Townsend Harris community takes fight to City Hall
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 28, 2017 | 3058 views | 0 0 comments | 159 159 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Townsend Harris High School’s students, teachers, alumni and parents who want to oust interim acting principal Rosemarie Jahoda took their message straight to the top of the chain of command – the mayor himself.

Last Friday, student leaders hosted a rally on the steps of City Hall calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to remove Jahoda from the position.

Senior Alex Chen, president of the Student Union, said the community has faced harassment, neglect and even foul language from the embattled educator.

“There is no perspective which you can view Ms. Jahoda’s actions as justifiable,” Chen said.

Chen said the Department of Education (DOE), including Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and Superintendent Elaine Lindsey, have not been responsive to their calls for change. The only course of action, he concluded, was to plead with the mayor to “save our school.”

“We’ve been greeted with an apathetic chancellor and an inept DOE,” he said. “Here is our ultimatum: replace Ms. Jahoda with someone we can trust or risk losing one of the best academic powerhouses of New York City.”

Jahoda took over as interim principal at the start of the school year after former principal Anthony Barbetta departed. In December, the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the Alumni Association passed resolutions calling for Jahoda’s removal.

Students protested by organizing a sit-in in front of lockers across an entire floor of the Flushing school.

An online petition with 3,600 signatures demands the DOE refuse to hire her as permanent principal. Another, with 1,127 signatures, asks de Blasio to replace Jahoda with Assistant Principal Ellen Fee.

The school newspaper has documented a series of events that students, parents and alumni have referenced as examples of Jahoda’s lack of leadership.

After the presidential election, Muslim Student Association (MSA) co-president Sangida Akter said Muslim students in the school faced hateful words in two different incidents. When Akter met with Jahoda to discuss the issue, the session turned into an interrogation.

“Where were you? No one else heard about it?” Akter said, recounting Jahoda’s questioning for the crowd at the City Hall rally. “Only two of you? Which way was your body facing?”

When Akter asked Jahoda to send out a school-wide email denouncing the acts, the principal declined, citing DOE regulations.

“For all of the students who were scared and terrified to go to school, we wanted a message or something from her,” Akter said. “But her silence spoke very loud for us. She truly does not care for our student body.”

Months later, the community was in uproar over another incident. Students accused Jahoda of delays sending seniors’ transcripts to colleges.

Chen described it as a miscommunication, but primarily blamed Jahoda for not following a procedure that assistant principals had laid out in the past. She wanted to follow her own procedure, he said.

“This was a lengthy process and something that could’ve seriously endangered seniors getting into college,” Chen said, noting that in the end the transcripts were sent on time.

Critics also point to Jahoda’s history of conflicts with teachers. When she was an assistant principal for mathematics at the Bronx High School of Science, 20 of 22 math teachers signed a letter of grievance against her.

An independent report later concluded that Jahoda had called a teacher “disgusting” and had reduced seven teachers to tears 12 times.

Chen said although students and faculty heard about Jahoda’s reputation from her days at Bronx Science, they tried to welcome her.

“We wanted to work past that,” he said. “But the same story has followed [here].”

Franco Scardino, a social studies teacher and union chapter leader, declared that the faculty and staff at Townsend Harris support the students’ call for Jahoda’s removal. Scardino has been one of Jahoda’s most vocal critics, calling her management style “autocratic.”

“Since her arrival to Townsend Harris High School as a caretaker, Rosemarie Jahoda has done nothing to take care of the high school,” he said. “In fact, she has assaulted the school in ways that may take months, if not years, to recover from.”

Scardino blamed Jahoda for not knowing students, teachers or even the courses taught at the school. He accused the interim principal of attempting to “marginalize” the school newspaper, which has written negative stories about her conduct.

“She does not understand the culture of the school,” he said. “Townsend Harris is deserving of a leader who will embrace the truth, assume responsibility and not hide behind closed doors.”

The social studies teacher said he’s looking for a principal who has a history of inspiring students and staff, working with stakeholders and collaborating rather than commanding.

“We need a principal who is a role model,” Scardino said. “Jahoda shows no such characteristics.”

Elected officials have also backed the Townsend Harris community’s requests. Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, who graduated from the school in 2004, attended the rally at City Hall.

“We have seen our school’s environment and tone change for the worse,” she said. “It is really time to turn over a new leaf and to have new representation and a new principal at the helm.”

In late January, DOE announced that it would restart the process to hire a permanent principal for the school on February 1. Thirty-eight applicants have applied, and from that pool, the superintendent will choose five to examine more closely.

Parents, teachers and alumni believe Jahoda is one of the 38 applicants.

They will make a decision within 90 days, a DOE spokesman said. In the meantime, Jahoda, who issued a statement through DOE, will remain as interim acting principal

“While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations,” Jahoda said, “I remain 100 percent focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”
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