Procedural changes lead to tensions between faculty members and principal
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Amidst the backdrop of a brewing controversy over the possible permanent appointment of Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda, a number of teachers have expressed frustrations with changes to procedure at Townsend Harris that have accrued over the course of the past months.
In a number of conversations with teachers, administrators, and students, four particular points of tension appear: collateral assignments, field trip procedures, uniform grading policies, and contest submission procedures. From the perspective of some, these tensions have arisen from issues of communication between administration and faculty; others see these tensions arising from the needs of bringing THHS into compliance with DOE policies that were not being properly enforced.
In past years, teachers normally received a schedule in advance detailing the assignment dates of collateral projects to ensure that large sums of work do not pile up for students. This year, however, while some departments were supposed to assign collaterals as early as September 26, the memo was not released by the principal’s office until October 31.
Social Studies teacher and UFT Chapter Leader Franco Scardino addressed the issue, stating, “[There are] five assignments dates that preceded the distribution day with no instructions as to how to modify the assignment dates.”
English teacher Judy Biener assigned collaterals before the memo was given out and remarked that the delay was “clearly inconsiderate and did not leave enough time” for teachers to prepare collaterals and students to complete assignments. Similarly, Spanish teacher Beatriz Ezquerra said, “I took the liberty to make my own regulations. Since the collateral instructions were given later, I allowed my students to have extra time.”
Many students were frustrated when they were assigned an overwhelming amount of collaterals on top of one another. Sophomore Amisha Saha said, “I have six collaterals, which were all assigned within the first week of November. There was a lot of confusion with the assignment dates. My teachers were pushing the due date back and changing the formatting of the assignments every day, which left our class very puzzled as to what we have to do and when.”
Sophomore Melanie Esterine added, “It’s quite distressing to see your teachers so confused because if they don’t even know what’s going on, how are the students supposed to know?”
Principal Jahoda commented on the collateral due date issue, stating, “We discussed it at a faculty meeting just last week and [Ms. Oberlander] brought it to the attention of the faculty that the students feel as though everything is due at the same time. The feedback from the faculty was mixed. They generally felt like they gave the students plenty of time. What we talked about was that in the future it would be helpful if the teachers scaffold the assignments, [or] in other words, have different benchmarks.”
Assistant Principal of Organization Ellen Fee stated, “The APs did not realize the [collateral assignment sheet] did not go out. We could’ve followed through to make sure it went out. It was unfortunate that some of the dates had already been missed.”
There have also been complications in the Social Science Research class due to a change in the approval procedures for submitting student projects to NYSCEF (New York City Science and Engineering Fair).
Previously, the research teacher would have the principal sign the forms for each student in advance, so that students got all the paperwork out of the way and would have time to finish their work up to the deadline. According to Mr. Scardino, former THHS principals, including Anthony Barbetta, Kenneth Bonamo, Thomas Cunningham, and Dr. Malcolm G. Largman, all used this procedure.
Mr. Scardino explained, “This year, when I presented the folder to Mr. Olechowski to have Principal Jahoda sign [it], the folder was returned to me unsigned. I was told that the application was incomplete.”
Ms. Jahoda visited Mr. Scardino’s classroom subsequently and, as Mr. Scardino said, “confirmed that she would not sign the applications until the criteria she established was met.”
Principal Jahoda said, “I went to speak to the class because they were told that I wouldn’t approve [the application] and that was just simply not true. It was just a matter of the order of which things needed to be done.” She explained that she was highly familiar with NYSCEF and has been approving papers for nine years, adding, “I know exactly what the requirements are and so it was sent back to the AP of the teacher [because] I can’t sign it until I see that the packet is complete.”
Social science research student, senior Angelica Moratos said, “Principal Jahoda was worried about us not having our papers ready. However, we had already submitted to another competition beforehand, so I think this was unnecessary, but if Principal Jahoda felt that was the best thing to do, then we should just accept it: she has a right to sign whenever she feels comfortable. Although it seemed a bit awkward, I think it was nice of her to come and explain what had happened to us.”
Senior Samantha Jaloza added, “I was upset when I found out that Principal Jahoda wasn’t going to sign our papers since I was unsure of the reasons behind her decision. I was extremely stressed that we wouldn’t be able to submit the project that we have spent the last two years working on. Hopefully it will all work out before the deadline.”
Principal Jahoda explained that she believes it’s important to do more than sign off on an incomplete project: “I’m…endorsing those packets. I’m also a researcher and certified to keep humans safe in any study, so I have this dual responsibility to make sure that whatever surveys are being used in the student’s research is exactly the same survey that they received IRB [institutional review board] approval for.”
Despite this, Mr. Scardino expressed concern that the students will not be able to finish the application in time for approval, thus missing the December 14 deadline. He said, “It’s a challenging time frame. Had we known this earlier, maybe back in the beginning of November, we could’ve planned a way to have everything finished by December 1st. Everybody’s working feverishly to make sure that Principal Jahoda gets the applications by the 13th. We hope we can get it done, and I hope none of the students are left out of the competition because of the delay in relaying this new procedure that has many, many more layers to it than in the past.”
There have been similar concerns raised about trip procedures.
Shortly after arriving, Ms. Jahoda found that THHS was not complying with the Chancellor’s regulations for trips. She explained, “As the principal, I am responsible for making sure everyone is safe and that includes trips. My assumption when I started was that THHS followed all of the New York City DOE [Department of Education] regulations, but as the trip forms started to [be presented] to me, it was clear that this was not [the case]. Here at THHS, people just weren’t aware of the policy. I’m not sure why there wasn’t this consciousness of what needs to be done because it’s all public.”
She encouraged that, “if anything is not clear, they can either talk to me, to the AP, or they can look online for themselves. It is a little dense reading through these things, but once you’ve done one or two trips, you get to know what the regulations are.”
Many teachers felt that the procedures for getting a field trip approved have been needlessly complicated as a result of coming into compliance with DOE policies.
Ms. Jahoda further said, “It is frustrating for people at first because there was this incongruence between the practice here and what is required. I think for the folks here, it was a procedural change, and it caused them some frustration and that’s unfortunate.”
The Phoenix recently had a trip to the 92nd Street Y (where they would learn from professional authors) canceled the night of the Open House because the previous plans for such trips were found to be out of compliance.
An anonymous member of the club commented, “Usually they send us vans to drive us, but we had to call and have them turn around when we realized there weren’t enough chaperones.”
Assistant Principal Rafal Olechowski and advisor for The Phoenix, explained the reason the trip didn’t go forward. People he normally used to chaperone the trip did not meet the requirements found in regulations for school trips, and because of the Open House, he could not find another chaperone on short notice. He said, “It was just bad timing. Normally I would just ask so and so someone from a department to go in my stead, but because there was the Open House, a lot of them were working.”
In addition to changes to trip procedures, there have also been changes made to departmental policies. Ms. Jahoda is working on creating a “a uniform grading policy for each subject” by next semester.
However, some teachers disagree with this change. While they are not necessarily against uniform grading policies, many believe that the uniform policies should be a on a course-by-course basis rather than a subject-by-subject basis. The new policy calls for all Social Studies courses to have the same grading policy, for instance, but teachers believe there should be different policies for courses within departments like Social Studies (such as American History, World History, Economics, etc.).
There is some dispute as to whether or not these changes follow with DOE requirements. The DOE “High School Academic Policy Guide” from September 2016 states “The principal, in consultation with the School Leadership Team (SLT), may determine whether grading policies are set at the school, department, grade, or course level.”
Mr. Olechowski explained the administration’s directive for department by department policies comes from the superintendent, saying “There were different things put up by the DOE, but the bottom line is, if the superintendent says this is what you need to have in order to operate in the way that we want to operate, then we have to have it.”
Ms. Biener commented, “I’ve been teaching for over 25 years. I think I know what I’m doing, and I think the teachers deserve a little leeway in their own classroom. We are all individuals. However, in the interest of being collegial, I agreed to alter my grading policy.”
An anonymous teacher stated, “A uniform grading policy is extremely impractical: you can’t grade lower level classes meant for freshman on the same scale that you would grade senior level AP Electives.”
Numerous teachers explained that they were not necessarily unhappy with changes to procedures, but rather the lack of communication involved. Many would prefer these new procedures to be presented in written memos for reference. With numerous documents online about grading policy, for instance, they’d prefer the administration to clarify in writing where new procedures are coming from and explain exactly what they are.
Regarding all of the policy and procedural changes that have been implemented at THHS since the beginning of the school year, one anonymous teacher commented, “There’s no problem with ensuring that we follow DOE rules and regulations, but there’s a way to enforce procedures that builds communities and relationships, and there’s a way that alienates people and causes the kind of atmosphere that is taking hold in the school. That shouldn’t happen here.”
Ms. Ezquerra thinks that “in general, there should be more clear communication of all new policies. If changes have to be instituted, students and teachers should be informed in writing in a proper manner and timely fashion.”
Mr. Scardino added, “I think that the best policy is to codify things. If you’re going to change a procedure, inform yourself as to why has it been done this way, bring in the people who are involved [and] ask them for input. If there are things that are out of compliance, work with the team to put things in compliance. I sympathize and empathize with people who are struggling to understand what the new procedures are when it comes to many things. Suddenly, everyone knows that there are changes, but no one is 100% certain what those changes are because we have not been properly notified in writing.”
Ms. Jahoda believes that the changes she has enforced at THHS will positively impact the school community overall. She said, “As a new principal, I’m learning what the procedures are in place, so you can adjust something before you know what’s going on. As I learn about things, I’d like to not have to change too much especially at first, but something like a trip where students’ safety and welfare are at stake, you can’t wait on something like that. In general, I have to make sure that I’m comfortable with what I’m signing. I think that’s a good practice for everyone.”
Mr. Scardino is still apprehensive about these alterations, concluding, “Change is always welcomed if the outcome is to improve things. Townsend Harris is a well-oiled machine. It has always been a well-oiled machine and that does not mean some things might need to be changed. There are directives that have to be adjusted to, but if all the plumbing in your house is working and maybe one faucet is leaking, you would just change the washer in the sink, you wouldn’t rip out all the pipes.”