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.

$1 billion

The tension between CPS enrollment declines and new schools

PHOTO: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
The West Loop neighborhood on the Near West Side is booming with new residents and corporate headquarters.

Chicago plans on opening a handful of schools in the next several years. But for whom?

Chicago Public Schools faces a critical decline in enrollment and is closing or phasing out four more schools on the city’s South Side as a result.

Yet the district just unveiled a new $1 billion capital plan that adds schools: an open-enrollment high school on the Near West Side and an elementary school in the Belmont Cragin community on the Northwest Side. That’s in addition to repurposing two old buildings to open classical schools in Bronzeville on the Near South Side and West Eldson on the Southwest Side.

CPS is soliciting feedback about the plan this Thursday ahead of next week’s board of education vote, but community organizers say the proposal shows a bias toward investments in or near high-growth, gentrifying areas of the city. Some complain the new schools will siphon enrollment and resources from current neighborhood options, and worry the schools are an election-year ploy that will exacerbate or enable gentrification. Others contend that the district’s spending still prioritizes white and mixed communities near downtown and on the North Side as opposed to majority black and Latino communities on the South and West sides.

Despite the criticism, and despite declines in city population and enrollment, CPS said it is taking a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to to creating new schools and academic opportunities. In a statement to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS defended its decision to open new schools, despite enrollment declines, by citing community demand. And CPS CEO Janice Jackson told a room of business and nonprofit executives at the City Club of Chicago on Monday, “we can’t do great work without investing” — and not just in school staff, but in buildings themselves.

At a budget hearing later in the day, Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark stressed the money was being allocated “with a great deal of focus on local schools that in the past had legitimate reason to feel that they were not prioritized as they should (be).”

The problem, still, is fewer and fewer families are enrolling their students at CPS.

Enrollment is declining at Chicago Public Schools.

The roughly 371,000 students enrolled at CPS this year is a 15 percent decrease compared with the year 2000, when enrollment topped 435,000, according to CPS data. And there’s no sign the numbers will trend upward soon:  The district projects about 20,000 fewer students to enroll in the next three years. The trends mirror population drops in Chicago, which has about 182,000 fewer residents than it did 18 years ago, according to Census data. More than 220,000 black residents have left since the year 2000.

One expert on neighborhood change in Chicago, Alden Loury of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said building new schools shouldn’t be part of a broad policy given the city’s population declines. However, he said new schools may make sense in certain areas.

“You may see pockets within the city where there’s a very clear difference happening,” he said.

Demographer Rob Paral, who publishes Chicago demographic data on his website, said while the city’s population might be down, some parts of the city that have grown, especially areas that are gentrifying and former white ethnic enclaves transformed by Latinos and immigrants.

“Chicago has got these microclimates when it comes to neighborhood change,” Paral said.

You’ll see what he’s saying in Belmont Cragin, a community just west of one of Chicago’s most popular gentrifying communities, where the population has ballooned as the overall city population has dropped.

A new elementary school for Belmont Cragin

Belmont Cragin is a quiet, working-class neighborhood full of single-family brick bungalows and two-flat apartments. Taquerias, Mexican boutiques, hair salons and auto bodies dominate commercial corridors that used to serve more Polish residents, who are concentrated on the northern end of the community.  Since 1990, Belmont Cragin’s population has increased 40 percent to 80,000 and changed from two-thirds white to 80 percent Latino. Paral said Latinos have moved from communities like Logan Square to the east, where gentrification pushed them out, and replaced aging white populations. Latinos have similarly transformed former enclaves for European immigrants on the Southwest Side, like West Eldson and Gage Park.

CPS said in its statement that community groups and leaders in Belmont Cragin advocated for the elementary school, and that CPS “shares these communities’ vision of expanding high-quality educational opportunities to children of all backgrounds.”

CPS wouldn’t say who in the Belmont Cragin community had asked for a new school. It wasn’t Rosa Reyes or Mariana Reyes (no relation). They said their children’s school, Burbank Elementary, is losing students and needing improvements to its roof, heating and cooling systems. The district labels Burbank, like most schools in Belmont Cragin, as efficiently using its space and not yet suffering  from under-enrollment — yet. Still, its student body is shrinking. Latino enrollment at CPS seems to be falling, too. Experts note that immigrants are coming to the city at much lower rates than in the past when they offset black population loss, and that birth rates have declined across the board. 

The mothers said CPS allowed a Noble Charter Network to open in 2014 that exacerbated enrollment declines at Steinmetz High School, and that the same happened to Burbank in 2013, when an UNO charter elementary opened a few blocks west of the school.

Steadily losing students costs Burbank funding, doled out per-pupil. That’s why they the parents don’t support CPS’ new school proposal.

“It will be taking from the local schools,” Rosa Reyes said.

A push for a Near West Side high school

Drive west from Chicago’s central business district and you’ll pass through the Near West Side, one of the city’s 77 official community areas. However, those official boundaries also contain a racially and economically diverse mix of neighborhoods. East of Ashland, you’ll see the West Loop, home to mostly white and affluent residents, pricy condos, trendy restaurants, and a booming business community that includes corporate headquarters for Google and McDonalds.

But west of Ashland, as you approach the United Center where the Chicago Bulls play, you’ll find more low-income residents, public housing, and African-American residents. Like Belmont Cragin, the Near West Side has witnessed immense population growth in recent decades. White people have flocked to the area, especially the affluent West Loop, while the black population has plummeted. In 1990, about 66 percent of Near West Side residents were black and 19 percent were white. Nearly 20,000 new residents have moved in since then. Today, the Near West Side is 30 percent black and 42 percent white. An analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that most African-Americans leaving Chicago are under 25, and low-income. Alden Loury, the council’s research director, said the city is struggling to retain young black people who might eventually establish families, and that many black Chicagoans have left seeking better job markets, more affordable housing, and higher quality schools.

CPS hasn’t announced where on the Near West Side it will put its proposed $70 million high school – but the community groups calling loudest for it are pro-business groups and neighborhood organizations led by mostly white professionals. The community group Connecting4Communities and the West Loop business organization the West Central Association have advocated for a new high school and see the mayor’s proposal as responsive to the growing community.

“Most of the high schools that people are comfortable sending their children to, the good ones, are selective enrollment,” said Executive Director Dennis O’Neill of Connecting4Communities.

He said that parents whose children don’t test into those schools—Jones College Prep, Whitney M. Young Academic Center, and Walter Payton College Prep —lack an acceptable option.

“Our neighborhood school, Wells, which is nowhere near our neighborhood, is so under-enrolled, and is not [a school] that people feel comfortable sending their children to,” he said. “When people see a school is so woefully under-enrolled, they just don’t have confidence in it.”

Wells Community Academy High School, which sits near the intersection of Ashland and Chicago avenues, also is mostly black and Latino, and mostly low income.

But O’Neill emphasized that high school request isn’t an effort to exclude any groups. He said the groups have a proposal for a new high school that draws on eight feeder schools, including a school serving a public housing development, to ensure the student body reflects the diversity of Chicago.

Loury of the planning council said it makes sense that as the Near West Side grows there’s a desire to satisfy that growing population. However, he found the idea of low enrollment at a predominately black and Latino school amid a boom in white population to be problematic. Parents might avoid sending their children to certain schools for various reasons, but a new building nearby furthers disinvestment in schools struggling to fill seats.

“It’s a pretty classic story in terms of Chicago and the struggles of integration and segregation,” he said.

A classical debate in Bronzeville

When it comes to CPS’ new school plans, line items don’t always mean new buildings, as evidenced by the two classical schools opening in existing structures in West Eldson on the Southwest Side and in Bronzeville on the South Side.  

Bronzeville Classical will open this fall as a citywide elementary selective enrollment school. Classical schools offer a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum to students who must test in. Last year, more than 1,000 students who qualified were turned away for lack of space, according to CPS, which is spending $40 million to expand three existing classical programs elsewhere.

“The district is meeting a growing demand for classical programs by establishing programs in parts of the city that do not have classical schools, like Bronzeville – making this high-quality programming more accessible to students in historically underserved neighborhoods,” the CPS statement read.

Alderman Pat Dowell, whose ward the school is opening in, supports the new Bronzeville school.

“It provides another quality educational option for families in Bronzeville and other nearby communities,” Dowell wrote in a statement she emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago. “No longer will children from near south neighborhoods seeking a classical school education have to travel to the far southside, westside or northside for enrollment.”

However, some South Side residents see the classical school as problematic.

Natasha Erskine lives in Washington Heights on the Far South Side, but is Local School Council member at King College Preparatory High School in the Kenwood community near Bronzeville. She has a daughter enrolled at King, a selective enrollment high school. Before that, her daughter was in a gifted program at a nearby elementary school. Erskine supports neighborhood schools, but struggled finding schools that offered the kind of field trips and world language instruction many selective enrollment schools offer.

“I see the disparity, because it’s one we participate in it whether I like it or not,” she said.

Bronzeville is a culturally rich neighborhood known as Chicago’s “Black Metropolis,” where black migrants from the South forged a vibrant community during the Great Migration, building their own banks, businesses and cultural institutions.

And it retains a resilient core of committed black residents, but has suffered some decline and lost population like other black neighborhoods.  The community area that contains Bronzeville and Douglas has lost about half of its black population since 1990.

But Bronzeville is adjacent to the gentrified South Loop, which is grown increasingly white in recent years. And it’s a short drive  from Woodlawn, where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to be built. Paral, like other observers, predicts the Bronzeville is one of the areas between the South Loop and the Obama Library that will be further gentrified in coming years.

Jitu Brown, a longtime Chicago education organizer and community leader who heads the Journey for Justice Alliance, believes that the investments are an attempt to attract more white families to areas at a time when low-income people and African-Americans are being priced out and leaving the city. Brown added that creating more selective-enrollment schools is a different type of segregation: “You’re segregating talent.”

On Thursday, the district will solicit feedback about the spending plan via simultaneous public hearings at three different sites, Malcolm X College, Kennedy-King College, and Truman College. Here are the details.

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District