Stefanie Siegel has been on the staff at Paul Robeson High School since before many of her students were born. She says the new principal has brought palpable sense of relief to the classrooms and hallways, and a feeling that's long been a stranger at the school: hope.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Stefanie Siegel has been on the staff at Paul Robeson High School since before many of her students were born. She says the new principal has brought palpable sense of relief to the classrooms and hallways, and a feeling that’s long been a stranger at the school: hope.

With the hasty exit of Cathie Black and the appointment of Dennis Walcott as Mayor Bloomberg’s third schools chancellor, the Department of Education has a valuable opportunity to remake its image and rework its relationships with powerful stakeholders, like teachers and parents.

A new leader has been installed at Paul Robeson High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn as well—also the third head since the Bloomberg administration took office, and in fact, the third school head in a year’s time. But unlike Walcott, Principal Ronald Wells faces strict limits on how much change he can deliver—because Robeson is one of the schools the Department of Education (DOE) has marked for closure.

Long-serving former principal Ira Weston left the school not of his own volition in early 2010. It’s unclear whether charges about professional misbehavior or resistance to DOE school-closure plans forced his exit. A second principal, Katherine Kefalas, was named in Weston’s place in August 2010, but never emerged as a true leader, according to Robeson teachers and students. Mounting complaints from parents, students and school faculty led to Kefalas’ unceremonious ouster in April, according to DOE sources, and she was replaced by Dr. Ronald Wells.

With Wells, Robeson has a school leader who teachers and students say they can trust, according to longtime faculty member—coordinator of student activities and school leadership team member Stefanie Siegel. There’s a palpable sense of relief in the classrooms and hallways, Siegel tells City Limits, and a feeling that’s long been a stranger at Robeson: Hope.

But Wells’ arrival at Robeson does not mean that the school will get another chance. Instead, Wells’ immediate mandate is to preside over Robeson’s phaseout and closure, and prepare for the co-location of two schools in Robeson’s building, including a new small high school developed by DOE and IBM that, planners say, will give motivated students the opportunity to earn Associates degrees in high school—and guaranteed employment at IBM for qualified students.

The hope Wells has spurred isn’t hope for the salvation of the school, but for safe guidance during Robeson High School’s final semester—before its phaseout begins in earnest.

A beloved, beleaguered school

Before the Bloomberg era, Robeson’s graduation rate approached 60 percent—more than 10 percent higher than the city average. As late as 2008, the DOE characterized the school as “well-developed”—its highest rating—and Robeson that year posted a 57 percent grad rate, near the city’s rising average. The school’s graduation rate dropped to 40 percent in 2009 but rose to 50 percent by 2010, according to DOE statistics.

Robeson has long been a neighborhood institution, having educated generations of local residents and showcased outstanding sports, including a winning basketball team (until the 2005 suicide of its coach, who had been involved with a student, and a 2007 bench- and stands-clearing brawl).

But in a pattern that repeated in other parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, as the DOE began to close large, failing high schools and open small schools in their place, the highest-need students often were placed at other large, struggling comprehensive high schools, creating a powerful downward spiral that hobbled dozens of schools, including Robeson.

There, student needs increased as the school grew: One in every eight students in 2009-10 was homeless or in temporary housing; as many again were identified as having special educational or emotional needs; one in seven was overage, too old for their assigned grade.

As more students arrived who were academically underprepared, overage for their grades and multiply challenged as students, attendance dropped. Gang activity grew. The school suffered badly during this time; Robeson’s graduation rate dropped, Regents passing rates dropped, attendance plummeted and morale tumbled. Weston’s admitted complacency surely didn’t help matters. “Maybe I stayed too long,” he said in 2010. “I got too comfortable.”

When DOE first decided to close the school, in 2010, community and faculty members were shocked. No one thought Robeson was a resounding success—on that point, there was no confusion—but it was a beloved neighborhood institution, where families had sent generations of kids to school: siblings, cousins, and neighbors all went to Robeson. Its closure was as unthinkable as shuttering the housing projects across the street or nearby Brooklyn Hospital.

Unthinkable, but actionable: A lawsuit brought by the NAACP and UFT, among others, forced the DOE to delay Robeson’s closure and that of the nearly 20 schools the department sought to shutter last year, on the grounds that DOE did not sufficiently address what would happen to students at phase-out schools.

Nearly all of those schools are on the DOE’s closure list again this year. Despite the lawsuit, teach-ins and student-led efforts to keep Robeson open, vocal protests at Panel for Education Policy (PEP) meetings and even a plea by one of the PEP’s two non-voting student members (Robeson student Lizabeth Ashleigh Cooper) the PEP voted in February in support of the DOE plan to close Robeson.

Accordingly, no new freshmen enrolled in the school this year, and rising juniors and seniors—the only Robeson students left in the building come September—will be part of the school’s phaseout.

Calm after two storms

After Ira Weston’s ouster in February 2010, Katherine Kefalas was named acting principal—but without the formal C-30 hiring process, which DOE requires to make official principal placements

Kefalas, who had presided over the closure of South Shore High School, seemed positioned for a comparable task at Robeson. But critics says she preferred the sanctuary of her office to the school’s hallways and classrooms, and never communicated a clear vision for the school—for its renaissance, or for how it might survive the DOE’s multiyear efforts to close it. Students say they missed Weston. They say they never saw Kefalas, and some didn’t know who she was. “Mr. Weston used to hang with us,” says student Tekkeya Luban, whose nine-month-old son stays in Robeson’s child-care center while she’s in class. “But we never saw [Kefalas] ever. You didn’t even know she was here.”

The absence of leadership was acute, says teacher Letitia Jones-Ingram: “We wanted a principal with a vision for the school—but there was no plan, no vision, no help.”

Perhaps crucially, Kefalas was not charged with reviving Robeson: “She had no mandate to turn around the school,” says one City Council staffer who worked with Robeson parents. Kefalas’ mandate was DOE’s agenda: phaseout. But her execution of that mission dismayed the DOE. A Joint Intervention Team report developed by the state and the DOE strongly critiqued Kefalas, noting that “the principal could not articulate any primary instructional goals” for the school and that she displayed “little evidence of the necessary experience and skill set and comprehensive leadership … to turn around this school.”

Last month, Kefalas was replaced with Wells. Kefalas could not be reached for comment. Chiara Coletti, spokesperson for the Council for School Supervisors and Administrators, CSA-NYC, tells City Limits, “Katherine Kafelas was a very effective principal at South Shore High School. Why the decision was made to move her into Robeson, we don’t know. She seemed to have little support in the position. South Shore was a school that needed her; there was no reason to move her into a much more complex and problematic school.”
Wells was not approved via the C-30 process, either, because the urgency to replace Kefalas didn’t permit the time for a formal process. Additionally, DOE planners felt that the integrity of the C-30 process—which requires participation by parents, students, and teachers—would be undermined by Kafelas’ exit. It was felt that constructive engagement with the community and the school’s faculty would not be possible in the wake of voluminous criticism of an acting school leader who was summarily removed.
Wells, like Walcott, has years of on-the-ground experience—although with a reputation that was clouded by his 2002 ouster as principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Manhattan, where, despite being “protected” by metal detectors, two students were seriously injured in a hallway shooting and another student brought a knife into the school via unguarded side doors. Since leaving MLK, Wells has continued to serve as principal for DOE at schools with principal vacancies and in programs for youth returning from incarceration. (MLK High School was closed by DOE in 2005; the campus now hosts six small high schools.)

Life at a dying school

Wells is leading Robeson for the balance of the current academic year only, according to Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld of the DOE, until the C-30 process can be completed and a new principal named. Because the C-30 is lacking, Wells is not “appointed” as principal but “is assigned to supervise the school while the appointment process is finalized.”

“The change in Robeson leadership will not change the phaseout process,” Zarin-Rosenfeld says. Robeson, which was previously revamped into small learning communities as a school-reworking strategy, is destined only for closure.

DOE’s stated goal is to have a new leader in place “for the Robeson community” by the end of the school year—eight weeks away. (In response to City Limits‘ request for an interview with Wells, which Wells invited us to conduct, DOE declined to make the principal available, on the grounds that “we really want Robeson and the two schools co-locating [there] next year to focus in on making sure their [sic] serving students, and that includes not being distracted by more media than is necessary.”)

That the school is fading cannot be argued: Only 30 ninth graders were permitted to enroll in 2010-11; none were admitted for 2011-12, because DOE did not permit schools it intended to close to enroll new students, despite the lawsuit that briefly halted the closures.

Students currently enrolled at Robeson may stay on the school’s register until they graduate, although as teachers leave—seeking other jobs as the school contracts to its eventual death—academic options shrink, too. With vastly diminished students and teachers at Robeson—the enrollment has shrunk from over 1,400 in 2006 to under 600 this year—the quantity and range of classes the school once offered has necessarily been curtailed. Fewer students means less critical mass for electives and APs, because minimal enrollment is required to fund such classes.

The recent changes in leadership are only one concern of parents and teachers, especially long-time Robeson stalwarts like Stefanie Siegel, who’s been on the faculty since before most of her students were born.

“They’ve abandoned the kids who are there,” Siegel says, the students at Robeson cut loose by the DOE’s decision to unwind the school. “They’ve damaged the kids.”

No reprieve for Robeson

As part of his ongoing introductions to the city’s schools, Walcott visited Robeson in late April, to smooth tensions and also to announce the creation of a school-management network dedicated to phaseout schools.

School networks are a crucial element in the Bloomberg-Klein reforms, of which Deputy Mayor Walcott was a silent architect: Under the current administration, principals have greater autonomy over important aspects of school management, most notably over their budgets and how the money gets spent. But all NYC non-charter public schools must belong to a network. They are all changed for the network’s support—often, in the range of $25,000 or more, whether a school is large or small, struggling or thriving. The networks were created to replace at lesser cost many of the functions that old-school “districts” abolished by Klein in 2007.

Walcott’s innovation of a special network for failed schools in the phaseout spiral could be something entirely new, although the chancellor did not provide many particulars of the phaseout network on his Robeson visit, and few details have been forthcoming in the days since.

According to DOE press officer Matt Mittenthal, the network will focus on “resource management, leadership and teacher development, communication with parents and families, and guidance for students with disabilities and English language learners.” In these goals, the new network appears no different than existing school management networks. The difference, Mittenthal wrote to City Limits, is “in the unique set of circumstances—changing resources and personnel—that the phaseout schools face.” Phaseouts will be required to pay an annual flat fee for network support, no matter where they reside on the phaseout spectrum.

Whether and how the new phaseout network helps students at closing schools, like Robeson, or serves to further divide failed schools from successful schools, Robeson’s fate is sealed: The school will close. But as a kind of peace offering, Walcott has said that the new schools will carry the Robeson name. “We want to be respectful of those who graduated,” Walcott said when he visited the school, “and be conscious of the identity and the history of a building with a name like Paul Robeson.” The name of Robeson’s final principal, however, like the effect of the school’s closure on the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, is unknown.