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Sources: Newark plans to replace first-year principals at Science Park, Vocational

Moves run counter to Newark’s goal of having more men of color as school leaders.

Students at Science Park High School in Newark are dismissed at 2:40 p.m. after their first day of school.

Students at Science Park High School in Newark. The district plans to replace the school’s first-year principal, Kcyied Zahir, sources say.

Devna Bose / Chalkbeat

The Newark school district plans to replace the principal of prestigious Science Park High School just one year after he was appointed, according to two people with direct knowledge of the district’s plan.

The district is also replacing the first-year principal of Newark Vocational High School, a recently revamped school that has struggled over the past year with violence and absenteeism, according to a person with direct knowledge and the school administrators union.

The changes cut against district officials’ stated goal of elevating more men of color to leadership positions, as Science Park will become the third high school in the past year to lose a Black male principal. The turnover also raises questions about how the district supports new principals, and whether it gave the two leaders enough time to establish themselves.

“You need more than one year to really get your feet on the ground and do what needs to be done,” said Christine Taylor, a former Newark principal and president of the City Association of Supervisors & Administrators union. “I think it’s patently unfair.”

Now both high schools are set to face more upheaval after a challenging year of COVID disruptions, student mental health struggles, and staff burnout

“We are in desperate need of stability,” said Cheryl Bell, a physical education teacher at Science Park who said she dreads another leadership change. “This is devastating and it will be detrimental to the students.”

Neither principal responded to emails or phone messages. A spokesperson said the district does not comment on personnel matters.

Science Park, a selective magnet school in the city’s Central Ward, is considered one of the jewels of the Newark school system. After its previous principal left last year, the district appointed as her replacement Kcyied Zahir, a former Newark math teacher and track coach who most recently was a dean in the East Orange school district.

The first-time principal took the helm at a difficult moment. Educators across the country reported a surge in student behavior issues this fall as they returned to classrooms, after more than a year of remote learning. Science Park was no exception: Several fights broke out, which is rare at the academically demanding school, and there were multiple reported bomb threats.

The school did not immediately inform families of the bomb threats, angering parents who only learned of the incidents from the news or their children, three parents told Chalkbeat. The situation was part of a pattern of poor communication by the new principal, the parents said.

“From the beginning we had zero communication with him,” said Lourdes Pinto, a former Science Park PTA member who has two children at the school, “and he never made the effort to change that.”

A few students echoed that complaint, saying they rarely hear from Zahir. But others said the principal is caring and approachable, and that he had done a good job under difficult circumstances.

“There’s problems,” said 12th grader Leo Garcia, “but I feel like he’s done his best in his first year.”

Superintendent Roger León has lamented the scarcity of Black and Hispanic male educators and administrators in the district, who together make up only 11% of the workforce, he has said.

Last year, he created a program to help those men earn master’s degrees and certifications that would put them on a path to becoming school administrators. Yet at the same time, he replaced the Black male principals at Malcolm X Shabazz High School and Newark Vocational last year, and now at Science Park.

Amina Anabui, whose daughter is a 10th grader at Science Park, said she had been dissatisfied with Zahir’s communication with families. Yet she also believes that the district can do a better job assisting school leaders.

“They’ve got to support the principals,” she said, “in order for the principals to be able to support the staff and students.”

A fire, a brawl, and bruised staff morale

Newark Vocational has had a rocky few years since León promised to relaunch the school in fall 2019 in a fully renovated building. 

First, the renovation was delayed, forcing students to relocate to an elementary school building for a year. Then, the pandemic kept students out of the new building. Finally, students learned last spring that the district was removing the school’s popular principal, Kyle Brown, who had spent less than two years in the role.

A woman looks over the shoulder of a female student crouched over work behind a sign that says “Environmental Studies Academy” as two people talk behind them.

Lucinda Eason, right, is the principal of Newark’s Vocational High School who previously oversaw the vocational programs at Central and Weequahic high schools. Above, Eason represented Central at a school fair in 2018.

Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

The district replaced him with Lucinda Eason, a former vice principal at two Newark high schools who most recently was an administrator at a vocational school in Passaic. Like Zahir, she is a Newark Public Schools graduate.

Since Eason began this fall, the school has grappled with the sort of attendance and discipline challenges that have become increasingly common nationwide during the pandemic. However, the problems at Newark Vocational at times have been extreme.

The school’s absenteeism rate has been exceptionally high. In February, two-thirds of Newark Vocational students qualified as chronically absent — more than at any other district high school that month.

Student behavior has occasionally posed serious safety risks. In November, a student set fire to a classroom, forcing everyone in the building to evacuate, according to news reports and staff members. In March, a large brawl broke out; one teacher who intervened was injured and taken to a hospital, the staffers said. A parent told Chalkbeat at the time that the school had become “a battle zone.”

Douglas Freeman, whose son is a junior at Newark Vocational, said Eason and other administrators met with parents after the fight to discuss the situation.

“Once she laid out the obstacles and challenges, then we came up with corrective measures,” he said, adding that the school appeared much calmer when he visited recently.

Chris Canik, a math teacher at Newark Vocational, said circumstances at the school this year would have tested even the most experienced administrator. A large number of teachers had limited classroom experience, renovations continued during the school year, and COVID protocols kept the staff from meeting in person even after the building reopened.

“A lot of that really hurt our staff morale,” he said, “and when you have low staff morale, you’re going to have low student morale.”

Canik said the situation has improved recently, leading to gains in attendance and academic performance. While Eason has occasionally stumbled as a new principal, she has the potential to develop into a strong leader, he added.

“I believe that everybody deserves a chance to grow,” he said.

At Science Park, 12th grader Inioluwa Obafemi said he is tired of the churn. Since his freshman year, he has had to adapt to three different principals.

“Everyone comes in and we get new rules and everything,” he said. “A little bit of consistency wouldn’t do any harm.”

Patrick Wall is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city and across New Jersey. Contact Patrick at pwall@chalkbeat.org.

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