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?”

'It's a new day'

In Newark, will homegrown change replace outsider-led reform?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Uncommon Schools
Incoming Superintendent Roger Leon at an Uncommon Schools/North Star Academy-Newark Public Schools joint training for principals.

Just a few years back, Newark stood at the epicenter of an explosive nationwide campaign where traveling “change agents” tried to reshape urban school districts. Today, it could become the face of a different, homegrown model of change, led by a lifelong Newark resident named Roger Leon.

Leon was chosen this week to become the next superintendent of the Newark school system, which serves 36,000 students and has a roughly $1 billion budget. But long before that, he was a principal trying to revitalize long-floundering schools. Back then, he would gather together his staff members and deliver a simple but stirring message.

“‘All of the problems that exist here in this building — there’s a solution,’” he would say, recalled Havier Nazario, who was a teacher at Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School when Leon was principal. “‘It’s right here in this room.’”

That message stood in sharp contrast to the one that Nazario felt was conveyed amid the upheaval under state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, who stepped down in February when the state returned control of the district to Newark’s elected school board.

“There was this perception that we were backward — that everyone in Newark from teacher to principal was incompetent,” said Nazario, now the principal of South Street School in the Ironbound section. “That we needed an army from all over the place to come in and fix us.”

When the board voted unanimously in favor of Leon Tuesday night, positioning the longtime educator and administrator to become Newark’s first locally selected superintendent in over 20 years, it sent a clear signal: No more outside armies. We want someone who believes the solutions are in the room.

Not long ago, Newark came to epitomize the so-called “education reform” movement, which promised to transform districts by closing troubled schools, opening charter schools, and rewriting the rules around teacher pay and tenure — actions that have been linked to the district’s recent academic gains. Yet the city has also morphed into an emblem of the movement’s pitfalls: outraged parents, top-down policymaking, and disruptive outsiders, like Anderson, who were eventually run out of town.

Now, the question for Newark’s incoming schools chief is whether he can establish a new model — one that maintains the upward trajectory of test scores and graduation rates while avoiding the excesses and backlash of the reform era. And, crucially, a model that rejects the corruption and complacency that the state cited when it seized control of the district in 1995.

Just as the recent reformers hoped to turn Newark into a “proof point” for their theory of change and a template for other districts to adopt, Leon has suggested that he will make Newark into a model of homegrown, educator-driven and community-embraced change — though what exactly that will look like remains unclear.

“I want us, together, to help Newark serve as a lighthouse,” said Leon, a 25-year veteran of the Newark school system, at a public forum last week. “A beacon of light and hope for our urban districts.”

Newark’s recent wave of reform began in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce a $100 million investment in the city’s schools. The money helped bankroll a series of sweeping changes that included performance-based teacher pay, a single enrollment system for district and charter schools, and the shuttering of nearly a dozen district schools.

The policies sparked a battle that pitted the self-styled reformers against teachers, their union, and parents. Anderson, who had been recruited from New York, resigned in 2015. She was replaced by Cerf, the former state education commissioner who had helped craft Newark’s reform blueprint. When he took over, he made it his mission to create buy-in for the changes among community members and elected officials in an effort to prevent their dismantling when the district returned to local control.

“The continuation and preservation of the work,” Cerf told reporters in January, “depended a great deal on there being a collective sense of engagement and ownership.”

As further insurance, Cerf made A. Robert Gregory, a respected Newark principal who shared parts of his vision, his second-in-command, which helped position him to become interim schools chief when Cerf stepped down. Gregory was then selected as one of four superintendent finalists, along with Leon and two outside candidates.

While the board had indicated that it preferred a local candidate, it was unclear until the last minute which Newarker would come out on top. After the board interviewed the four men privately on Saturday, Gregory got the most votes in an informal poll, Chalkbeat has reported. But by the board’s closed-door meeting on Tuesday, enough members had changed their votes to give Leon an edge.

Once it was clear that Leon had a majority, the board members agreed to unanimously back him in their public vote. While they may have disagreed on their preferred candidate, they wanted to present a united front in favor of a locally chosen leader — and against state-imposed reformers.

“To unify the board at this time, it’s the right thing to do,” said board member Tave Padilla. “It’s a new day.”

Now that Leon has been tapped to take over as superintendent on July 1, speculation has started about the direction of his leadership. A district spokeswoman said he was not available for an interview for this story.

Critics of the reform movement have celebrated Leon’s selection as clear evidence that the board intends a clean break from the past. They note that, unlike the recent state-appointed superintendents and some of their top deputies and consultants, Leon is a Newark native who attended and taught in the city’s traditional public schools. He coached Science Park High School’s famed debate team, and has established close ties with parents and community leaders across the city — support that was on display when the audience erupted into cheers after Tuesday’s vote.

They also point to Leon’s reportedly fraught relationship with Cerf as an indication that he did not endorse the entire reform agenda, even though he served in both Anderson and Cerf’s administrations. In a Facebook post this week, Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called Leon’s selection “a unanimous blow to the corporate charter and reform-for-personal profit war machine.”

Cerf, in an email, said he has “always respected Roger” and will support him and the board’s decision.

“NPS has seen record achievement gains over the last several years,” he said, “and I know Roger is committed to building on those foundations to achieve greater and greater success for Newark’s students.”

If some supporters portray Leon as anti-reform, his record is actually more complex.

As principal of the Horton School in the late 1990s, he hired about 20 teachers who had completed alternative-certification programs, according to an Education Week article from 2000. Teachers unions sometimes attack such programs, which include reform-friendly programs such as Teach For America, as a back door that allows unqualified educators into the classroom.

As an assistant superintendent for the past decade, Leon served under four state-appointed superintendents. Under Anderson, when he was responsible for overseeing several elementary schools, he developed a reputation as a demanding manager who made unannounced school visits and scrutinized school documents to see if they were in compliance with district rules, according to a former district employee. Several of the principals he oversaw left the system, the employee added.

Whatever policy preferences Leon may have as superintendent, he is likely to find — like other leaders who took over districts after they underwent massive overhauls, such as nearby New York City — that it’s impossible to simply turn back the clock.

Over the past decade, the share of Newark students who attend charter schools has tripled, to 33 percent. While Leon is not likely to spur on the sector’s growth, he also cannot halt it. Instead, he will have to manage its impact on the district’s budget and perhaps find ways for the sectors to collaborate. (Leon got an early start on that this week when he spoke at a principal training jointly hosted by the district and the Uncommon Schools charter network.)

Charter critics and some school board members have pushed to scrap the universal enrollment system, which allows families to apply to both charter and district schools. But many families have come to like the system, according to surveys. And it would be hard to revive the previous system, where families were assigned to their nearest district school, since some neighborhood schools were shuttered.

Mary Bennett, a former Newark principal who called Leon “extremely intelligent,” said she did not expect him to immediately unwind every policy instituted under state control.

“I’m sure that he is astute enough to distinguish between those things that have been put in place that are working but need to be improved and bolstered,” she said, “and those things that should be changed and replaced.”

Leon will soon shoulder the burden of leading a district that has made recent gains, but still struggles with deep-rooted problems including widespread student poverty, absenteeism, and a shortage of qualified teachers. All the while, he must try to prove — to state officials, but also to observers across the country — that a return to local control does not necessarily mean a pause in progress.

But for now, he seems to be basking in the moment. On Wednesday morning, the day after he was chosen to lead the system where he was educated and spent his entire career, he stopped by his childhood elementary school. Then he made his way to South Street School led by Principal Nazario, who he had years ago coached on a debate team, taught in class, and later managed as a teacher.

At South Street, Leon was named honorary “Teacher of the Month,” then presented with a school notebook and water bottle and given a round of applause, Nazario said.

“He looked at me like, ‘Wow, I’m living the dream,’” he said.

Superintendent search

Newark board was leaning toward different superintendent candidate before unanimous vote for Roger Leon, source says

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Newark Public Schools Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory

When the Newark school board decided on a new superintendent Tuesday, its members offered a public display of unity. One by one, all nine voted in favor of Roger Leon, a longtime veteran of the school system, drawing cheers from the audience.

But earlier, behind the scenes, the board had been divided.

On Saturday, after conducting lengthy interviews with all four superintendent finalists, the board held an informal poll to see where the members stood, according to a person with direct knowledge of the meeting. At that point, A. Robert Gregory, the district’s interim superintendent, had more support than Leon, the person said. The other two finalists were from out of state and did not appear to gain traction with the board.

On Tuesday, the board took another unofficial poll during a closed-door session, according to the same person, who spoke to Chalkbeat on the condition that they not be identified. By then, multiple members had switched their endorsements from Gregory to Leon, who now had the most support. At that point, the full board agreed to back Leon in the official vote.

Board chair Josephine Garcia did not respond to an email about the board members’ shifting support or the decision to display a united front to the public on Tuesday. But shortly after the 9-0 vote for Leon, a reporter said to Garcia that she must have “badly wanted” a unanimous vote on its first major decision since February, when the board regained control of the district after a decades-long state takeover.

“Yes, absolutely — and we got it,” she said. “We’re showing unification.”

It’s unclear what prompted some board members to change their minds. But some superintendent search firms advise boards to agree to unanimously vote for the candidate favored by the majority of members so that the new superintendent is seen as having the full board’s support. And while school boards in some districts conduct public interviews with superintendent candidates, it’s not uncommon for boards to keep the details of their searches and deliberations private.

What’s certain is that the major decisions in Newark’s search happened before Tuesday’s public vote and behind closed doors.

Well before the vote, a superintendent search committee was tasked with choosing three finalists to present to the board. However, after the three were chosen, at least one committee member was unhappy that a particular candidate had been left off the shortlist, Chalkbeat has reported.

At that point, the former board chair, and later Garcia, asked the state education commissioner to amend the rules so that the committee could name a fourth finalist. Two of the committee members objected to the request, and insisted that the group should stick with the chosen finalists. But the commissioner agreed to amend the guidelines, and a fourth person was added.

The committee has not publicly disclosed which finalist did not make the first cut.

All four finalists introduced themselves to the public at a forum last week, where the audience could listen but not ask questions. And they each met with the full board on Saturday during lengthy closed-door interviews that stretched from the morning well into the evening.

Some people have complained about the search process, saying it lacked transparency and meaningful public input.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s board meeting, before the vote, the president of the Newark NAACP referenced a pledge by board chair Garcia earlier in the meeting to promote transparency.

“The goal of transparency by the board, as stated by chairperson Garcia, has to be upheld,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory. “If it’s not upheld, then you get this frustration building.”