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Brooklyn principal leaves middle school after teacher complaints mount

A student in a backpack walks up concrete steps toward green double doors at a school.

M.S. 51 in Park Slope, is undergoing a leadership change as Principal Neal Singh is leaving his position after less than three years at the middle school.

Amy Zimmer/Chalkbeat

An embattled Brooklyn middle school principal is leaving his post following months of tensions with teachers. 

M.S. 51’s Neal Singh will be replaced on Feb. 1 by Pui-Lam (Jack) Chan, who will serve as acting interim principal as the school embarks on the formal hiring process, according to a letter District 15 Superintendent Rafael Alvarez sent on Thursday to parents. Singh will be joining the superintendent’s team. 

Singh took over Park Slope’s M.S. 51 in August 2020, after the previous principal of 14 years abruptly retired before an especially challenging new school year. His first task: To figure out all of the complicated COVID-related city guidance around reopening the campus, while also managing remote students and staff. At the same time, the school was learning to adapt to teaching a student body with a wider range of academic needs following a major admissions change across District 15 in 2019. 

M.S. 51, like other schools across the city, also has been grappling with higher needs in general, both academically and socially, because of the pandemic-related isolation and school disruptions. 

Singh’s leadership style clashed with many of the teachers, as Chalkbeat previously reported.

By March 2021, a group of frustrated educators had compiled their complaints in a three-page document, charging 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. Two-thirds cast their ballots in favor of the no-confidence vote in the principal. 

A few months later, the United Federation of Teachers filed a grievance on behalf of 41 staffers alleging a pattern of harassment and intimidation of union members. It was the largest so-called union animus grievance in UFT history, union officials said. Many teachers have since left their positions at the school, several educators told Chalkbeat. 

Singh did not respond to requests for comment. 

“We thank Mr. Singh for his unwavering dedication and service to the school and community, and we wish him the best in his new position supporting schools across the entire district,” Alvarez wrote in his letter to parents. 

According to City Council member Shahana Shanif, Singh (who is Indo-Caribbean) stepped down after a “coordinated campaign of racist harassment,” a statement she posted on Twitter said

“As one of the few principals of color in District 15, Principal Singh broke so many barriers in our community and was a proud leader in the fight to desegregate our racially divided school system,” she wrote.

Singh had been an assistant principal at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, and before that an environmental science teacher at LaGuardia High School, where in 2012 he won a prestigious Sloan Award for excellence in teaching. 

District 15’s middle school diversity plan, heralded as a model by many integration advocates, has changed the demographics at many schools, including M.S. 51, a sought-after choice known as one of the district’s “big three” middle schools with a competitive application process before the district moved to an all-lottery system. Last year, more than half of M.S. 51’s students came from low-income families, up from nearly a third the year before the admissions change, according to public data. 

Chan has more than 20 years of experience at New Utrecht High School, in Brooklyn’s District 21, where he has been an assistant principal since 2009, according to the letter from Alvarez. While there, Chan oversaw social-emotional learning and adult education programs, and as president of the Social Studies Supervisors Association has extensive connections with New York City’s community organizations.

“Mr. Chan is also a trained coach,” Alvarez wrote, “and he has leveraged his skills as an empathic listener to intentionally build trusting and supportive relationships in the school environment.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Neal Singh was once an environmental science teacher.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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