one year later

Détente at Park Slope’s John Jay Campus, but no sea change

Students from Park Slope Collegiate and the Secondary School for Law, which are both housed at John Jay, teamed up to paint this mural at Park Slope Collegiate.

Wesley Weissberg has poured hours into Park Slope’s public schools, even serving as PTA president at the neighborhood’s popular elementary school, P.S. 321. But until this year, she hadn’t even considered trying to help the neighborhood’s only high schools.

Housed in the John Jay Campus at the heart of Park Slope’s main shopping street, the high schools have never drawn many students from within the neighborhood’s brownstone-lined borders. Students who graduated from local middle schools mostly headed to private schools or Manhattan for ninth grade.

That was true well before Weissberg moved to Park Slope. More than a decade ago, the district’s school board president, Mark Peters, waged an effort to turn John Jay High School into a destination for the neighborhood’s middle-class families. As a result, the struggling high school was replaced by three smaller schools: two that had been located elsewhere in the district and one that grew out of John Jay’s relatively strong legal studies program.

But even with the overhaul, the new schools, which did not screen students, never attracted local students. And a decade after Peters engineered the building’s redesign, the Secondary School for Law; the Secondary School for Journalism; and the Secondary School for Research, which became Park Slope Collegiate in 2011, continued to struggle. Except for during the hours immediately after school, when some neighborhood shopkeepers would lock their doors to keep John Jay students out, there was little relationship between the building and its neighborhood.

Then, last year, tensions over the addition of a selective school billed as more likely to attract Park Slope’s high-performing students drew the neighborhood’s attention back to the campus — and volunteers like Weissberg into the building.

A year into Millennium Brooklyn’s uneasy co-location, it is not yet clear whether the building is on the way to becoming a Park Slope school, or whether the worst fears about Millennium’s presence will come to pass.

In protests and at city school board meetings, students and teachers from the John Jay schools charged that Millennium’s arrival could give rise to race and class segregation. Almost all students at the original three schools are black and Hispanic, but if Millennium turned out to be anything like its model in Manhattan, than half its students would be white and Asian.

The John Jay students urged the city to attract more diverse populations to the campus by investing in the three existing schools, rather than concentrating white and Asian students on a single floor. And in a letter to city officials, Park Slope Collegiate Principal Jill Bloomberg said it was hard to stomach a new school getting extra funding while her school was strapped by budget cuts.

Weissberg was one of several members of Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue located blocks from John Jay, who were unnerved by the tension Millennium wrought. So the congregation’s social action committee reached out to Learning Leaders, a non-profit that trains community members to volunteer in public schools.

This spring, 16 volunteers from Beth Elohim started working at John Jay — four at each school. The volunteers were each assigned to a teacher at one of the schools and spent at least two periods a week tutoring students, organizing classroom materials, and pitching in wherever they were needed.

“We were thinking about the relationship between all the schools and how we wanted to model the behavior in the type of relationships,” said Isabel Burton, the congregation’s director of social outreach. But she said the volunteers hardly “changed the world.”

Both volunteers and students said last year’s acute tensions had subsided. But they said Millennium doesn’t have much to do with the other schools, an outcome they feared from the start.

“Millennium doesn’t involve themselves with the rest of the school,” said Jelissa Fernandez, who graduated from the Secondary School for Journalism in June. The other schools play on the same sports teams, but Millennium competes with its sister school in Manhattan, Fernandez offered as an example.

The bulletin boards at the entrance of the building represent only the original three schools on John Jay's campus.

Millennium Brooklyn’s founding principal said the four schools do work together in many ways. In an email, Lisa Gioe said principals of the four schools meet once a week to strengthen ties. She said the Beth Elohim volunteers, a weekly cooking competition, and Millennium’s writing center also bring the schools together.

But the union is far from seamless. Bulletin boards at the entrance of the school feature only the original three schools. Students from all the schools must pass through metal detectors at the front doors, but Millennium students arrive earlier. And Millennium students can all leave the building for lunch, but the other schools have tighter rules.

And as predicted, the racial makeup of Millennium’s student body was very different from the three other schools’. At Millennium, 35 percent of the first class was white and another 18 percent was Asian.

Students from the other schools said they are forbidden from walking down to Millennium, although they can visit the other schools.

Giovanni Callao, who just finished eighth grade at Park Slope Collegiate in June and will begin high school there in September, said the Millennium students were “cool,” but he’s had limited contact with them.

“We’re allowed to go to other floors, but we’re not allowed to go there,” he said.

Volunteers have witnessed the disconnect between the schools but not bridged it. As a lead volunteer at the congregation, Weissberg met with the principals at all the schools. She said Gioe told her that students from the building’s other schools were welcome to use Millennium’s Writing Center.

But Weissberg, who volunteered biweekly in an English class at the Secondary School for Journalism and led a lunchtime book group, said she never saw the Writing Center or any other evidence that Millennium was sharing its space and resources.

“I’m really unaware of Millennium, and where they are,” she said. “I don’t know the politics of shared spaces, but I don’t see it.”

Burton said the largest effect of the work has been volunteers’ relationship with John Jay students, at least addressing some of the tensions that have plagued the school.

“Before they would walk by John Jay relatively fast, maybe be tentative about looking at the kids coming out of it in the eye,” she said. “But now they’re looking at them in the face.” The congregation aims to expand the Learning Leaders program this fall.

But community relations with John Jay have a long way to go, according to City Councilman Brad Lander. Lander said he lauds volunteer-led efforts such as Learning Leaders and Teen Battle Chef, a weekly cooking competition organized by a Park Slope resident, Veronica Guzman, and New York Methodist Hospital. But he said he would like to see more neighbors offer students opportunities for internships and resources.

And he said there are other ways the schools could be told they are part of the neighborhood.

“There’s just a strong police presence before and after school that I think contributes to some students feeling like they are less welcome in the community,” Lander said.

When Lander held a panel discussion at the campus about Stop and Frisk, the New York Police Department’s controversial policing strategy, a Park Slope Collegiate teacher said policing at the school only compounded other problems that they already face.

“So A, our school is underfunded,” the teacher said. “B, we have metal detectors. C, a new school comes in with more funding, D, we’re getting cameras. What’s E?”

She added, “It’s pretty obvious that the message that’s being sent to our students is they’re criminals.”

Other teachers say the building is changing for the better. Michael Salak, a social studies teacher at Park Slope Collegiate, said he likes seeing more community members at the school, and that the neighborhood has come along way since he began teaching at John Jay, when a restaurant across the street had a “No Students Allowed” sign posted in the window.

But Salak said the best way for community members to make an impact is to send their children to all of the schools in the building.

“Just try to join us is anyway possible,” he said. “Send your students here, too.”

And a decade after his push to turn the building into a desired school for local residents fizzled, Mark Peters says he still holds out hope for change. His daughter, whose birth first inspired him to take a look at the building, is now in middle school.

“I have no idea where she’s going to high school,” Peters said. “But wouldn’t it be cool if she went to John Jay?”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”