Turnaround expert to take over at troubled Clinton High School

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Santiago Taveras, a Bronx native who rose through the ranks of the Department of Education to serve as deputy chancellor for community engagement and then took a consulting job, is returning to city schools to lead DeWitt Clinton High School.

Mr. Taveras said he missed working directly with students as he took on administrative roles and sought out ways to get his “kid fix.” As deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, he “adopted” a group of five boys at IS 49 as mentees; more recently, as vice president for district reform at the Cambridge Education consulting firm, Mr. Taveras was overjoyed when a colleague went on maternity leave and he filled in for her at an alternative high school in Connecticut.

Mr. Taveras started his 22-year career at the DOE as a teacher in Spanish Harlem, before going on to found Banana Kelly High School and Urban Assembly Academy for Careers in Sports, oversee the Division of Teaching and Learning, serve as the senior supervising superintendent of all boroughs and ascend to deputy chancellor. He left in 2011 and began consulting educators on how to improve poorly performing schools. 

The John F. Kennedy High School alumnus decided to return to the borough as a principal when he teared-up at a job interview for a New Jersey superintendent position while recalling how he helped 10 struggling boys graduate decades ago. 

“I’ve worked two years doing turnaround on the East Coast and now it’s time to come back home to the Bronx, where I was born and raised to do that kind of work,” he said.

Though his contract doesn’t begin until July 1, Mr. Taveras met with faculty and students last week. He said he would spend the summer months getting acclimated, preparing to implement the city’s new teacher evaluation system and ensuring lessons are aligned with Common Core standards. He is slated to assume the principal position when Geraldine Ambrosio retires at the end of August.

Because Mr. Taveras oversaw the quality reviews of city schools and explained the accountability data to parents and community groups, he said he has a thorough understanding of how to use them to improve Clinton.

This winter, the Panel for Education Policy voted to decrease Clinton’s enrollment by about 40 percent over four years to allow educators to focus more on every child after the school received its second consecutive “F” on the annual school Progress Report. The PEP also approved the DOE’s plan to co-locate two district high schools — Bronx Collaborative High School and World View High School — in the building.

Mr. Taveras described himself as a “very visible leader,” who plans to walk the school daily and greet students in the morning and during dismissal, to demonstrate firsthand that he’s committed to creating a stronger school community.

He intends to group teachers in professional learning communities, where they can discuss which strategies work best, practice new techniques and learn from one another.

 “They were very receptive. I think that they are ready for a change and understand that there’s a lot of work to be done and they’re willing to do it,” Mr. Taveras said of his interactions with Clinton teachers and students. “We will collectively work together and turn Clinton around and bring it back to its glory days.” 

Updating the so-called Castle on the Parkway with a newer electrical system, quicker Internet and contemporary technology is also on his to do list.

Alan Ettman, the United Federation of Teachers Chapter leader, said teachers are looking forward to a leadership change and appreciated Mr. Santiago’s open communication style.

“I’m sure they wouldn’t put in a guy who used to be deputy chancellor just to do nothing and close the school,” said Mr. Ettman, a Kingsbridge resident. “He wants to see Clinton get its name back in the community.”

However, Mr. Ettman said the staff was caught off guard by the steep decrease in the number of freshman assigned to Clinton. According to the DOE’s Educational Impact Statement on the Clinton campus, the school was slated to lose between 196 and 236 students before fall 2013. The projected freshman enrollment is just under 300 students, two thirds less than the 900 freshmen Clinton taught last year, according to Mr. Ettman.

He said the smaller student body has caused more teachers to be excessed than originally anticipated and may cause budgetary issues.

Clinton has lost about 60 of its 265 educators this year. 

David Pena, a press representative for the DOE, would not comment on the school’s enrollment, but said the department was “confident that the addition of a dynamic new leader, coupled with the ability to provide individualized support for a smaller number of students, will deliver great outcomes for Clinton.”

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