a bad rap

Parents of minority students criticize culture at top high school

City Councilman Charles Barron criticized Chancellor Cathie Black for failing to condemn a video posted by Stuyvesant High School students that used racial slurs. To Barron's right is Veronica Celestin, the mother of a Stuyvesant student.

Parents and politicians gathered today outside of prestigious Stuyvesant High School to condemn what they describe as a pattern of racial exclusion and insensitivity at the school.

The group was responding to an amateur rap video that shows four young white men — reportedly Stuyvesant students — using racial slurs. The video emerged after a former student at the school posted it to YouTube.

Recently critics have said that the city’s selective public schools don’t admit enough black and Hispanic students, and that the Department of Education hasn’t fully implemented its own anti-bullying program.

At today’s event outside of the ten-story school building in Lower Manhattan, several parents of students of color talked about their children’s experiences. Veronica Celestin, whose daughter Breanna found the video posted to Facebook, said they were disturbed by the “racist video.”

“This has been a very difficult and traumatic time for Breanna and our family,” said Celestin, reading softly from a typed statement.

Another Stuyvesant parent, Ruth Sowell, said that her child sometimes felt unwelcome at the school. Her son, Michael Bucaoto, is a Stuyvesant football player who is bi-racial.

“They didn’t treat him as an equal,” Sowell said. “He felt he had nowhere to go.”

The percentage of black and Hispanic students admitted to the city’s selective-enrollment schools has declined over the last decade. This year the city offered just 12 black students and 13 Hispanic students spots in the 2011 freshman class at Stuyvesant. Meanwhile, Asian students received 569 offers and white students received 179. In the 2008-2009 school year, just two percent of Stuyvesant’s 3,245 students were black and three percent were Hispanic.

Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the DOE, said the department is improving its outreach to parents in communities where student enrollment in specialized schools is low. She also said that the department is looking into the rap video.

“We are investigating this incident and will take disciplinary action against those involved,” Feinberg said. No Stuyvesant administrators would comment on the video or confirm if any students have already been disciplined, but several students said the four boys in the video have been suspended.

City Councilman Charles Barron criticized Chancellor Cathleen Black today for failing to condemn the video. He also said the DOE should act immediately to send a message to students that harassment is unacceptable.

“This is not a case of ‘boys will be boys,’” Barron said. “This is a form of cyber harassment, cyber terrorism, cyber bullying.”

In 2007, the city launched an anti-bullying program for schools called Respect For All. Last month, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced an expansion of the program, which involves staff training and protocols for tracking and dealing with bullying and harassment.

But in a survey of 198 teachers released last month, only 28 said they believed the city’s anti-bullying efforts have been effective. The survey was part of a report published by the Sikh Coalition, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

The report said that despite the city’s detailed anti-bullying plan, many students still don’t know how to report bias-based mistreatment and many schools still fail to investigate reports of harassment.

Feinberg disputed the results of the survey, saying it relies on a “tiny fraction of staff and grossly misrepresents the strides made by our schools.” She also said that every school has a designated staff member to whom students can report bias-related incidents and that 4,000 school employees have participated in a two-day Respect For All workshop.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said that the DOE should use the controversy over the video as a “teachable moment” about respect and ways to deal with harassment. But she added that racial imbalance in student enrollment can cause issues at schools.

“I think it’s generally agreed that Stuyvesant High School has a problem. There are very, very few African American students there,” Lieberman said. “And that number has dwindled over the last number of years from merely unacceptable to horrifically unacceptable.”

A Stuyvesant employee who asked not to be named said that the school could do more to promote diversity and discourage harassment.

“People here live in a state of denial,” said the employee, who was not a part of the press event. “Nothing’s done in a proactive way.”

Several students said that racial conflicts are uncommon at the school and the administration takes reports of bullying seriously. They also said that, after the video became public, the administration sent home a letter to families explaining the school’s policy on harassment.

“I don’t like how Stuyvesant is getting a bad name because of it,” said Mohammed Rahman, a sophomore at the school. “It was just kids fooling off.”

Rahman added that the students in the video deserved to be suspended. “They went overboard,” he said. “They really need to understand that racism isn’t accepted at school or in general life.”

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.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said