The city has appointed a first-time principal to take over Herbert H. Lehman High School, a large and troubled Bronx school that has endured downsizing, threats of closure, forced leadership changes, and state intervention in just the past few years.

John Powers, an assistant principal at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, will replace Rose LoBianco, under whose tumultuous four-year tenure the school narrowly avoided being shut down by the city only to be targeted by the state this past year for potential closure or takeover. LoBianco, who will now take the helm of a small Bronx high school, had been sent to Lehman after its two previous principals were forced to resign due to misconduct.

Powers learned less than two weeks ago that the city had approved him to lead Lehman, he said in a parting email to the 24 Bronx Science English teachers he oversaw. The late start adds to the already formidable task of turning around a school where multiple turnaround efforts and several principals have faltered, and which the state recently designated as “out of time” to make major gains.

“In one year we have to show massive improvement,” said Jeffrey Greenberg, a Lehman math teacher and the school’s union representative, who said after meeting Powers that “his heart is in the right place.”

Still, he said, “it’s very hard to change things.”

Situated in a crowded building that stretches above an East Bronx overpass, Lehman’s graduation rate has long hovered around 50 percent, ranking it near the very bottom of city high schools. While that rate inched up under LoBianco, it remained low enough to qualify the school for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new “Renewal” improvement program.

Outgoing Lehman Principal Rose LoBianco at a public hearing in 2013, where she said the city's changing plans to turn around the school caused disruptions.
Outgoing Lehman Principal Rose LoBianco at a public hearing in 2013, where she said the city’s changing plans to turn around the school caused disruptions.

That program is the latest in a head-spinning series of interventions attempted at Lehman. At different points during the past five years, city officials have proposed hiring a nonprofit group to help manage the school, replacing LoBianco and half the faculty, and closing the school. Meanwhile, the city under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg shuttered other large schools near Lehman, forcing it to absorb many challenging students.

Ultimately, the city decided to keep Lehman open, but shrank its enrollment and opened several smaller high schools in its building. By last year, Lehman had fewer than 1,400 students, compared to nearly 3,600 students in 2012.

“If our community had not experienced all of these constant changes,” LoBianco said at a public hearing in 2013, when Lehman was facing the threat of closure for the third time in four years, “our growth could have been even more dramatic.”

Powers inherits a school grappling with structural and cultural challenges, according to students and teachers.

Many teachers have trouble maintaining control of their classrooms, said junior Davon Jones and senior Justin Diaz, brothers who are transferring from Lehman to a school in Long Island. Both said the school felt disorganized, explaining that administrators had changed their class schedules and teachers midway through the year.

“That’s Lehman: You don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Jones. “It wasn’t organized at all.”

Greenberg, the math teacher, agreed that student class scheduling is a “nightmare,” and some students’ class lists were revised multiple times within a few days. He added that the prevalence of “credit recovery” under LoBianco — a city-sanctioned process where students do makeup work to earn credit for failed courses — allowed some students to advance into classes they were unprepared for.

In a survey this year, less than half of teachers said they would recommend the school to parents, and just over a third said order was maintained. At the end of the year, about a dozen teachers and several assistant principals left, according to Greenberg.

“Morale was pretty bad,” he said.

LoBianco, who will now head Bronx Leadership Academy II in the South Bronx, did not respond to requests for comment.

Education Department Spokesman Harry Hartfield said LoBianco accepted her new position after the school year ended. In such cases, he said, it is common to choose a replacement in August. He added that the department sent support staff to Lehman this summer to help with class scheduling and hiring.

A 20-year veteran of the city school system, Powers has taught English at a high school for struggling students and trained other teachers, according to an Aug. 14 letter from the head of the Renewal program to Lehman parents. Bronx Science students saw their English Regents exam scores increase this year, Powers’ second leading the English Department, the letter said.

Jordan Ronson, a Bronx Science English teacher who retired after this past school year, said Powers used his background as a former teachers union representative to connect with teachers and get them to share their concerns. Still, Powers insisted that they follow certain directives about how to run their classes, according to Ronson.

“Things have to be done John’s way,” he said.

Powers, who will hold a meet-and-greet with Lehman parents next Tuesday, did not respond to a request for comment. In his email to Bronx Science teachers, Powers said he was sad to leave that school but “excited to begin this new chapter of my educational journey.”

“Many people along the way have reminded me of my abilities as a leader,” he wrote, “and that is why I can look to the future with confidence.”