Amid racial tensions and complaints of cultural insensitivity, Newark’s prestigious Science Park High School is getting a new principal: the respected leader of one of the city’s most troubled schools.
Angela Mincy will take the reins of Science Park, an elite magnet school that is considered one of the crown jewels of the Newark school system, according to several people connected to the school. She is leaving Barringer High School, one of New Jersey’s lowest-performing high schools, where a rotating cast of leaders has tried to bring stability and spark improvement.
Mincy, who held a private meeting Tuesday with student leaders at Science Park, will replace Kathleen Tierney, an administrator at the school who ascended to principal. Under Tierney’s watch, Science Park continued to boast some of the district’s highest test scores, a celebrated debate team, and graduates who earned scholarships to top universities.
Yet Tierney also faced criticism from some parents and students who felt her administration had not done enough to recruit more black students, who are underrepresented at the selective school. They also accused the school’s leadership of not acting forcefully enough to quell the racial tensions, which stemmed from some students’ use of racist language and actions by at least one teacher that some people at the school considered inappropriate.
Now, Tierney’s critics are hoping that the new leadership is more receptive to their demands.
“I think with the new principal things will start changing,” said Diane Gayoso, whose son is a senior at Science Park. Adding that Mincy is “well-liked” and “she does listen to parents,” Gayoso said she hopes the new principal will work on building trust between students, parents, and the administration.
The district, Tierney, and Mincy did not respond to requests for comment.
The district has not yet announced a new leader for Barringer, which is considered one of the toughest assignments for a school leader in Newark. Over the past decade, the campus has seen at least 17 different principals, Mincy said at a conference at Rutgers University-Newark last year.
Mincy was assigned to Barringer in 2014 after it was split into two smaller schools. She led the Barringer Academy of S.T.E.A.M., which, like Science Park, was designed to focus on science and related fields.
Mincy’s first year was “chaotic,” she said at the conference, with 30 teacher vacancies when she arrived, dozens of students sent to the school mid-year, and conflicts between students from different racial and ethnic groups.
She moved quickly to restore a sense of order and boost the level of learning. She instituted new training and coaching for teachers, launched the school’s first Advanced Placement classes, and set up a food pantry and daycare for students who needed them, she said at the conference.
Yet she faced enormous obstacles, partly due to the district’s admissions policies, which allow magnet schools such as Science Park to screen students and admit only high-performers while traditional high schools must accept any students who apply or are sent their way. In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 60% of Barringer Academy of S.T.E.A.M students were still learning English — compared with 0% at Science Park, according to state data.
That year, 65% of seniors at Mincy’s school graduated on time, while just 51% did at the other Barringer school. By contrast, the citywide graduation rate was 76% in 2018; at Science Park, it was 96%.
In a system of school choice like Newark’s, where high-achieving students can avoid low-performing schools, it is often difficult for struggling schools to mount a comeback, educators say.
“When people hear Barringer, it’s like the scarlet letter,” Mincy said at the May 2018 conference. “The staff doesn’t want to come, kids don’t want to pick our school because we’re fighting a long-standing reputation that was there when I was a student. That is a real struggle for us.”
Mincy’s efforts at Barringer earned her a reputation as a strong leader. When Superintendent Roger León merged the two small schools last year, he made Mincy principal of the reunified Barringer. Now, León will have to find a new leader for the beleaguered campus.
In her new role, Mincy will take the helm of a school that is the polar opposite of Barringer. A national award-winning school, Science Park attracts some of the city’s top-performing students while enrolling few students with special needs. León is a graduate of the school’s precursor, Science High School.
Yet Science Park has its own challenges. Some faculty members said Tierney’s administration did not always communicate well with staff. Some students complained about a competitive, high-stress environment, and student leaders took the lead in organizing a series of forums last year to address sexism and racism on campus, including reports of some students using the N-word. And some parents clashed with Tierney over the school’s admissions policies, going so far as to boycott a town-hall meeting she organized last year to address the issue.
At a school board meeting in March, a few Science Park students described incidents they found culturally insensitive — including a white physical education teacher who wore a Barack Obama mask and Donald Trump hat on Halloween and had allegedly commented in the past on black students’ hair, and a vice principal who ordered black students to remove their head scarves. Though Tierney had addressed both incidents, some students found her response inadequate. Board members called for an investigation, and León said “things are underway” to address the students’ concerns.
Celestine Swain, whose daughter is a senior at Science Park, is a member of the Blue Ribbon Parents, the group calling for admissions changes. (The school’s parent-teacher association has gone defunct, according to parents and staffers.) On Wednesday, Swain said there has been “too much discord and separation inside that building.”
“We all have to come together as a team, as a loving community, for our children,” she said, adding that she is confident León appointed the right person to usher in a new era at the school. “Science Park is going to be a way better school now that we have new leadership.”