The Newark School District plans to replace the principal of the prestigious Science Park High School just one year after his appointment, according to two people with direct knowledge of the district’s plan.
The district is also replacing the first-grade principal at Newark Vocational High School, a newly renovated school that has struggled over the past year with violence and truancy, according to a person with direct knowledge and the school administrators’ union. .
The changes go against district officials’ stated goal of elevating more men of color into leadership positions, as Science Park will become the third high school in the past year to lose a black male principal. . The turnover also raises questions about how the district supports new directors and whether it has given the two leaders enough time to establish themselves.
“You need more than a year to really get your feet on the ground and do what needs to be done,” said Christine Taylor, former Newark manager and president of the City Association of Supervisors & Administrators union. “I think that’s patently unfair.”
Now, both high schools are set to face more upheaval after a difficult year of COVID-related disruptions, student mental health issues and staff burnout.
“We desperately need stability,” said Cheryl Bell, a physical education teacher at Science Park, who said she feared another change in direction. “It’s devastating and it will hurt students.”
None of the principals responded to emails or phone messages. A spokesperson said the district does not comment on personnel matters.
Science Park, a selective magnetic school in the central district of the city, is considered one of the jewelry of the Newark school system. After the departure of its previous principal last year, the district appointed her to replace her Kcyied Zahira former Newark math professor and track trainer who was most recently dean of the East Orange School District.
The first-time manager took the helm at a difficult time. Educators across the country have reported an increase in student behavior problems this fall as they returned to the classroom, after more than a year of distance learning. Science Park was no exception: several fights broke out, which is rare in an academically demanding school, and there were several bomb threats reported.
The school did not immediately notify families of the bomb threats, angering parents who only learned of the incidents from the news or their children, three parents told Chalkbeat. The situation was part of a pattern of miscommunication by the new principal, the parents said.
“From the beginning, we had no communication with him,” said Lourdes Pinto, a former Science Park PTA member who has two children at school, “and he never made the effort to change. that.”
A few students echoed this complaint, saying they rarely hear from Zahir. But others said the manager was caring and approachable, and did a good job under difficult circumstances.
“There are issues,” said 12th grader Leo Garcia, “but I feel like he did his best in his freshman year.”
Superintendent Roger León lamented the scarcity of black and Hispanic male educators and administrators in the district, who together make up just 11% of the workforce, he said.
Last year, he created a program to help these men earn master’s degrees and certifications that would put them on the path to becoming school administrators. Yet at the same time, he replaced black male principals at Malcolm X Shabazz High School and Newark Vocational last year, and now Science Park.
Amina Anabui, whose daughter is in 10th grade at Science Park, said she was unhappy with Zahir’s communication with families. Yet she also thinks the district can do a better job of helping school leaders.
“They need to support principals,” she said, “so principals can support staff and students.”
A fire, a fight and the morale of the staff bruised
Newark Vocational has had a tough few years since León promised to relaunch the school in the fall of 2019 in a completely renovated building.
First, the renovation was delayed, forcing students to move into an elementary school building for a year. Then the pandemic kept students away from the new building. Finally, students learned last spring that the district was removing the school’s popular principal, Kyle Brown, who had spent less than two years in that role.
The district replaced it with Lucinda Reason, a former vice principal of two Newark high schools who most recently served as a vocational school administrator in Passaic. Like Zahir, she graduated from Newark Public Schools.
Since Eason began this fall, the school has struggled with the kinds of attendance and discipline issues that have become increasingly common nationally during the pandemic. However, the problems at Newark Vocational have sometimes been extreme.
The school absenteeism rate is exceptionally high. In February, two-thirds of students at Newark Vocational qualified as chronic absentees — more than at any other district high school that month.
The behavior of the students has sometimes posed serious safety risks. In November, a student set fire to a classroom, forcing everyone in the building to evacuate, according to dispatches and staff members. In March, a big fight broke out; a teacher who responded was injured and taken to hospital, staff members said. A parent told Chalkbeat at the time that the school had become “a battle zone”.
Douglas Freeman, whose son is a junior at Newark Vocational, said Eason and other administrators met with the parents after the fight to discuss the situation.
“Once she exposed the obstacles and challenges, we came up with corrective measures,” he said, adding that the school seemed much calmer during his recent visit.
Chris Canik, a math teacher at Newark Vocational, said circumstances at school this year would have tested even the most experienced administrator. Many teachers had limited classroom experience, renovations continued through the school year, and COVID protocols prevented staff from meeting in person even after the building reopened.
“A lot of that has really taken a toll on our staff morale,” he said, “and when staff morale is low, student morale is low.”
Canik said the situation has improved recently, leading to gains in school attendance and performance. Although Eason has stumbled at times as a new manager, she has the potential to become a strong leader, he added.
“I believe everyone deserves a chance to grow,” he said.
At the science park, 12th grade student Inioluwa Obafemi said he was tired of the churning. Since his first year, he had to adapt to three different directors.
“Everyone comes in and we get new rules and everything,” he said. “A little consistency wouldn’t hurt.”
Patrick Wall is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city and throughout New Jersey. Contact Patrick at [email protected].