Over a hundred teachers, students, and alumni converged at from William Cullen Bryant High School closure hearing last night to warn city officials that undergoing “turnaround” next year would harm the school.
But some teachers said that rapid changes are already hitting the school under the hard-charging leadership of first-year principal Namita Dwarka.
Bryant is one of eight Queens schools proposed for turnaround, which would require them to close and reopen this summer with a new name and many new teachers. The school counts former schools chancellor Joel Klein among its graduates, but it has struggled in recent years to meet the city’s expectations. It landed on the turnaround list because of its lagging graduation rate, which last year was 56.5 percent, slightly lower than the city average.
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer invoked Bryant’s century-old legacy in a press conference outside the school and during the hearing. Sporting a lapel pin with the school’s mascot, an owl, and other alumni, Van Bramer said the school’s tradition of excellence brought pride to the community and should be preserved.
Many teachers who spoke at the hearing shared his concern. But others expressed enthusiasm about changes at the school. The conflicting feelings reflected some of the tensions that have arisen since Dwarka took over as principal in September and, according to at least half a dozen teachers who have spoken with GothamSchools, began issuing low ratings to teachers who had never received them before.
Dwarka, who arrived when Bryant began a less agressive reform process last year, has the Department of Education’s support.
“We stand behind Namita Dwarka’s leadership, and we believe she is the right person to be the proposed new leader of the proposed new school,” said Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez, to shouts and boos from students in the crowded auditorium. “In her time here at W.C. Bryant she has shown commitment and a strong will to improve student achievement and learning.”
One way that Dwarka has shown that commitment, according to the six Bryant teachers I spoke to in the last month, is by offering more bracing criticism than most teachers have gotten in the past.
“I was always satisfactory,” one teacher who asked not to be named told me by phone. “This is the principal’s first year and she never, ever observed me, not even a first time.”
“The environment in the school is not good,” she continued. “Many people complain. I get depressed, I cry. I personally believe that I work very hard during the whole year and every day, every class I try to do my best.”
The half dozen teachers said they learned in recent weeks, via letters from assistant principals who conducted classroom observations, that they would likely receive “unsatisfactory” ratings this spring. The U-rating is the first step in a contractual process that could lead to job termination. Last year, 2,118 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings citywide.
The news came as a shock to several of the teachers who testified last night — but none of them mentioned the U-rating spree they fear was underway in their public comments.
A handful of teachers did testify that they have brought a strong work ethic to the school but were not given enough time to meet the administration’s rising expectations. In private, several told me that they thought the new principal was laying the groundwork to reopen this fall with fewer veteran teachers.
Cracking down on subpar instruction is a typical first step for new principals, and one teacher who asked to remain anonymous said Dwarka was working to help teachers improve by adding professional development sessions and more classroom observations.
But the teacher also said Dwarka’s leadership had caused a rift in the teaching staff, and rumors were swirling that many teachers would receive unsatisfactory job ratings in June, which could cost them their positions at Bryant.
The rumors have been exacerbated by the city’s approach to rehiring in turnaround schools, which will be conducted according to a process outlined in the city’s contract with the teachers union. The process, known as 18-D, requires that at least half of applicants to the new school from the old school must be hired according to seniority — provided that they are qualified. The hiring committees won’t be formed and the qualifications can’t be set until after the turnaround plans have been approved. But union officials have said in the past that the committees could reasonably decide to exclude from consideration teachers who have recently received U-ratings.
“With the present administration we’ve seen a sharp rise in unsatisfactory reviews — there’s nothing to compare it to. And the number of people who have been told officially that they are in danger of getting an end-of-the-year unsatisfactory rating is extremely high,” Sam Lazarus, the union chapter leader said in an interview. “These are veteran teachers who’ve never received an unsatisfactory. [The principal] is insisting on these decisions.”
Dwarka did not speak at the hearing, where she sat next to Rodriguez on stage and smiled as student athletes praised her leadership, the school culture, and their teachers during two and a half hours of public comments. She declined to comment on her leadership philosophy and referred all questions to Department of Education press officials.
Dwarka’s approach has won her support from within the school. Alyson Roach, an English teacher, testified that Dwarka has “not been afraid” to push teachers and had set the school on a path toward improvement.
“We have a great school, but of course we have areas where we could improve. We are fortunate enough to have an energetic new principal who is herself an alumna of Bryant,” she said. “I believe everyone here would describe Ms. Dwarka as someone who is truly transforming our school. No one can question her relentless quest for excellence. Why then, after marked improvement, after only six months, have we been threatened with the possible closing of our school?”
A second school whose turnaround hearing took place Tuesday night also has a brand-new principal who was handpicked to lead the school through a reform effort. Brendan Lyons took over at Manhattan’s High School for Graphic Communications Arts in September, before that school had been selected for any reform process.
“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said when the turnaround plans were announced in January. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”