back in the saddle

Santiago Taveras, a former DOE official, returning as a principal

Santiago Taveras will be the new principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
Santiago Taveras, a former deputy chancellor, will be the principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

All it took was one interview question for Santiago Taveras to realize he wanted to be a principal again.

Taveras, a former Department of Education deputy chancellor, will be the new principal of the struggling DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx this fall.

The position marks a reversal of the trajectory Taveras’s career has taken up to now. After starting his career as a city teacher, Taveras headed several schools before landing a position in the Department of Education’s central administration. He was the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning until the department dissolved that division, then served as the city’s first and only community engagement czar.

Taveras left the department at a time of turmoil in April 2011, just days before Cathie Black’s brief tenure as chancellor ended. He became a vice president at Cambridge Education, the consulting firm that conducted the first quality reviews in New York City schools, which Taveras oversaw while at the department.

But in recent months, Taveras said he wanted to work directly with students again, so he interviewed for a schools superintendent job in New Jersey.

During the interview, he was asked to describe the most gratifying work he had done in his career. Taveras talked about a group of 10 students he mentored when he was a teacher at Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem.

“Those 10 boys taught me more about life, about the struggles of young men, than I had ever learned from my two master’s and bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “I started getting emotional during the interview, and I was thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing trying to be the superintendent of a school district when I know for a fact what I want to do is be closer to students?'”

Taveras called his old colleagues at the Department of Education and asked what he needed to do to become a principal again. He said Chancellor Dennis Walcott was kind enough to “grandfather” him into the principal pool, and a week later Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky offered him the job at DeWitt Clinton.

Taveras said he knows there’s a lot of work to be done at the high school, which was considered for closure this past year due to dismal progress reports and is now set to shrink substantially while also sharing space for the first time. He has spent the last couple of days at the school listening to teachers’ and students’ concerns and so far has three main priorities for the improvements he wants to make.

First, he said he wants to build up the school’s technology infrastructure. He also wants to set up professional learning teams to help teachers better understand the new teacher evaluation system and how to align their instruction with the Common Core learning standards. Taveras also wants to rebuild school morale to counteract the negative reputation that many have of DeWitt Clinton today.

Taveras has experience closing schools, after heading South Bronx High School after the city decided to phase it out in 2001. And he has even more experience opening new schools: He was the founding assistant principal of East Side Community High School, and the founding principal of both Banana Kelly High School and the Urban Assembly Academy for Careers in Sports.

But taking over a school with a long and storied past and trying to turn it around after a period of decline so that it becomes a school that students want to attend will be a new challenge.

“You have to come in and get them to buy into your vision,” Taveras said about the staff.When he spoke with teachers on Friday, he said he kept repeating the importance of everyone working as a team otherwise they will not be successful at turning the school around.

“Teachers came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m on that team, I’m ready to work with you to get this done,'” he said. “That was inspiring… It was something that I was not expecting because of course, I’m somebody new who they don’t know… but I can see there’s an urgency to turn the school around.”

He said he thinks his experience at Tweed taught him that with every decision there are always advantages, disadvantages, and different stakeholders to consider, but at the end of the day, the choice has to benefit the children.

“I don’t think anybody has gone from deputy chancellor back to kids,” Taveras said. “It shows, I believe, one of the reasons I was welcome at Clinton on Friday is that they understand this isn’t about media, this isn’t about anything else other than doing something I’m happy to do, building community, turning schools around, and making people feel empowered about the work they’re doing to teach children.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”