National News

A New Principal Pushes for Change. Then the Investigations Start.

Posted June 3, 2018 6:41 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — When Nadav Zeimer became principal in 2010 of Harlem Renaissance High School, the school, which serves students who have fallen behind or dropped out of other schools, was failing. It had received a D on its most recent report card. At one point, the city said it planned to close Harlem Renaissance and reopen it under a new name.

But within three years, the school’s grade went to a B, then an A. Its graduation rate improved; suspensions plummeted.

As Zeimer’s supervisor would say, last year, “Principal Zeimer has turned a failing school into a successful school.”

Which made it strange that, at that very moment, the city was trying to fire him.

As Zeimer worked to remake the school, he said, a small group of teachers revolted. He became the subject of multiple investigations and unflattering news stories, and lost his position — only to subsequently be cleared of most of the charges.

Zeimer’s story has become a familiar one at some of the city’s most-troubled schools. Principals are asked by the Education Department to do one of the hardest jobs — turn around a failing school — in most cases without replacing the staff. Soon they become the target of investigations, often prompted by anonymous allegations, which can range from claims of discrimination to grade fixing or fraud. As the inquiries mount, the principals’ time and energy are consumed by fighting them, and, they say, the Education Department does not back them up.

Some principals resign or are removed for seemingly minor violations. Santiago Taveras, who took over the faltering DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, was removed in 2016 and subsequently demoted after an investigation found that he had changed grades for three students without following proper procedures — a violation that many observers thought did not justify removal.

And at least two principals who have been taken out of their schools — Zeimer and Kathleen Elvin, who was removed as principal of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn in 2015 — were later exonerated by arbitrators of all or most of the charges.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the president of Bank Street College of Education and a deputy chancellor during the Bloomberg administration, said a trend of teachers accusing administrators of misconduct took off during that era. “It has something to do with people realizing that it was a tool that could be used as a weapon inside schools,” he said, noting that principals also used investigations against teachers.

“Once that weapon became recognized and people understood it,” he said, “I think it got used more often.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, seemed to acknowledge the problem recently when he spoke of a “hyper-complaint dynamic” at the Education Department, saying that “on many fronts we get a certain number of complaints that are not real.”

From 2007 to 2017 the number of complaints made annually against principals and assistant principals to the Special Commissioner of Investigation, one of the two main entities that carry out investigations in the schools, more than doubled, to 1,671 from 740. The biggest increases occurred from 2009 to 2014.

The Special Commissioner’s office typically investigated only 100 to 200 of those complaints a year, while referring many more to the Education Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which generally handles more minor complaints. In 2017, for example, the Special Commissioner’s office referred 1,184 complaints to the Office of Special Investigations. The Education Department said it could not say how many of those complaints were investigated.

Certainly, some administrators do commit serious misconduct, like the principal of a Bronx middle school who the Special Commissioner’s office found had stolen more than $20,000 from his school’s bank account.

But the city’s investigative process itself can be Kafkaesque: Investigations can be prompted by anonymous complaints. Principals say that in some cases they are not told clearly what the charges are, making it hard to mount a defense. In December, Zeimer received notice from the Office of Special Investigations that a case against him had been closed. When he asked the nature of the allegations, he was told that the office couldn’t say.

Many principals chafed under the administration of former schools chancellor Carmen Fariña, whom they saw as watering down their authority. Ernest Logan, the former head of the principals’ union, said that under the Bloomberg administration officials at the Education Department sometimes gave principals who faced complaints the benefit of the doubt because they understood “the need to make some noise, to shake up people.” Under de Blasio, who has a much closer relationship with the teachers’ union, he said, the Education Department just “wanted the noise to go away.” Whether that will change under the new chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, who replaced Fariña in April, is an open question.

The current senior supervising superintendent at the Education Department, Laura Feijoo, said that there were “countless examples” of the department’s supporting principals in difficult situations, and that Zeimer, Elvin, and Taveras had been removed because of serious misconduct.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union, said that those three principals “were the agents of their own demise,” citing “their lack of ability to work with other adults” and to “realize that, as a leader, your job is to lead, not to dictate and punish.”

But people, including Polakow-Suransky, who are concerned that investigations can be weaponized against administrators, said that knowing that an anonymous allegation can lead to their removal makes principals feel vulnerable and discourages them from trying to remove low-performing teachers.

“It has a chilling effect on people taking on mediocre and ineffective teaching practices,” said Kim Marshall, the author of the Marshall Memo, a weekly newsletter about education, who has coached New York City principals, including Elvin. Principals want to know whether the department will have their backs if they hold teachers accountable, Marshall explained. In the wake of cases like these, he said, “I would think, absolutely, the answer to that is no.” ‘Not Every Rule Rises’

Elvin and Taveras took over schools that were among the lowest performing in the state and under threat of closing. As they tried to turn their schools around, the principals said, they were pushing teachers to work harder and holding them accountable. After the city put in place a new teacher evaluation system in 2013-14, the share of teachers at the three schools who received low ratings was significantly higher than in the city as a whole.

The teachers’ union said the principals were abusing their power and retaliating against anyone who questioned them.

When Taveras started at DeWitt Clinton in 2013, the school had received F’s on its two most recent report cards and its enrollment was plummeting. As enrollment fell, many teachers were no longer needed, and Taveras said he also sought to remove teachers who were shirking their duties.

Soon he was being dogged by investigations. He was investigated by both the Special Commissioner of Investigation and the Office of Special Investigations about a makeshift shower that he had installed and paid for himself to use in the morning after exercising.

In 2014, DeWitt Clinton became part of de Blasio’s Renewal school program, aimed at turning around low-performing schools.

The next year, Taveras asked the office overseeing Renewal for help addressing problems he had discovered related to how students were assigned to classes, which had led some students to be scheduled for the same class twice, he said. He told the official sent to meet with him that in prior years he had given students elective credit for the duplicate courses, rather than punishing them for administrators’ mistakes. He asked her to conduct an audit of the school’s transcripts to identify all the problems.

Instead, she contacted the Special Commissioner of Investigation to report that Taveras had changed course codes on student transcripts.

A few months later, investigators received a package from an anonymous source containing student transcripts and attendance records from DeWitt Clinton, which showed that, in a separate violation of the rules, Taveras had changed grades for three students, out of school’s nearly 1,700 enrollment, to passing from failing. (School staff members also appear to have shared some of the documents with The New York Post.)

In one case, the student had a medical condition that she told investigators caused her to miss a lot of school. She said her Global History teacher had reneged on an agreement to give her a passing grade if she completed a supplemental assignment packet and passed the Regents exam, and instead gave her a grade of “No Show.” Taveras told investigators that over the summer he emailed the Global History teacher, as well as the student’s physical education teacher, who had also given her a failing grade, asking them to review the grades. But they did not respond, he said, so he changed the grades to passing himself.

The grade changes went against department policy. But, said Eric Nadelstern, another deputy chancellor from the Bloomberg years: “There are rules, and there are rules. Not every rule rises to the level of needing to remove a principal.” Nor is there any evidence that the grade changes were an effort to fraudulently boost the school’s results, since changing grades for three students would not significantly affect the school’s graduation rate — a key metric used by the Education Department to judge whether a school is making progress. Nonetheless, the department removed Taveras and threatened him with termination.

Taveras had been one of the few principals to publicly criticize the Renewal initiative, saying that administrators and teachers were being pulled out of their schools too often for meetings and training.

Taveras now works in the Bronx field support office, advising schools that have increases in disciplinary incidents.

He said that he suspected the reason he was dealt with so harshly was because he was “on the top of the list” of principals that the teachers union wanted gone.

During the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he had been a deputy chancellor, and, he said, department higher-ups would meet monthly with officials from the teachers’ union, who would bring a list of principals they felt were not being fair to their members. (Polakow-Suransky confirmed that Bloomberg administration officials had regular consultations with the union, where the union raised concerns about principals, among other issues.)

Feijoo said that Taveras had been removed because he violated academic policy and because his superintendent had concerns about his leadership. A spokeswoman for the department said that his criticism of the Renewal program played no role.

Mulgrew said that Taveras had failed at his job and lost the trust of his staff.

However, Taveras shared two emails from his superintendent, Carron Staple, from October 2016, less than two months before he was removed, which seemed to contradict Feijoo’s account. In the emails, Staple called him “an excellent leader,” strategized about how to get the department’s support to get “some of the dead weight out of the school,” and urged him not to be demoralized by the investigations.

“You are doing a great job so do not despair,” she wrote.

Trying to Change the Culture

Elvin was a seasoned administrator who had founded a successful school in Williamsburg and was past retirement age when she accepted the challenge of turning Dewey around in 2012.

Opened in 1969, Dewey had once been renowned as a model progressive high school, but over time it struggled. When Elvin took over, the Bloomberg administration planned to close and reopen it, replacing half the teachers. But a grievance by the teachers' and principals’ unions put a halt to those plans, and Elvin was left with the existing staff.

When she arrived, she said in a series of recent interviews, she found almost all aspects of the school’s operation to be dysfunctional.

Emily Creveling, whom Elvin brought in as an assistant principal, said: “Aside from having a culture of no accountability, I think there was also a culture of, ‘If the students are failing, it’s their fault.'”

Under Elvin, administrators observed teachers frequently, reviewed lesson plans and held after-school sessions on improving teaching. Halfway through each marking period, they required teachers to report how many of their students were failing and why, what interventions they had tried, and what additional support students needed to succeed. Through these efforts and others, the school’s graduation rate improved and applications increased.

The administration also gave a significant number of teachers low ratings. In 2013-14, just 1 percent of teachers in the city’s school system overall got a rating of “ineffective,” the lowest category, and 7 percent got a rating of “developing,” the second lowest. At Dewey that year, 16 percent of teachers were rated “ineffective,” and 35 percent were “developing.” Using a provision of a new contract negotiated with the de Blasio administration, the teachers’ union challenged many of the ineffective ratings as reflecting harassment.

At the same time, a series of complaints were made against Elvin, which prompted numerous investigations. Elvin estimated that she faced at least 20 investigations, including one based on an anonymous, and inaccurate, allegation that Creveling was her niece.

In 2014, the Office of Special Investigations began reviewing a cluster of mostly anonymous complaints of academic violations by the administrators, including charges that they had pressured teachers to give passing grades and allowed students to make up credits with courses that did not meet the department’s standards. Meanwhile, teachers, mostly anonymously, drove coverage of an alleged grade-fixing scandal in the press.

Not all of the teachers at Dewey opposed Elvin. A social studies teacher named Chung Chan emailed Fariña in June 2015 to express distress about what was happening. He described Elvin as a “godsend” for the struggling school. “She raised the standard appreciably and restored a ray of hope among us, but understandably, she also became a lightning rod attracting the ire” of some teachers, he wrote.

Around the same time, Fariña was asked by a reporter about the status of the investigation and said, “So far, the majority of things in this case have been unsubstantiated.”

Then, something changed. On July 8, the Education Department said investigators had found Elvin guilty of allowing students to earn credit for classes that did not meet academic standards. Fariña said in a statement that the department had begun the process to fire Elvin and that she would be removed from payroll.

Elvin fought her termination, and, the following spring, an arbitrator dismissed all the charges against her, saying that the Education Department had subsequently validated the disputed credits. The arbitrator ruled that Elvin should be immediately reinstated and that the department should pay her the wages and benefits she had lost. The department said it was disappointed with the decision.

The day after the arbitrator’s decision became public, Michael Solo, the school’s teachers union chapter leader, sent a letter to the rest of the staff members saying that Elvin had gotten off on “a technicality” and assuring them that she would never come back to Dewey.

And she has not. Instead, she sits in an office in Brooklyn, ostensibly working with five truancy sites, though she said she feels she has been warehoused.

In March, the state Education Department released an audit of credit recovery and make up courses at Dewey during Elvin’s tenure that, like the city’s investigation, concluded that many students received credits that they should not have. But the audit appeared to contradict the city’s investigation on key issues, such as whether certain courses met for the mandated number of hours; the city said yes, the state said no. The auditors also spoke only to current administrators at Dewey, Solo, and officials from the Education Department and the mayor’s office. They did not interview Elvin or the other administrators who were responsible for the programs under review.

In an email, Solo said that the state Education Department audit “substantiated what the faculty of John Dewey High School had been saying all along.”

“Ms. Elvin was not removed from John Dewey High School because she violated the contract and feuded with the UFT,” he wrote.

Elvin said that rebuilding a troubled school without being able to remove ineffective teachers in a timely way all but guaranteed a backlash. It takes years of observation and documentation to begin the process of removing a tenured teacher for incompetence. “People are doing their level-best under incredibly challenging situations,” Elvin said of her efforts to turn Dewey around.

But, she said, “I just don’t think this is in the best interest of kids for people to be afraid to do their jobs.”

A School Divided

The trouble for Zeimer began in 2015, when he tried to remove a teacher named Catherine Owens. Owens, who taught Spanish, was smart and charismatic, Zeimer said in a recent interview, but she was frequently late to school and rarely had a lesson plan.

“I’d come in and she’d be shopping for shoes, and kids would be coloring,” he said. In early 2015, the Education Department brought disciplinary charges against her, and Owens was reassigned to another school. Then, in December, partway through the hearing process, the department dropped the charges, and in early 2016 Owens came back to Harlem Renaissance.

Her return coincided with a sharp change in the atmosphere, according to several staff members who testified in Zeimer’s disciplinary case. Some teachers celebrated her return as a victory over Zeimer, while others were discouraged, including Anne Palacci, an English and art teacher, who testified that it seemed to embolden a faction of teachers who were resistant to working hard.

An official from the teachers’ union, Patricia Crispino, began to appear at the school regularly, and what had been a collaborative atmosphere became combative and fractured, according to Palacci and other staff members who testified.

Crispino, in an email, said that union members at the school had become concerned over time about Zeimer’s behavior toward students and staff members, in particular Owens, to whom he was “vindictive and unprofessional.”

After Owens’ return, Zeimer’s superintendent, Paul Rotondo, said in his testimony, he had warned Zeimer to be especially careful. “It’s a contentious situation in which the union is going to be watching every step you take,” Rotondo said that he told Zeimer, adding “the minute you step out of line, I’m going to get a phone call.”

Around this time, Rotondo began receiving many phone calls from Crispino, he testified. Crispino told Rotondo that Zeimer was allowing his wife to volunteer at the school without authorization. Soon the Office of Special Investigations began an inquiry. Owens alleged that Zeimer was breaking another rule: serving on the board of directors of the Friends of Harlem Renaissance, a nonprofit that he had helped set up to raise private funds to support the school. That, too, was soon under investigation. Owens also accused Zeimer of violating privacy laws by using photographs of students on the nonprofit’s website without proper permission. A third investigation was started.

On Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, Rotondo showed up at Harlem Renaissance and told Zeimer to gather his belongings — he was being immediately reassigned.

In May, the Office of Special Investigations released a report substantiating the charges made by Crispino and Owens: Zeimer had violated conflict of interest laws by serving on the nonprofit’s board, had failed to properly secure permission to use students’ names and photographs on the group’s website, and had allowed his wife to volunteer at the school without proper clearance.

In June, the department started the legal process required to terminate Zeimer, and he was removed from the payroll. There were a total of 24 charges, including that Zeimer had “participated in the preliminary hiring process of his wife without a conflict of interest waiver” — she had been an unpaid volunteer — and that he had “knowingly acted in a manner likely to be injurious to the physical, mental or moral welfare of a child.”

The hearings in his case stretched over eight days from August to October. At them, several staff members praised his leadership and described what they perceived as Owens’ and Crispino’s desire to see him removed. (In an email, Owens’ lawyer, Matthew I. Marks, said that his client denied shopping for shoes during work hours and said that, while Owens “complained about the discriminatory treatment to which she was subjected,” she did not try to have Zeimer fired.)

Earl Gray, a community coordinator at the school, testified that Crispino had taken credit for Zeimer’s removal, telling staff members, “Well, I am here to get rid of principals.” (Crispino, in her email, denied saying this.)

“It was very disheartening for me,” Gray said, adding that the “whole experience has been totally toxic.”

Some of the strongest testimony in support of Zeimer came from Rotondo, even though he appeared as a witness for the department. Asked by Zeimer’s lawyer from the principals’ union how Zeimer had succeeded in turning the school around, Rotondo said: “I think he had the ability to be able to build a community of like-minded folks who saw educating our students as the priority.”

“Honestly, there have been sometimes where there may have been some poor judgment calls when it comes to dealing with various rules and regulations,” he added, “but I don’t ever question his intention for the children.”

In her ruling, issued in December, the arbitrator said that the department had met its burden of proof for only two charges out of the 24 and that Zeimer should be reinstated as principal of Harlem Renaissance High School. Zeimer has filed a petition in state court seeking to force the city to comply with the arbitrator’s decision.

For now, instead of leading a school, he is working in an office in Brooklyn, processing applications for medical leave.

“It’s been over a year that I have not been working with kids,” he lamented in an email in March. “This is not what I signed up for as an educator.”