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.

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.


Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.


words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.