four years later

Pomp, circumstance, and Snapple for Democracy Prep grads

Democracy Prep graduates holding diplomas and Snapple.
Democracy Prep graduates holding diplomas and Snapple.

Unsurprisingly for a school that prides itself on taking students on trips in four continents before graduation, Democracy Prep Charter High School covered a lot of ground in its first commencement.

The three-hour ceremony, held Monday at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, featured accolades for the 46 graduating seniors, a ceremonial passing of the hat for the charter network’s founder, and a video screening by the secretary general of the United Nations.

Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, delivered the keynote address. After speaking about the value of good education, he told graduates he has “always dreamed of appearing live at the Apollo,” then whipped out a music video of Beyonce singing in a U.N. music video.

The video was a humorous interlude in a ceremony packed with pomp and circumstance. Graduates wore yellow caps and gowns to reflect the school’s colors, and after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, they and everyone in the audience were were instructed to “place your hands over your logos” to recite the Democracy Prep pledge, which begins, “I pledge allegiance to my future …”

That future is different from what it would have been had the students not attended Democracy Prep for middle and high school, school officials said during the graduation ceremony. In one video shown at the event, a senior said many of her classmates from elementary school are not graduating from high school now, and she credited Democracy Prep for making the difference for her.

Of the 80 students who entered the high school in 2009, all from Democracy Prep middle schools, 46 students graduated on Monday, each with acceptances to four-year colleges in hand. School officials could not immediately say what happened to the other 34 students who entered four years ago but said some remained enrolled at the school while others had transferred away.

The seniors are not the only ones moving on. It was also a big day for the network’s founding chief executive officer, Seth Andrew, as he handed over the reins — in the form of his hallmark yellow cap — to Katie Duffy, who will serve as the network’s new leader. When this year’s graduates decided to attend Democracy Prep, Andrew said, “there was no school, there was no building.” Today the network’s schools serve 1,600 students.

Andrew is now preparing to launch Alumni Revolution, a new nonprofit designed to support first-generation college students through college.

The challenge of making the transition from a small, tight-knit high school to the wider world of college was a major theme of the graduation ceremony.

Sixth-grader Kaity Fernandez explained that she and the other non-seniors at the graduation had earned their seats through good behavior. Students have to earn their seats in the classroom as well, a tradition referenced more than once during graduation speeches.

“We don’t run the school like a democracy, we prepare you for one,” Andrew told the graduates.

“As you graduate our relationship will change,” English teacher Damion Clark told the graduates. “After today we are fellow adults, colleagues.”

Graduates said that’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Geneses Bello, who’s headed to McDaniel College in Maryland next year, said she is anxious about losing the structure and support that Democracy Prep provides.

“I’m nervous about time management, not having the support system I have here, and being on my own,” she said.

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Several juniors said that seeing the seniors makes them more excited to be seniors and go to college. But sixth graders, wowed by the Apollo, said it’s hard to imagine being as independent as the seniors will have to be next year.

“Now if you need help they’re going to come and tutor you,” Michael Jones explained. “And they ask questions to see if you’re getting the train of thought. In sixth grade they tell you what to do and how to do it. When you get to college you have to figure it out on your own.”

Already, Democracy Prep’s first set of graduates are taking advantage of their new authority. The student graduation speaker, Steven Medina, who will attend Middlebury College on a full scholarship next year, said Andrew had broken one promise that he made to the founding class: When they were in middle school, Medina recalled, Andrew had promised students a Snapple machine if they earned it, and the machine never materialized.

Later, Andrew made good on his promise by rolling out tables laden with bottles of Snapples for the graduation class, who were grateful for a drink on the hottest day yet this year.

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.”