state of the union

Teachers at city's first charter school vote to unionize

The teachers union has struck another blow to Victory Schools, a for-profit management group that has bitterly clashed with the union.

All but one of the 28 teachers and other instructional staff at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, which is run by Victory, signed union authorization cards and told the school’s principal and board they intend to unionize yesterday.

Victory operates nine charters in New York City; Sisulu-Walker is the third to try to unionize. The United Federation of Teachers has accused Victory of overcharging its schools for compliance and back-office work while underpaying its teachers and scrimping on class supplies and building maintenance.

Last summer, the union waged a battle with another of Victory’s unionized schools, Merrick Academy, after the school fired 11 staff members, notifying them by Fed-Ex. Three of those teachers were re-hired in September in an agreement with the union. The UFT has also never reached a contract agreement with Merrick’s board since teachers there voted to unionize in 2007.

And Victory’s other unionized school, the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries, has also been plagued with problems. Teachers’ request to unionize there is currently in contract negotiations, and the school’s founder has been charged with embezzling from a non-profit company.

The UFT currently represents teachers at 14 other city charter schools.

Sisulu-Walker opened in September 1999 as the city’s first charter school; Victory partnered with a group of Harlem activists, including State Senator Bill Perkins, who has become one of the charter school movement’s most vocal critics.

The school has struggled academically. The school received the 15th-lowest score on this year’s city progress report cards, ranking in the bottom one percent of all schools. Though the school received a “C” on the report card, it received “F’ grades in the school environment and progress categories.  And on a city survey of the school’s teachers (pdf) last year, most of the school’s teachers reported problems with order and discipline.

Teachers at Harlem charter school join the UFT

Sisulu-Walker Charter School educators seek professional voice in their school and a collaborative working environment

Teachers and staff at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem announced yesterday that they have decided to join the United Federation of Teachers.

Of the 28 teachers and other pedagogical staff at the school, 27 have signed union authorization cards to indicate their support for creating a UFT chapter at the school.

In letters given to the school’s principal and Board of Trustees, the teachers’ organizing committee explained that they were seeking “recognition of the teaching and professional staff as respected partners” in carrying out Sisulu Walker’s educational mission and expressed a “sincere hope” that both the principal and the trustees would “react positively to our decision, acknowledging the benefits of a strong and stable staff and committing to work with us through the remaining steps of this process.”

The UFT filed a formal petition today with Sisulu-Walker’s board of trustees, and notified the state’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) that Sisulu-Walker teachers are seeking union recognition. If Sisulu-Walker’s board does not recognize the union as the bargaining representative within 30 days, the UFT can ask PERB to certify the bargaining unit on the basis of the authorization cards.

“Teachers get into this profession because they care about giving students an excellent education. To do their jobs effectively, they need both support from their school and a professional voice,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “By taking this step, the Sisulu Walker teachers have shown that they are committed to creating the best learning environment that they possibly can for their students. We are proud to welcome them into the UFT.”

“We took this step to ensure that classroom teachers will have a real, professional voice in the decisions that affect the quality of our students’ education,” said Sisulu-Walker teacher Shaquira De La Cruz.

Sisulu-Walker teacher Doris Fleming said “I’m proud to join with my colleagues in seeking to guarantee the collaborative working conditions that we need to make Sisulu Walker an excellent learning environment for the kids.”

The UFT operates two unionized charter schools, and co-operates a third in collaboration with Green Dot, a successful and teacher-friendly charter school management company. The UFT also represents educators at eleven other charter schools in New York City.

The Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem opened in the fall of 1999, as one of the first three charter schools in New York State. It currently serves approximately 250 students in grades K through 5.

The school’s mission is to offer “rigorous and challenging academic curricula taught by a highly-prepared and committed cadre of professional educators.” The school day has extended hours, and students also attend programs on the weekends and during the summer. The school is located at 125 West 115th Street in Harlem.

Sisulu-Walker is run by Victory Schools, a for-profit educational management company based in New York City.

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The change, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.’”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”