids in his sixth grade year.
Singh met with the parents of the children who were bullied, but Overall felt that the principal was “dismissive” of their concerns. She said the parents of the bullies did not attend the meeting, and there were no consequences for the kids who were tormenting her son. This past fall the bullying continued, and her son transferred to a different middle school.
Student surveys showed mixed feelings about school safety. Roughly 72% of students last year said they felt safe in the hallways and cafeteria. That was down 19 percentage points from the 2019 survey. But 90% reported feeling safe in their classrooms, a decline of 5 points from 2019.
Staffers railed against the principal for a host of other issues as well. According to the no-confidence documents, Singh established new grading policies without consulting faculty; made significant changes in the arts curriculum just days before the new school year; and frequently did not respond to teachers’ emails.
“The reputation of the school has been damaged,” a veteran teacher said. “And it’s not because of the students, it’s not because of the teachers. It’s because of the leadership.”
Singh’s removal of the school’s long-serving photography teacher in June 2021 was also a significant point of contention. While the teacher was eventually reassigned to a different arts department job, the award-winning photography program has been scaled back.
Sonia Alio, a parent of an M.S. 51 graduate, said after the staffing change, students no longer learned to use film cameras — instead they snap photos with their phones — and so they don’t use the darkroom either.
Some parents called him the ‘biggest supporter and advocate of the students’
Singh has some vocal supporters among parents at the school. In December, Tomasita Sherer, the mother of twin eighth-grade boys, wrote to the district’s superintendent, Rafael Alvarez, to convey her “unequivocal support and admiration” for Singh. “Most of the children, teachers and parents love Mr. Singh and would give him an A+ for his kind and stalwart leadership through the COVID crisis and beyond.” She said she believes that complaints about Singh are “meritless.”
Another group of parents wrote to Alvarez last month as well, saying that the principal had done a “remarkable” job as he took over during a very challenging year. Singh “has been the biggest supporter and advocate of the students,” these parents wrote, “insisting on respect and dignity for those children who face challenges largely unseen at the ‘pre-diversity-plan’ MS 51.”
The letter, whose writers declined to be interviewed by Chalkbeat, lauded Singh for promoting “excellence and equity” following the admissions changes. “After at least 15 years of MS 51 being a ‘gifted and talented’ school that cherry-picked only the most well-behaved and academically successful students for admission, our school now held a diverse representation of all of our children,” the parents wrote.
Additionally, last year’s parent surveys showed improvements in their relationship with the principal, with 88% saying they felt the principal worked hard to build trust with parents. That was up 6 percentage points from 2019, under the previous leadership.
The union animus grievance may not be resolved for months; several other grievances are also pending. Some teachers aren’t waiting for the situation to improve.
One teacher said that she had grown up at M.S. 51: her mother taught there for 35 years, and her mother’s colleagues had become her “extended family” when she was a child, and is also a graduate. When she became a teacher herself, she was thrilled to land a position at her alma mater. “To say it is an institution embedded in my soul is putting it lightly,” she wrote.
This year, after 17 years of teaching at M.S. 51, she took a job at another school.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Neal Singh was once an environmental science teacher.
Tracy Tullis is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.