leadership change

ACTvF aims to avoid common post-founding principal struggle

Edgar Rodriguez recently became principal of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Long Island City, Queens. He helped start the school in 2008 and acted as its assistant principal for the last four years, until the founding principal left in January 2013.

On his first day as principal of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film in January, Edgar Rodriguez had his hands full. The two phones in his high school office rang in short, steady intervals. After a few loud rings, he picked up the one on his desk and calmed the muffled voice on the other end. Then, with a couple of strides, he was on the second phone on the opposite side of the room. “Code Blue,” he said. It was a signal for staff members who could operate a defibrillator to report to one of the school’s rooms. “Okay, great. Get everyone there.” That day, ACTvF was doing a practice drill.

For more than four years, Rodriguez had been the assistant principal of ACTvF, a Long Island City high school with 419 students. The school opened in 2008 under the leadership of founding principal Mark Dunetz, Rodriguez, and a team of staff members whose vision was to create “a non-selective high school that provided a high quality education.”  They did not screen students by their academic performance. Instead they opened their doors to a diverse mix of students, many from the surrounding Queens neighborhood.

Located just south of the bustle of 36th Avenue in Queens, ACTvF aims to train students for practical careers in television and film production through in-house work and industry internships. Within a year of opening, the school was attracting more applicants than it could accommodate. Soon, students were thriving and, when the school graduated its first class last year, all of the students in it had gotten into college. The 96 percent graduation rate helped the school post the third-highest score last year on its progress report, the tool the city uses to evaluate and compare schools.

In January, Dunetz left the school he founded to join the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools as its first vice president of school support, a promotion that made him the main contact between New Visions and the 73 city schools it supports. His departure was a testament to ACTvF’s success — but it also meant that the school faced a leadership transition that many other new schools had found difficult to overcome.

As Rodriguez stepped into the top spot, his mind was on maintaining the school’s momentum and avoiding the dip in performance that plagues many new schools undergoing a leadership change. “My goal is to make a smooth transition,” he said. “For many schools, it’s a struggle once the founding principal moves on. We want to avoid that here.”

In the last 10 years, the number of new schools exploded as the Bloomberg administration replaced large, low-performing institutions deemed to be failing. This week, speaking at ACTvF, Bloomberg highlighted the final new-school tally of his tenure: 656 schools since 2002.

Many of the new schools have already seen their principals turn over, and, within a few years of opening, many more are expected to experience leadership changes. A 2009 study by researchers at New York University and the Institute for Education and Social Policy found that after 10 years, only 16 percent of newly created New York City high schools still had their founding principals, and more than a third of new schools saw their leader change two or more times over that time. Nearly half of the newly created schools that the researchers studied lost their founding principal within the first four years.

If the trends the researchers identified remain true, hundreds of the new schools opened under the Bloomberg administration have experienced leadership transitions, or will soon experience them.

Leadership changes have caused rocky transitions, and sometimes plummeting performance, at some of the city’s new schools. One example is Brooklyn Preparatory High School, a small arts-themed school in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, which also underwent a rocky transition when its founding principal left in 2010. The school, which opened in 2004, saw seven teachers leave because of the leadership change, according to the school information website Insideschools. Students, parents, and teachers also reported lower satisfaction with their learning environment under new principal Noah Lansner, citing problems with school management and discipline.

Foundations Academy, a high school that opened in 2005 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, also struggled after its first principal moved on. In 2009, the school was graduating about 70 percent of its students in four years and earned a B on its city report card under founding principal Gary Beidleman. But since Beidleman’s departure in 2011, the school’s performance data has dropped dramatically. Under current principal Jimmy Molina, the school now graduates only 26 percent of students in four years. (Exactly what caused the decline is not clear: In 2011, the city withheld the school’s annual progress report because some data could have reflected cheating.)

And Bronx Lab School was also thrust into a difficult transition when founding principal Marc Sternberg, now a deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, left the school in 2009. Under his leadership, the school graduated up to 96 percent of its seniors. In 2011, the graduation rate had dropped to just 58 percent.

Eric Nadelstern, who was a teacher, principal, superintendent, and deputy chancellor in the city’s school system for nearly 40 years, says this is a common phenomenon in new schools, whose success is often built upon the personal appeal of a passionate founding principal.

“Generally, these small schools are founded by a strong, charismatic leader,” he said from his office at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he is a visiting professor of practice. “If you lead from the basis of your personal leadership and the strength of your charismatic personality, that’s a hard — if not impossible — act to follow.”

The lack of concrete and formal principles for guiding decision-making, evaluation, instruction, and leader selection leads some schools to struggle to bounce back after the departure of their founding principals, according to Nadelstern. Schools that succeed are often the ones that anchor their success in a common vision or mandate that is shared by teachers and goes beyond the individual principal.

Nadelstern was once himself the founding principal of a small new school. In the mid-1980s, he created the International High School in Queens, a college preparatory school for students with limited English-language abilities. He served as principal for 17 years but, when he left, the school continued to thrive and now has 14 replicas across New York City. What made the difference, according to Nadelstern, was that he was careful to prepare the school for success after his departure.

“A successful manager prepares the people they supervise for their next position,” he said. “The real issue in most schools is that principals don’t work hard enough to get commonly agreed upon processes and structures in place that everyone understands.”

Researchers studying the issue of leadership change in schools have not concluded whether leadership shifts in new schools are easier when the successor is someone from within the school, according to Alex Bowers, an associate professor of educational leadership at Columbia University.

Dunetz said he thought Rodriguez’s role as a key member of the school’s administration for the last four years gave him a huge advantage over a newcomer. When it came time to leave ACTvF, Dunetz said, he knew that Rodriguez was already respected and accepted by the rest of the school community.

But whether the new leader is an outsider or not, most schools experience a dip in performance when someone new takes over the principal’s office, according to Bowers. In most cases, he said, it takes schools two or three years to adjust to new leadership and get back to the previous levels of performance. Yet teachers, officials, parents, and students are rarely prepared for the decline and are hesitant to wait for improvement.

“It’s problematic because a part of schooling is political,” Bowers said. “Having a two-, three-, four-year horizon for performance — usually, people aren’t going to wait for that.”

As far as ACTvF is concerned, Dunetz believes the school’s structure is strong enough to withstand a leadership change without experiencing the dip in performance. He said the administration’s priority from early on was creating stability and building a school that was not dependent on the charisma of its leader. This meant instituting formal structures for how things should be done, encouraging staff engagement, and involving all administrators in decision-making.

“I’m confident it’s strong enough to keep performing at a very high level and continue to get better with time,” Dunetz said. “It’s in good hands. Otherwise I wouldn’t have left.”

Mariana Ionova is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Leila Hadd
A KIPP school in the Bronx.

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Feinberg brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”