the finish line

City charter networks celebrate sending first seniors to college

As Lamont Sadler moonwalked up to the microphone, his classmates clapped and cheered for their senior class president.

“When I say hee hee, you say ow!” Sadler yelled to the auditorium full of students and teachers who chanted in reply.

The exuberant display was part of Uncommon Charter High School’s “signing day” on Thursday to celebrate the college acceptances that its first graduating class of 28 students nabbed. The students were individually recognized for their achievements, walked across the stage to a song of their choice, and then announced what college they would attend in the fall. While on stage, students also signed a contract that promised they would succeed in and graduate from college.

The ritual was one of the last for the students who formed Uncommon’s first ninth-grade class when the school opened in 2009, bringing together graduates of the charter network’s multiple Brooklyn schools. Another charter network, Achievement First, opened a high school for the graduates of its middle schools the same year in the same building — and held a similar ceremony for its 31 graduating seniors on Wednesday. (A third network, KIPP, also opened its high school in 2009, in Harlem. It held a stepping up ceremony on Tuesday.)

Both schools originally started with more students. Of Uncommon’s 39 original ninth-graders, eight moved or transferred out of the school, and another three will remain enrolled next year. At Achievement First, student attrition was steeper: The school went from 61 ninth-graders to 32 graduating seniors. A spokeswoman for the network, whose New York City schools have drawn criticism for having overly harsh rules, said attrition had been highest in the school’s first year, when it lacked many of the programs and activities it now has.

For the students who are graduating, the payoff is significant. All of the students in both schools were accepted to college and plan to attend this fall. Many will be members of the first generation in their family to attend college.

Marquise Wilson holds up a T-shirt for Purchase College, which he will attend this fall, at a ceremony at Achievement First Charter High School on Wednesday. (Photo: Achievement First)
Marquise Wilson holds up a T-shirt for Purchase College, which he will attend this fall, at a ceremony at Achievement First Charter High School on Wednesday. (Photo: Achievement First)

Achievement First made getting into college a graduation requirement, and the 32 seniors were accepted to 216 colleges and universities, including Williams College, Howard University, Syracuse University, Lafayette College, and several schools in the SUNY and CUNY networks. Sabrina Dawson, the school’s college counselor, helped students schools that offer financial aid and support for first-generation college students, then coached them through the application process and a senior-year “College Readiness Seminar.”

Uncommon’s 28 seniors submitted 429 applications to 138 different colleges. During the ceremony, the 12th grade team lead Nour Goda introduced each of the students. She said when Nicollete Francisco was asked to give 100 percent, she gives 110 – Francisco announced she would attend the University of Bridgeport. Kinyanna Evans walked to “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson and announced she would be attending DePaw University. Ashley Heard, who started the first fashion show at UCHS, walked to “Thrift Shop” and announced she’d be attending York College.

Senior Justin Colon received a full ride to Vanderbilt University while Kevin Ozoria, who was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also received a full scholarship, to Dartmouth College, which is in the Ivy League.

“I never thought that I would be worthy of going to high institutions like these,” Ozorio said.

Sadler, who announced he would attend State University of New York at Oswego, said he wouldn’t be where he is today without his high school.

“I was so used to not being in a classroom at my old school, I used to run around hallways and do whatever I wanted to,” said Sadler, who started at an Uncommon school in the fifth grade.

He admitted that it took him a while to adjust to Uncommon’s strict rules, but he said he likes the school now because he’s been able to “make it his own.”

“It’s surreal that everyone here is going to college,” he said. “You always hear about college since fifth grade … since the first day of school until now. And now that you’re actually going to college and that it’s not a question in your mind … that’s the best part.”

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.”