Brooklyn’s Benjamin Banneker Academy Attacked

Brooklyn’s Benjamin Banneker Academy

Under Fierce Attack

Commentary By Roger Toussaint, Former TWU Boss

As a resident of Brooklyn for some 35 years, where five of my children—including one who now teaches in the system–along with numerous nieces and nephews attended the public school system, I inevitably formed strong relations with a large number of dedicated and progressive teachers. Sharing a life-long commitment to community activism and social equity I have had a deep interest in schools which focus on these issues particularly when that interest is combined
with a commitment to empowering students and nurturing their growth . Over the years I’ve been invited to a few classrooms and programs of critical educators to dialogue with students.

Since its founding 20-plus years ago, I have been quite impressed with
Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development having witnessed its growth into a distinguished institution which now houses about 1000 students on its Brooklyn’s Clinton Avenue Campus. Thus I was taken aback when reliable friends who have worked at and/or attended Banneker Academy informed me of the summary dismissal of the school’s principal. They asserted that based on the school’s distinguished track record that there is no sound educational reason to deny tenure to the principal as the pretext for removing her. In light of all the media attention to the inadequacies in the education system, as it relates to poor school performance, it is particularly striking that there have been no press reports/exposes on this plainly unjustified intervention and disruption of such a successful institution as Banneker .

A review of publicly available school data shows that in 2014 Banneker had a 95% graduation rate compared to 65% citywide. Its college enrollment rate of 83% is significantly higher than the 63% of citywide graduates who enroll in college. Another indicator of a school’s effectiveness is its ability to prepare students for college and based on CUNY Assessment Test, 48% of Banneker’s students are college-ready as opposed to 27% citywide. In addition, 91% of its students are proficient in English and according to U.S. News and Report, 47% of students take the very selective/competitive Advanced Placement Exam and 52% pass. Indeed, Banneker is ranked 42 among the 400-plus NYC public high schools.

Clearly, then, this record cannot be used to suggest that, under the present principal, Banneker is a failing school or that it is failing its students and the community. The evidence suggests the very opposite. Why, then, is the principal being removed? Is there a hidden and dubious agenda at work?

Under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, education was akin to a principality and this was most glaringly characterized by his unsuccessful attempt to foist the spectacularly unqualified and out-of-touch Cathie Black as Chancellor. Although Mayor Bill de Blasio opted for the highly respected Carmen Farina–someone who knows the system inside out–as Chancellor, questions have begun to emerge about her tenure, especially with respect to the management of her superintendents. To be sure, though they are now vested with unrivalled powers, one would hope that ultimate responsibility and accountability for the general welfare and wellbeing of students and for the cohesive functioning of the system still resides in the Chancellor’s office.

Echoing the sentiments of a Chicago group of education activist now on a hunger strike in protest against the malfeasance of the Chicago Public Schools system, the newly-formed Banneker Support Committee endorses the view that, “[t]here has to be accountability to the public for the destabilizing of schools in our community and the sabotage of our children’s education.”

“Is Anybody Supervising the Superintendent?”

“I’m fully aware I didn’t deserve to pass a course that allowed me to graduate.” Melissa Mejia, 2015 ‘Graduate’, William Cullen Bryant HS, Queens

“School leaders and staff successfully partner with families to support student progress towards college readiness expectations. There is a culture of learning that systemically communicates a unified set of high expectations and provides effective feedback and guidance support.” Benjamin Banneker Academy Quality Review Report, 2014-2015

If given the chance to attend one of the above schools, which would you choose? I would bet that if Pew Research Center posed this question to Americans that, even in this “test-based accountability” era, more than 99.999–the ethically-grounded– would opt for the second school. Unfortunately, most of the .001% who select the cheating school might most likely be found masquerading as educators in the Brooklyn Superintendent’s Office. How can one explain that apparently no disciplinary action has been taken against the principal of William Cullen Bryant High School? Yet, the principal of Benjamin Banneker Academy is being denied tenure and summarily dismissed from a successful school which she has steered without a hitch for the last three years.

As a teacher with more than 18 years’ experience at three different schools, noted: “Ms. Renee never has the end of year conversation about pulling through the at-risk or failing students…. To improve transparency, teachers use an online grading program that parents, students, and administrators can use to monitor progress and encourage constant communication around student supports to improve their chances of being successful.” It’s clear then that the “graduation rate inflation” scandal plaguing the city is not evident at Banneker. It must also be noted that Banneker has a student population that’s less than 1% white.

Little wonder, then, that Banneker’s parents, students and staff are up in arms about, what a senior derisively referred to as, “the latest drive-by shooting by the superintendent’s office”. This action has cast an onerous pall preventing the staff from speaking publicly for fear of intimidation by the long repressive arm of the Superintendency that’s bent on strangling educational self-growth. It’s as if to the Superintendency, any idea or initiative that did not emanate from within that office must be smothered at birth .

Parents and students are loud in their praise of the principal and staff. A senior opined, “Mrs. Renee is the heart of Benjamin Banneker… pump[ing] life into the school. She is also the soul…. Her absence will… devastate the whole student body…. Imagine being told that you needed a new heart or a new soul, it may do the same job but the flow and beat will never be the same.”

And, in speaking about the effect of the superintendent’s behavior a parent, who is at present looking for a teaching job, offered, with the understanding that his name not be used for fear of being blacklisted in his job search: “This is a clear attempt to destabilize the school. Would they remove a white principal who had similar stats?”

Officials at the superintendent’s office, and even the principal, are tight-lipped about the “reason” for the removal. Both refused to answer or return calls placed and/or emails that were sent to their respective offices. A few teachers have suggested that the shroud of secrecy at the Superientendcy is even more noxious than the one that engulfed the Staten Island’s DA Attorney office in its successful attempt to suppress grand jury testimony in the ‘police-induced death’ of Eric Gardner.

Demonstrating that the superintendent and those in her office do not grasp the unflinching message of the community and its assertion: “Our Principal Must Stay!”, the Supervisor of Superintendents, Laura Feijoo promised to have a meeting with parents to introduce the new principal. But, as Neville Campbell, the current PTA president, whose daughter, now a college junior graduated from Banneker as will his son next year, says: “It’s now more than two weeks since the notification and we have received no further communication from the superintendent’s office”. Even his official letter, as PTA president, to the Superintendency, remains unacknowledged.

Apparently, the superintendent’s office has abandoned the much-bandied notion of parent/community involvement/empowerment. According to the Support Committee, not one of the school’s stakeholders–parents, community organizations, students and definitely not teachers–was consulted in the decision to remove the principal and unhinge the school!

“It Takes A Village!”

Parents are firm in their conviction that successful schools, especially those populated by, and run by, people of color should not be “sabotaged”. Many point out that there are numerous schools which are in dire need of better management and improvements that should be repaired before dismantling such a cohesive and smooth-running school as Banneker. Criticizing the haste with which the bureaucrats moved to remove Banneker’s principal, a veteran teacher cited the example of the then-heralded and hand-picked, Kathleen Elvin, principal of John Dewey High School. In her apparent three-year obsession to ‘turn-around’ a troubled school at any cost, Elvin was allowed to wreak havoc on the staff for three years before her apparent well-connected cheating scandal was exposed. The long delay in removing principal Elvin prompted a few members of the support committee to wonder if the superintendent was asleep on the job.

Contrast the legacy of Dewey’s principal’s with the last three years of the tenure of Banneker’s principal, which is one of success as indicated on all metrics of the school’s record card. Easily, Banneker’s records put it in the top twelve percent of high schools in Brooklyn! Why, then, the haste to remove a principal of color who has been a pillar in the community, having risen through the ranks at Banneker from student teacher, teacher, assistant principal to principal. Are there different measures to evaluate certain hues of principals?

The Banneker and the Clinton Hill community are fully committed to the continuation of the principal’s tenure at the school. In offering a ringing endorsement of the principal, which was echoed in the community’s email blast to the Chancellor’s Office, Janet Baggot, a retired NYC teacher/counsellor, noted: “My granddaughter always expresses, and I have personally observed that the teachers of Banneker go above and beyond to prepare students to graduate. They are very nurturing, but strict, and this stems from Principal’s Renee leadership”.

Although the Banneker Community knows that no amount of fuzzy math can besmirch the character of the principal’s leadership and accomplishment, many are weary of the DOE’s ethically challenged spin doctors who don’t let actual data or facts get in their way, once on a mission.
In a Facebook post, on the school’s website two weeks before the decision to remove the principal was known , a Lisa Beck – about whom we don’t know much – affirmed: “[Banneker is] a great school to nurture young people. A true example of ‘it takes a village’!” How then, is it that while Banneker and its community intuitively grasp the school’s standing which is well along the way towards operationalizing the Chancellor’s “ Six Elements of the Framework for Great Schools”, the Brooklyn Superintendent’s handling of Banneker could be so antithetical to the selfsame “Framework for Great Schools” which all superintendents are obligated to follow as a sort of road map towards: “building trust across the system and within a school”?

Thus far the NY press has correctly focused of the disturbing issue of cheating in schools, but based on the seeming high-handed and flippant manner in which principals on their last months of probation can be removed, the media and those who truly care about equity and the education of our youth should now train their eyes on the unfettered powers of the superintendents who remove up-for-tenure principals on the filmiest pretext while promoting underperforming ones. This may well be another, even more noxious, instance of “cheating” and/or “systemic fraud” akin to that which the NY Post outlined in its August 3 editorial. Many in the Banneker community insists that this type of deceit and educational malfeasance must no longer be swept under the luscious carpet nor relegated to the back burner at the Chancellor’s Office, until it fades from attention .

I strongly urge the Banneker Support Committee and community to continue to organize and resist this abuse and to never accept the alleged finality of injustice and decrees issued from up high.

Perhaps, now is the time to empanel a Commission of Inquiry into why so many principals of color have been summarily dismissed when they were on the cusp of receiving tenure. Sadly, over the last 15-plus years the amoral lack of due process for untenured principals, sanctioned even by the Principal’s union, has been the order of the day. Black minds matter too and working while Black should no longer be grounds for mistreatment or punishment.

*Roger Toussaint, President of the Transport Workers Union, Local 100 NY (2001-2009)