having their say

Students at Townsend Harris High School hold hallway sit-in to protest Principal Rosemarie Jahoda

PHOTO: Renaenia Cipriano Pangan

Dozens of students at Townsend Harris, a top Queens high school, took to the hallways Thursday to express their frustration with Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda, who replaced Principal Anthony Barbetta in September.

“Our goal was to show that students felt the difference between the school atmosphere before Mrs. Jahoda came and after,” said Student Union President Alex Chen, who helped organize the sit-in. “The atmosphere she created is impossible for us to work with.”

The students aren’t the only ones concerned. A online petition to keep Jahoda from being named permanent principal at the school has collected more than 3,000 signatures, including many from people identifying themselves as parents or alumni. The petition notes “rumors” of “faculty harassment” and “significant changes to course offerings and programs” without proper input. “She has simply not been as approachable as previous principals,” it states.

“We do not feel that there is a path forward for her at Townsend Harris High School,” the petition concludes. “Appointing her will be going against our wishes for our children and for the future children who will be attending the school.”

Principal Jahoda did not respond to requests for comment.

A former assistant principal of mathematics at Bronx High School of Science, Jahoda has a history of conflict with school staff. Twenty teachers — nearly the entire math department at Bronx Science — filed a complaint focused on her in 2008. An independent fact-finder later verified many of their concerns, noting that Jahoda had engaged in “harassment and intimidation” of teachers. The Department of Education rejected that report as “not fairly based upon all the evidence in this case.”

The Townsend Harris students timed their protest to coincide with a visit from the district superintendent. Sitting along the hallways, they whispered excitedly to each other other as a videographer from the student newspaper filmed interviews with the students involved.

Instead, it was Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro who visited that day. She stopped and addressed the students, with a silent Jahoda beside her. Holding a pad, Pineiro proceeded to question the students, sharply at times.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” Pineiro asked Chen. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Franco Scardino, a social studies teacher at the school and the union chapter leader, said he had seen the video and was troubled by Pineiro’s tone.

“Even if you might disagree with their naiveté or their flawed tactics due to their lack of experience, I would think you would accommodate a conversation with students rather than a lecture,” he said.

Pineiro said she supported the students’ right to protest, but felt they had been misinformed. “I have a great deal of respect for kids. That’s why I’m in education,” Pineiro told Chalkbeat. “I’m just urging students to fact-check, and parents as well.”

Pineiro added that she has worked closely with Jahoda and thinks she’s not getting a fair shake. “I have the utmost faith that if people were to give her an opportunity and a chance, they will find that she’s really an advocate for students,” she said.

Susan Karlic, co-president of the Townsend Harris parent-teacher association, whose daughter is a senior at the school, said she is reserving judgment for now. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of the matter and take all sides of the story, and make our own decision from there,” she said.

The Department of Education is also taking a wait-and-see approach, noting that the process of hiring a permanent principal had not yet started. “Principal hiring and assignment decisions are made by the superintendent in accordance with the Chancellor’s Regulations, and based on consultations with members of the school community,” said DOE spokesman Will Mantell. “We listen closely to the feedback and concerns of all school communities, and engage them as part of the C-30 [hiring] process.”

The next school leadership team meeting will be held Thursday, Dec. 15 at 4 p.m. The next parent-teacher association meeting will be held the same day at 6:30 p.m.

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

making plans

New York City inches towards a diversity plan for middle schools in a segregated Brooklyn district

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
M.S. 51 in Park Slope is one of the most selective middle schools in District 15.

After sustained pressure from advocates and elected officials, the New York City education department is taking steps towards a plan to promote diversity in middle schools across an entire district — which would make it one of the most far-reaching integration efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio to date.

In the coming months, the department will launch a community-input process to gather ideas about how to create such a system in Brooklyn’s District 15, where the middle schools are sharply segregated by race and class.

But in a show of how difficult the work could be, at least one well-connected community organizer has already declined to join the city’s efforts, saying communities of color haven’t been included in a meaningful way before now.

“It’s a cold-call,” said Javier Salamanca, who has led efforts to fight overcrowding in the district, but turned down the offer to join the unfolding diversity work. “There’s no relationship.”

District 15 has unique potential to integrate its middle schools. While segregation is often blamed on residential patterns, the district uses a choice-based enrollment system that lets families apply to any middle school in the district — even ones far beyond the neighborhoods where they live. The district also enrolls a diverse mix of students from the affluent neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, as well as the heavily immigrant communities of Red Hook and Sunset Park.

However, 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s middle schools, according to an analysis by parents pushing for changes to the admissions system.

“It’s clear that some of our middle schools do not reflect the diversity of our district,” said District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop. “We want to make sure there is equity of access for all children.”

The city awarded a $120,000 contract earlier this year to WXY Studio, an urban planning and design firm, to create a public-input process in District 15, where parents have lobbied for years for changes to the middle school admissions process. Experts said the process could become a blueprint for other districts interested in pursuing their own integration plans.

The firm — which, among other high-profile projects, helped the city create a development plan for East Harlem — has already started to assemble a working group of parents, educators and local advocates. The group of about 15 members will host a series of public meetings to gather feedback and develop a proposal to change student enrollment in the district.

The city hopes to have a plan by the end of the current school year. Earlier this year, the department announced a district-wide diversity plan for elementary schools on the Lower East Side.

Councilman Brad Lander, who represents part of District 15 and has been an outspoken advocate for school integration, called the process a “big opportunity.”

“That the department of education has wanted to commit to this is encouraging,” he said. “Taking district-wide steps to combat school segregation and achieve more integrated schools is a fundamentally important next step.”

Advocates are paying close attention to the makeup of the working group, which has already been the source of friction.

Salamanca, the co-founder of Make Space for Quality Schools in Sunset Park, who declined to join the working group, said that integration is not a top concern for parents in his community — which includes many Mexican and Chinese immigrants. They are more worried about severe school overcrowding, which leads to packed classrooms and limited space for things like science labs, he said.

The working-group invitation felt more like an effort to create the appearance of diversity than a real attempt to listen to the parents in his community, Salamanca added.

“As one of the few grassroots groups organizing parent voices in Sunset Park,” he wrote in a statement posted on Facebook, “we choose not to be tokenized for the purposes of this initiative.”

His reservations reflect a deeper criticism of the city’s budding integration movement: that it’s dominated by white middle-class parents and needs to draw on a wider range of perspectives.

“This issue can have the effect of alienating communities of color,” said Matt Gonzales, who promotes integration policies through the nonprofit New York Appleseed. The tension over the District 15 working group “is one of the clearest indications of that.”

Skop, the district superintendent, said the education department is open to feedback about how the input process should proceed. And she emphasized that the city wants to involve parents from across the district.

“I think as people see we really want to hear their voices, people will be much more eager to work with us,” she said. “We very much want to hear from all areas of the district.”