The veteran principal tapped to rescue troubled Boys and Girls High School will receive a $25,000 bonus for taking on the tough assignment, officials confirmed Tuesday. But in an unusual arrangement, he will still play an important role at the successful school he led for over a decade — and where he has the option of returning next year.
Michael Wiltshire, the new principal of Boys and Girls, has told parents that he will continue to spend at least 20 percent of his time focused on Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, the Crown Heights school he helped raise to prominence over the past 13 years. Chancellor Carmen Fariña told parents that Wiltshire will take on a new title at Medgar Evers — “master principal.”
“I will be there every day really,” Wiltshire told Chalkbeat, adding that he would offer oversight and input on important matters. “Medgar Evers is my heart.”
Wiltshire’s official title at Boys and Girls is “executive principal,” a position that comes with a $25,000 bonus. Former Chancellor Joel Klein established the role in 2008 as a way to draw seasoned principals to ailing schools, but the school-improvement strategy was largely abandoned just two years later. The prestigious position typically requires a three-year commitment, but Wiltshire appears to have negotiated the option to return full time to his former school after just one year, according to a principals union spokeswoman.
That escape clause, and his dual leadership roles — rare, if not unheard of, among school leaders — reflect the lengths to which the city has gone to secure a new leader for Boys and Girls, a school that netted three straight F’s on its school-progress reports under its previous principal, who resigned abruptly last month. It also reflects Wiltshire’s commitment to Medgar Evers, where he has earned acclaim during his long tenure as principal.
“That was one of the options they negotiated with him,” said Al Vann, a former city councilman and member of the Boys and Girls advisory board. “He wanted to maintain a relationship with Medgar Evers.”
A Department of Education spokeswoman insisted that Wiltshire is not the principal of both schools, and noted that an assistant principal, Angella Smith, has been named acting principal of Medgar Evers. But Wiltshire and Fariña both assured parents at an emergency meeting last Thursday at Medgar Evers that Wiltshire would remain active at the school as a “master principal,” according to a parent who attended the meeting.
Wiltshire explained that he would spend about 75 to 80 percent of his time at Boys and Girls and the rest at Medgar Evers, according to the parent, Tricia Mecklembourg. (He repeated that estimate during a meeting with Boys and Girls parents Monday evening, according to an attendee.) Fariña explained to the Medgar Evers parents that, “This has never been done before, so they are working out all the logistics,” Mecklembourg added.
“He’s definitely still at Medgar,” said Mecklembourg, a former parent association president who praised Wiltshire. “That’s his mission and that’s his vision.”
Caster Hall, president of Boys and Girls’ parent association and brother of the school’s outspoken ex-principal, said he was willing to give Wiltshire a chance in his new dual role. But he also hinted at the challenges the arrangement could create. For instance, he said he would refuse to refer to Wiltshire as “executive principal” in letters to parents to avoid confusing them, and would bring up Wiltshire’s option to leave after one year at the school’s next leadership meeting.
“I don’t want the kids to think that they’re going to lose him once they get to know him,” Hall said.
Wiltshire, a former Boys and Girls teacher, said his appointment would allow the schools to try out a new peer-support system. Medgar Evers staff could share their curriculum materials, help coach the struggling school’s teachers, and even allow some Boys and Girls students to take classes at their school, he said. That potential partnership echoes a proposal the city made in a recent federal grant application, where it said struggling schools would be matched with higher-performing “sister schools.”
“Mr. Wiltshire has proven to be an effective principal and he’ll continue to work closely with his former school community to share best practices and support where necessary,” said the education department spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.
As head of Boys and Girls, Wiltshire will try to reproduce the model that has enabled Medgar Evers to more than double its enrollment over the past decade while achieving a remarkable 97 percent graduation rate, he said Monday. (Boys and Girls’ graduation rate, by contrast, was 44 percent.)
The grades 6-to-12 school features extended days, Saturday classes, mandatory summer school, and strong sports and arts programs, Wiltshire said. The middle-school students study Mandarin and take some of the state exams required to graduate high school. Many of the high school students enroll in Advanced Placement classes — about 400 of the roughly 930 students took AP exams last year, Wiltshire said — and some earn enough college credits to graduate with two-year college degrees, he said.
The demanding academic program is made possible at least in part by the school’s admission policy. Incoming sixth-graders are accepted based on their state test scores and entrance-exam results, and the high school gives priority to students who attended Medgar Evers’ middle school. About 100 of this year’s 240 freshmen came from within the school, Wiltshire said.
Some parents and staff at Boys and Girls have already questioned whether that model will take hold in a school that accepts all applicants and whose poor reputation keeps it from attracting many high-achieving students. Last year, about 22 percent of Boys and Girls students had disabilities and 16 percent had been held back before. At Medgar Evers, just 3 percent of students had disabilities in 2013 and only 1.4 percent had previously been held back.
“A lot of our kids aren’t the kids he would have taken at his school,” a Boys and Girls teacher said.
Wiltshire said that when he took over Medgar Evers, the majority of students entered below grade level. He also said many students come from similar backgrounds as those at Boys and Girls, though he acknowledged that they often have stronger academic records.
How the city will measure Wiltshire’s success is unclear, since the administration has yet to release its plans for struggling schools. The state, which has designated Boys and Girls as “out of time,” expects the school to meet certain goals this year, possibly including increased attendance and graduation rates, Wiltshire said.
A state education department spokesman said the school will be evaluated on “a wide variety of metrics” and that deadlines to meet targets are still being worked out with the city. The state can order districts to close struggling schools that do not improve within a certain period, said the spokesman, Tom Dunn.
Wiltshire said he hopes to help the school meet the state’s targets and restore its status as a “premier high school.”
“It’s a steep challenge,” he said. “But I’m going to try my best.”