voice of dissent (updated)

Fernandez: More city grads lacked basic skills under Bloomberg

Dolores Fernandez, the Bronx's appointee to the re-formed Board of Education.
Dolores Fernandez, the Bronx's appointee to the re-formed Board of Education, appearing on BronxTalk.

Graduates of the city’s public high schools are falling so behind in reading and math that a community college remediation program doubled in size between 1998 and 2008, the college’s former president said this week.

Dolores Fernandez, who resigned from Hostos Community College last year is now serving as the Bronx borough president’s appointee to the re-formed Board of Education, made the remarks in an interview on a Bronx television news program, BronxTalk.

“I would have loved for the New York City public schools to put my remediation programs out of business, because that would mean that every kid graduating out of the schools could read, write, and do math,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said that a hiking up of standards at CUNY’s four-year colleges played some part in the growth of Hostos’s remediation program. “But then you still have the regular group of kids who just are coming to us in need of a GED diploma, because they haven’t graduated from the public schools, and when we get them, we’re basically teaching them reading, writing, and math — I mean, basic levels,” she said.

The gloomy picture challenges Bloomberg’s own claims about the public schools, which state figures show now graduate far more students since 2002. But Fernandez said she does not trust these figures as a fair picture of what is really happening, especially for the poor Latino community she served at Hostos Community College.

You can watch the interview in the full two parts below.

UPDATE: Department of Education spokesman Andrew Jacob points out in the comments section that a growing remediation program does not mean that more city students are struggling. His argument:

the size of the program doesn’t tell you anything about the percentage of graduates who required remediation, because the number of public school graduates enrolling at CUNY community colleges has risen dramatically in recent years–70% between 2002 and 2008. Among Hispanic public school graduates, enrollment doubled over that same time period.

With this many more students enrolling, of course the remediation program would expand, even if the percentage of graduates needing remediation fell. And, in fact, that percentage has fallen across all CUNY community colleges, from 82 percent in 2002 to 74 percent in 2008. Among all CUNY colleges, the remediation rate for public school graduates has fallen from 58% to 51%.

The criticisms could end up being moot if mayoral control returns, and Fernandez said that she does not expect to serve on the Board of Education for long. Even if the board does last, it’s unclear how much influence Fernandez would have. She is by far its most critical member; others include three deputy mayors and borough appointees who have vowed to support Chancellor Joel Klein.

She also challenged Bloomberg’s depiction of the city’s high school graduation rate, which according to state figures has risen among black and Latino students. Fernandez said of the figures, “Their data is very interesting.” Then she described her own experience working with students:

“I come from a Latino community, and the kids that I serve were low socioeconomic kids — those graduation rates aren’t up,” she said. “Okay, they aren’t up. If anything, they are status quo or they have gone down.”

State figures show that the graduation rate among Latino students rose to 48.7% in 2008, from 37.4% in 2005.

Fernandez also said that Bloomberg has discouraged creative teachers. “I don’t think I could teach today in the New York City public schools. I think I would be stifled because I was very open in my classroom,” she said. “I gave kids a lot of flexibility. It might have looked like kids weren’t learning, but, you know, when the outcomes came on tests, my kids did just as well as the other kids.”

Some other notable points: she argued that the new Board of Education, in its one and only meeting so far, did not follow proper parliamentary procedure; that Klein has communicated no “vision” for the public schools; and gave a fascinating explanation of how she turned around Hostos, making it financially solvent and creating nine Calculus classes, up from zero when she took over.

Here’s part one of the interview:

And part two:

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.”