no excuses

"Remarkable" seniors show resolve to make it to graduation day

During their high school years, they lost loved ones, dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, lived in homeless shelters, and raised children on their own.

These are just a few of the obstacles that 178 graduating seniors from across the city overcame to earn the Chancellor’s Award for Remarkable Achievement, which has been awarded to students since 2006.

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“I am truly awestruck by these students’ commitment to education, including their capability to stay focused on graduation and move on to college even through times of extreme difficulty and stress,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott during a reception at Tweed Courthouse on Monday evening that Mayor Bloomberg also attended.

GothamSchools spoke with some of the honorees at the event to find out about the challenges they overcame to get to graduation — and what they credit for their success.

Demetrius Johnson has lived in more than 30 foster care homes and ended up in juvenile detention when he was 16. That’s when he decided to change his life around. He enrolled at Freedom Academy High School, a Brooklyn high school that the city is closing this year, where he excelled in math. Johnson will attend SUNY Jefferson this fall and eventually wants to attend Columbia Law School to become a lawyer.

His biggest obstacle: Carrying the burden of being a foster kid. “Mentally, I was out of it. It was hard to pull myself out of that darkness to get to where I am today.”

Reason for his success today: His social worker Tony Ince. “She’s been there for me since I was 13 years old, from day one,” Johnson said. When he was 16 and locked up in juvenile detention, he told her he didn’t want her to be his social worker any more. “Then she said something to me I’ll never forget, she said, ‘Demetrius, you’ll leave me before I leave you.’ To this day she’s kept her word,” he said. “When everyone else doubted me, everyone said I wasn’t going to be nothing, I wasn’t going to amount to anything, she was like, ‘Demetrius, you’re gonna make it,’ and those words just started sinking in my heart and my head. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

photo-5Octavia Thompson was hospitalized halfway through her junior year and diagnosed with a rare disease that forced into a coma for more than six weeks. She had to relearn how to breathe, eat, and walk, but was determined to graduate on time. Thompson, who lives with her family in a homeless shelter, eventually returned to LaGuardia High School for Music and Art & the Performing Arts and completed all the requirements to graduate. She plans to attend Hofstra University to study psychology in the fall.

“Don’t ever pity yourself or make excuses,” Thompson said. “If you’re struggling, be an active struggler; do everything you can to improve your situation. Face the challenges, believe in yourself, and you’ll accomplish more than you could ever expect.”

Her biggest obstacle: Transitioning from the hospital to school.

Reason for her success today: Her faith in herself and her faith in God. “I’m a big believer that God will help you and God will answer your prayers. I’ve been doing that a lot in the hospital — praying that I’ll get better. And look at me now, I’m better!”

photo-4Lubna Rahmani assumed responsibility for raising her sister’s child after her sister left home just a few days before Rahmani started 10th grade at Townsend Harris High School.

Rahmani raised the little girl, who is now two and a half years old, while also being a full-time student and working as a volunteer at her local public library. She plans to attend CUNY Macaulay Honors College in the fall to study business.

She is the first in her family to finish high school and go to college.

Her biggest obstacle: Raising her sister’s child. “The kid was four days old when she left,” Rahmani said.

Reason for her success today: “I think if my family wasn’t financially unstable, if the problems didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist here today. The problems, the struggles, they make you who you are.”

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.”