Anatomy of a School Crisis
By AMY VIRSHUP
At a school where close to half of the students come from Spanish-speaking homes, the fact that there was no designated translator fanned the flames. As the administrators spoke in English, the crowd grew increasingly restive. Finally, a woman stood and delivered a rapid-fire tirade in Spanish. “She’s not very happy about the situation,” translated Roxana Bosch, the school’s associate director of admissions and parent relations. The shorthand would have been laughable, if emotions had not been running so high.
Dr. Maldonado-Rivera, the charismatic and controversial head of Columbia, a four-year-old selective school in Harlem, had weathered an investigation last summer into the drowning of a sixth grader on a field trip to a Long Island beach. Now, just as the school seemed to be regaining its footing after that tragedy, its leader had been dismissed for having what city officials called “an inappropriate financial relationship” with the school’s former parent coordinator, Monica Marin-Reyes. Ms. Marin-Reyes had baby-sat for Dr. Maldonado-Rivera’s son without charging, and later lived, rent-free, in his apartment; that they are now in a romantic relationship added spice to the reports splashed across the news media.
The school was a high-profile startup with backing from Columbia University. Its students performed well on state tests, and its teachers earned accolades from education watchdogs. Its mission was to wed two of the highest aspirations of the public school system — excellence and equality of opportunity — in a combined middle school and high school devoted to science, math and engineering, where the children of new immigrants living in Washington Heights would share classrooms with the children of university professors. The school was supposed to be “part of this brand-new world,” as one parent put it. How had it become engulfed by tumult instead?
Conversations with more than two dozen parents, current and former teachers and students, as well as with Dr. Maldonado-Rivera, Ms. Marin-Reyes and Andrew Stillman, the assistant principal at the time of the drowning, show that there were always fissures underlying the strong statistics at Columbia. The episode exposed them, and acted like a kaleidoscope that — depending on how it was turned — revealed radically different perspectives. Turn it one way, and the principal was a visionary brought low by Department of Education bureaucrats; turn it another, and he was a dangerous autocrat whose disdain for the rules finally caught up with him.
Throughout its history, the school had faced financial challenges — partly because Dr. Maldonado-Rivera, who had never taught in a New York City public school, never mind run one, was caught off guard by a drop in city funding; and partly because of its ambitious program, including a rich range of experiential learning adventures each June.
Open houses for potential students have been packed, and each year the school gets hundreds more applications than it has seats. But annual teacher turnover has run as high as 40 percent, and on a 2009-10 Department of Education survey, 70 percent of the teachers responding disagreed with the statements “The principal is an effective manager who makes the school run smoothly” and “I trust the principal at his or her word.”
The School Leadership Team, a group of parents and faculty that is supposed to help shape Columbia’s development, grew increasingly divided, participants said: differing over discipline, supervision and, ultimately, over the very idea of whether students from vastly different backgrounds could succeed in the same accelerated curriculum.
“José has a very spontaneous leadership style,” was how Mr. Stillman, now a teacher at the school, put it. “He didn’t manage the school like a bureaucrat.”
“He’s a Svengali,” said Ruth Margeson, whose son is an eighth grader. “He can weave a web, and you can get stuck in it.”
IN the beginning, parents remember, Dr. Maldonado-Rivera issued a simple yet profound invitation: “Come build a school with me.”
Columbia Secondary started with the bold goal of drawing a student body that mirrored the racially diverse population of Upper Manhattan, while maintaining a selectivity and curriculum that would challenge the best schools in the city. Most of New York’s elite public schools enroll few black and Hispanic students (5 percent at Stuyvesant High School, 11 percent at Bronx Science), and there are also high-performing schools like Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem where fewer than 1 percent of the students are white.
At the middle-school level, Columbia is open to children who live or attended elementary school north of 96th Street. To get in, students must get a 3 or a 4 (out of a possible 4) on the state’s English Language Arts and math exams in fourth grade, and then compete on an essay test. Black and Hispanic families of Harlem and Washington Heights felt as if the school was opening a door that had long been shut. The mostly white and middle-class families of the Upper West Side found the marriage of racially mixed classes and high expectations appealing.
From the beginning, Dr. Maldonado-Rivera, a passionate educator with a Ph.D. in science education who had most recently been working in private schools in Puerto Rico, had grand plans: Before classes even began, he told parents he was writing a book about the school. One recalled thinking, “If José can deliver on 60 or 70 percent of what he says he’ll do, it will be a good experience.” The principal read every entrance exam, called each of the families whose children had been accepted the first year and freely handed out his cellphone number.
Opening in 2006 with 96 sixth graders, in part of an old school building, Columbia was intimate and exciting. At potluck dinners, families mingled. In engineering class, children built catapults and had a marshmallow-shooting contest. Among the electives were things like outdoor survival skills — the school got a permit to start a fire in the snow in nearby Morningside Park.
If it seemed that they were making things up on the fly, that was all right. “We all knew that when we signed up,” said Christine Stute, whose son was part of that first class. “And I think the group of people that decided to sign up was a special kind of group because they were willing to take these risks.”
The capstone to the year was the June J-Term, when students would fan out on field assignments, studying a single subject in depth. Dr. Maldonado-Rivera took about two dozen to Puerto Rico, a trip that Malaga Baldi, who went along with her daughter, remembers as “outrageous, fantastic.” They camped in a rain forest, visited a banana plantation, went snorkeling, and sloshed through swamps; the children would be up until 10 p.m. working on PowerPoint presentations or journal entries.
The next year, Ms. Baldi chaperoned another J-Term journey, where students studied science at the University of Maine’s Orono campus, then hiked and biked in Acadia National Park. “There was one boy who’d never ridden a bike before, and Chance taught him how to bike in three hours,” Ms. Baldi said of Chance Nalley, a teacher who led the trip. “It still brings tears to my eyes. I felt so privileged to be there. It was spiritual and really, really wonderful.”
ALONG with its name, Columbia University gives the school $100,000 a year, a quarter of it to buttress the principal’s salary, the rest to pay people to teach electives, among other things. Most of the rest of the school’s budget comes from the Department of Education — and with it, the thicket of rules known as the Chancellor’s Regulations, which Dr. Maldonado-Rivera quickly found burdensome. In the private school world, he said, “I had equipped an entire middle school in one week with a credit card.” Now, even ordering tables and chairs “took weeks and we had to argue with people less competent than us, people who’d never run a school.”
“I can’t spend 10 hours ordering a chair,” he said. “I’m not built for that.”
Columbia added a grade each year, which meant hiring a new crop of teachers and developing new curriculum. And each year the school took over a little more space in the West 123rd Street building it shared with another school (a site the university had promised on its new Manhattanville campus kept receding into the future). It was an enormous, exhausting undertaking; many staff members, from Dr. Maldonado-Rivera down, worked 12-hour days and frequent Saturdays.
Plans would be made and then changed; an example involved education in Spanish. The school pledges to produce bilingual students, but instruction has veered from one approach to another. First, Spanish classes taught native speakers and nonspeakers together. When that proved unwieldy, only native speakers got Spanish instruction. Then the nonspeakers started using Rosetta Stone language programs on computers, while the native speakers had a teacher. Now, all students again have a teacher, with different level classes.
One of the reasons for such changes in direction was money. In its first year, Columbia got about $10,000 per pupil from the city, the systemwide average. The next fall, it received about $6,300, because its students did not qualify for certain money earmarked for low performers. Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said the cut took him by surprise, and that he had to drop one of the two Spanish teachers he had planned to hire.
But to some people, the shifting approaches felt like chaos. “There was a general administrative disorder that characterized the school,” said one parent who worked closely with the administration and, like many of those interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of adversely affecting his child’s education.
This parent told a story encapsulating all he felt was good — and bad — about the principal’s management style. Dr. Maldonado-Rivera did not think highly of the city’s substitute teachers, so when a teacher was absent, a colleague filled in — sometimes Dr. Maldonado-Rivera himself. In one science class, he led a lesson on the atom.
“Gathering six children in the center of the room he said: ‘O.K., you’re the nucleus. Stand in the middle, and hug each other tightly,’ ” the parent explained. “And then to another group he said: ‘You, you’re electrons. Run around randomly. And you, you’re the charge, so jump to the outside.’ It was a tremendous lesson.”
But in the front office, the parent said, “all kinds of things weren’t getting done.”
Relationships between teachers and administrators were increasingly strained.
“His philosophy was just go, just do it,” said Dana Ligocki, a social studies teacher who quit in the middle of last school year. “It doesn’t matter if we’re doing things well, but it matters if we do a lot of things. I started to see that that was his way of being a leader. And then safety gets cut or curriculum gets cut.”
Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said that some teachers left for personal reasons, and that others could not live up to his high expectations.
“It’s a very ambitious school with a high intellectual demand,” he said. “We don’t need to apologize for having high standards for teachers. I’d ask myself, ‘Would I want my son to be learning science or math with this teacher?’ And if it’s not something I would want, then that’s something I would need to fix.”
COLUMBIA parents were supposed to be partners in their children’s education, and the school’s diversity was a big draw. But those active in the School Leadership Team and the parent association tended to be disproportionately white and professional.
“In terms of actually doing the everyday work, the numbers of Hispanics is very limited, ” said Victor Acosta, one of the active Hispanic parents, whose daughter, a ninth grader now, was in the founding class. “There’s no tradition of volunteering in the schools in the first generation. You send your kids to school and the school takes care of it.”
By the school’s third year, meetings — and follow-up e-mails — had become increasingly contentious, participants said. (Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said that it was “not a functional entity.”) Some questioned whether the electives taught by college students or parents were appropriately supervised. Some protested discipline procedures — children were sometimes asked to apologize before the whole school for misbehavior, a process one parent likened to “public shaming,” and Dr. Maldonado-Rivera once held the whole seventh grade after school for 40 minutes because some children had been acting up in the hallways. Parents and teachers pushed for a guidance counselor; Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said the school did not need — and could not afford — one.
Perhaps the biggest debate came over academics. Some students scored as high as 90 on the entrance exam, but the mean was a 28. Once in, all faced the same accelerated curriculum. Some soared; others sank. At one point last school year, a third of the seventh grade was on academic probation.
Struggling students were tutored after school, pulled out of electives, kept behind in the classroom during J-Term. Some were counseled out — Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said there was 8 to 10 percent attrition for academic reasons each year. “Sometimes,” Mr. Stillman said, “you end up cutting your losses.”
Some parents and teachers proposed establishing different levels of classes to accommodate the achievement range. But Dr. Maldonado-Rivera refused to compromise his vision of a school where all children learned together at the highest levels. “If part of your philosophy is a commitment to strength in diversity,” he said, “then you have a commitment to not tracking.”
Critics complained that the principals’ vision blinded him to reality and that he was more interested in branding the school as “world class” than dealing with its problems. “It wasn’t working, but he didn’t see it as needing to be fixed,” said Ms. Margeson, the parent with a boy in eighth grade.
At an established school, many of those debates would have been over. But Columbia’s culture was up for grabs. Who would define it? Who made the rules?
THEN, on June 22, 12-year-old Nicole Suriel drowned in a riptide in Long Beach.
A city investigation found that no regulations were broken on the beach that day, though it did fault Columbia for not having proper permission slips for the trip and suggested that the school could have done better. “There was a lack of adequate planning by the principal and assistant principal,” the report said, “a failure to provide a sufficient number of adults to supervise the children at the beach, and poor judgment by the teacher in charge, who either failed to realize that there were no lifeguards on duty or failed to recognize the additional danger presented by their absence.”
The teacher who had been the main chaperone was fired, and Mr. Stillman stepped down as assistant principal. Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said he had offered to resign if it would save their jobs, and then was put on probation. He was adamant that his decisions had not contributed to the drowning. “The systems of risk management that we had in place were way beyond anything that the D.O.E. required,” he said.
But — in a turn of the kaleidoscope — a significant number of others at the school saw things differently. A faculty group led by Mr. Nalley, the teacher who had helped a student learn to ride a bike, went to the union arguing that the drowning had been “part of a pattern of negligence at the school,” said a member of the group, Ms. Ligocki, the social studies teacher. When the investigator’s report did not go that far, Mr. Nalley, the union representative at Columbia, protested the findings publicly and then told city officials about the principal’s relationship with Ms. Marin-Reyes.
A group of the principal’s supporters also went to education officials, to deny any improprieties between Dr. Maldonado-Rivera and Ms. Marin-Reyes, which, in an odd twist, ended up spurring the investigation.
Mr. Nalley declined to be interviewed. Instead, he e-mailed an excerpt from a report on the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster: “Hubris refers to an exaggerated pride or self-confidence that turns into arrogance. It results from excessive admiration of oneself, a series of previous successes, uncritical acceptance of accolades and a belief that one is exempt from the rules. In the end, hubris is eventually rewarded with disaster and comeuppance.”
Mr. Stillman said Dr. Maldonado-Rivera’s critics exploited the tragedy. In a moment of great emotional turmoil, “each person read into the situation their private critiques of José,” he said.
“It became part of the institutional politics to correlate the drowning with a pattern of risk-taking.”
As September drew nearer, the principal raced to hire new teachers — seven, or about half the faculty, including Mr. Nalley, had departed by midsummer. Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said his intention had been “to save the school, rebuild the boat and go back out.”
ON Nov. 30, Dr. Maldonado-Rivera was in a meeting when someone from the superintendent’s office handed him a letter saying he was fired. It seemed “surreal,” he said, not least because he had been assured that he would get off with “a hit on the chin.”
Dr. Maldonado said a call he made to the chancellor’s cellphone went unreturned. The students were eating lunch, and Dr. Maldonado-Rivera had them moved to the gym.
“I wanted to speak to my children,” he said. “I wanted to explain to them what was going on.”
But the superintendent warned him not to, the principal said, “or I would be removed by a police officer.”
Instead, the students were given the news in small groups; some teachers just handed them each letters announcing the firing.
“Some students started to cry,” said Kiambra Griffin, a ninth grader, who quickly created a Facebook page — Bring Back Dr. José Maldonado-Rivera to Columbia Secondary School — though she had the feeling that it would be futile.
Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said in an e-mail that officials had considered “the full history and scope” of the principal’s conduct and found “repeated, serious failures in judgment and violations of our regulations.” She added: “As much as we understand that this is emotional for the Columbia Secondary community, we cannot turn a blind eye to his record.”
Neither Dr. Maldonado-Rivera nor Ms. Marin-Reyes denied the facts in the report, except to say that their relationship did not become romantic until the summer. “I thought for a conflict of interest money had to be exchanged,” Dr. Maldonado-Rivera said.
A week after the firing, there was another parents’ meeting, this time drawing about 50 people. Things proceeded calmly as the interim acting principal, Gary Biester, a longtime math teacher and administrator, spoke with a translator by his side.
Damaris Solis Padilla, whose daughter is in the ninth grade, said that she thought Dr. Maldonado-Rivera’s firing had been unfair, but that she was ready to move on. “We’ve got to have a school that still can run and thrive and be all the good things it’s supposed to be, despite this one person leaving,” she said. “When the leader leaves, the families are really important, because we’re the ones that stay.”