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NEW YORK — When the embattled principal of the celebrated “Fame” high school left last month after an epic controversy over arts education, she also left me with a huge, unanswered question: How do you remove a leader who creates a toxic school culture?
On a personal level, I care deeply about the school she led, formally known as Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. My musician sons are relatively recent graduates, and I’m still in touch with some of the amazing teachers we got to know during years of attending performances, conferences and school events.
So what went wrong at this famous high school, one that over the years inspired two movies and a television series?
Many educators began voicing concerns about the direction principal Lisa Mars was taking the school not long after her 2013 arrival. Her leadership soon heralded a volatile era marked by cuts in arts programming, from shortened rehearsal times for musicals to less investment in trained arts staff and proper equipment. Students complained that she steered them toward Advanced Placement classes many did not want to take. Beloved teachers left in frustration.
In addition, during Mars’ tenure, countless talented artists, dancers, actors and musicians were denied acceptance because of new admissions practices that appeared to prioritize grades over artistic excellence. In recent months, discontent boiled over, and students presented Mars with pages of grievances, from censoring theatrical productions to ignoring repeated requests for meetings.
On a professional level, I’m flummoxed by how long this principal was able to stay in power, despite the protests, petitions and bad publicity that dogged her. At The Hechinger Report, we follow research around school leadership and know it’s enormously important for both improving student outcomes and creating an environment where students and teachers can flourish.
We’ve covered stories of principals from all sorts of backgrounds in classrooms across the country, and we know that school leadership is second only to teacher quality in terms of its impact on student learning.
During the nearly six years between Mars’s appointment and her departure for an academic office job in the New York City Department of Education, more than 14,000 signatures ultimately landed on a petition demanding her ouster.
Yet it wasn’t until students took to school hallways in front of television cameras and threatened to turn their back on the principal on graduation day that the Department of Education finally announced that she would not be at the ceremony or returning at all.
So why did it take so long? And what does it all mean for schools with equally unpopular principals that don’t have LaGuardia’s high-profile alumni to help bring clout and news value to the demands of teachers, parents and students?
I posed these questions to a Department of Education official and got this answer, after he assured me that Mars was not fired, just reassigned.
“Superintendents make principal hiring and firing decisions based on the needs of their communities, and conversations with these communities are central to their work,” spokesman Doug Cohen told me. “Our principals are leaders in the school system, and they must actively listen to, respond to and work hand-in-hand with community members every day.”
There was no explanation for why Mars was able to stay for so long and how the decision to give her another job was finally made. So I asked around.
“They [the DOE] feared more negative headlines and publicity so they pulled the plug,” offered David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College who closely follows the New York City public school system.*
Like me, Bloomfield is a parent of a LaGuardia alum who had a tremendous experience at the school; his son is now a historian and a drag performer. Yet Bloomfield worries less about the future of LaGuardia — whose graduates include celebrity performers such as Jennifer Aniston, Nicki Minaj, Robert De Niro and Ben Vereen — than he does about lower-profile schools where principals are damaging staff and student morale and aren’t being replaced.
“Who is sitting down with these principals when they are struggling in terms of their leadership and school community relationships?” Bloomfield asked. “Who is saying, ‘this is how we make things better, and this is how we can improve?’ ”
I still wasn’t clear on exactly what it takes (aside from obvious things like breaking the law) to remove a New York City public school principal, so I called Eric Nadelstern, a retired deputy chancellor and professor whom I first met in the early 1990s, when he was principal of International High School in Queens.
Later, when he became a deputy chancellor, Nadelstern removed hundreds of principals.
Armed with data that students weren’t learning, Nadelstern gave principals at these failing schools options. “I told them they could leave, or they could allow me to make their life miserable,” Nadelstern said. Almost always, the principals left; they were either counseled out of the school system or allowed to revert to a previous tenured position as a teacher or assistant principal.
Removal for cause “is a lot harder at a place like LaGuardia, because students are learning,’’ Nadelstern told me. In fact, he added, LaGuardia has traditionally boasted one of the highest graduation rates of all New York City high schools. In addition, Nadelstern reminded me, decisions about keeping principals in place are not made in a democratic fashion.
“In too many cases, how parents and kids and teachers feel are of little relevance to the tenure of a principal, and that’s too bad,” he said.
Nadelstern, for the record, is also the parent of a LaGuardia graduate who now teaches in the Bronx. He has pushed hard for better principal training and overseen many principals over the years; he knows the difference between schools that are working and schools that are not.
And LaGuardia is one that, in his opinion, works. It is the only one of the city’s specialized high schools that does not admit students based solely on an entrance exam (LaGuardia considers both auditions and academic records). And it is known for being more diverse than the other specialized high schools, which have faced criticism as their enrollment of blacks and Latinos has plummeted.
“Really bright African American and Latino students shine at LaGuardia, and it’s one of the few that is integrated and where kids of color are among the highest performing students,” Nadelstern said.
Of course, I still want to know why the Department of Education would tolerate a principal meddling with a school that has a great track record not only for arts but for sending graduates off to the country’s finest colleges. Nadelstern believes the growing chorus of dissatisfaction and negative publicity had become impossible to ignore.
‘There was too much noise,’’ he said.
Bloomfield attributed a testing and accountability culture that prioritizes high tests scores and lots of Advanced Placement courses. “My theory is they [the Department of Education] wanted her there,’’ he told me. “It’s an administration interested in touting its academic indicators like AP for all, and she was doing what they wanted her to do.”
Headlines and stories about LaGuardia have deemed the departure of Mars as a victory for arts. Clearly, though, Mars might still hold her job were it not for student activism. Consider the victory lap taken in a message from recent LaGuardia drama graduate Tali Natter, proclaiming: “Activism works. Young people’s voices matter.”
Tali, who is headed to Williams College this fall, described months of unrest as students watched favorite teachers depart and tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate to Mars how they felt and what they wanted to see change. For months, nothing worked — until they staged a sit-in.
“I think it had to do with the large number of people who contacted the superintendent, which got the chancellor and the mayor and the media involved,” Tali told me. “This school can be so powerful and life changing, and shape your life, and now it will be that much easier and better, with less frustration and anger and fear.”
After Mars’ departure was announced, many teachers were elated, with some dancing in celebration. Now, I’m told, cautious optimism is setting in about LaGuardia’s future, although a lot of damage has been done.
Tali, meanwhile, said she and some other LaGuardia students have learned that “tangible change can happen.”
She added, “We keep making jokes that we should write an op-ed about how to get rid of a principal.”
*Update: This story has been updated to include David Bloomfield’s affiliations with CUNY and Brooklyn College.