Tag Archives: Nelson Mar

How the Other Half Learns: Cannon Fodder

Consider the case of Elena Ortiz (a pseudonym):

Things are ragged and rough in Ortiz’s classroom, noticeably so compared to the others I’ve seen. She struggles to keep her students focused and engaged, and unlike in nearly every other classroom, there is no full-time assistant teacher to help her maintain order….(emphasis mine)

She walks out in October.

….Ortiz freaked out [and leaves her job permanently]. Whether it was over Adama, the cumulative stress of leading a classroom with a large number of challenging students, the lack of a second teacher in the room, or some other factor, no one is able or willing to say. Nick Carton [an assistant principal] has been pressed into service teaching second grade; a full-time assistant teacher, Brandon Whitaker, has arrived from the network. (emphasis mine)

A bit later:

When the meeting [to discuss the weak second grade reading results] breaks up, [principal] Vandlik and McDermott [Kaitlin McDermott] ask Belkin [Laura Belkin] as to stay behind. Her data is stronger than the rest of the team’s; they enlist her to take the lead in grade-level planning and improve her colleagues’ practice. At the same time, they assure her that they want to support her continued growth as a teacher, not just put the onus on her to get her colleagues up to snuff.

Belkin was, at the time, a five year Success Academy veteran.  Ortiz was a second year teacher who had never taught second grade before. Belkin had Tyrone, who she was allowed to bribe for occasional good behavior, while Elena Ortiz had Adama, a kid the school was determined to eject.  (Tyrone vs Adama).

So Ortiz had the toughest kids, no assistant teacher–but her replacement gets an assistant teacher.

Is it completely irrelevant that Belkin’s alma mater is top 50 Boston University, while Elena Ortiz went to Hudson, a regional teacher’s college?  That when Vandlik chose an AVP to get downgraded to a second grade teacher she chose Nick Carton, from a state New York school, instead of Amy Young, from Columbia, or Kerrie Riley, from a highly ranked liberal arts school?

Long before Ortiz walked out, it was clear from Pondiscio’s reporting that she was cannon fodder. Shoving cannon fodder into the line of fire, giving weaker teachers less support–that’s a practice by no means unique to Success Academy principals. I have seen teachers in this position. I have been in this position. In my second school, I was given a substantial chunk of the weakest, most challenging students, and no one thought it was an accident. It’s how principals often use the least desirable teachers in their school.

Given that Vandlik runs a school for a woman whose entire self-image is based on high test scores, I can see she might prefer to segregate the strongest students with the most valuable and experienced teachers. Use the more disposable teacher with the kids who probably aren’t going to make it to third grade.

Up to here, it’s all properly Macchiavelian. However, the rest of the story is just bad management.  Create a dumping ground, sure. But perhaps it’d be better to be sure the teacher has plenty of support, rather than singling her out for less support. Perhaps come down hard on any assistant principals that snark about her,  calling her “delicate” and asking if “she’s going to go over the edge” without ever acknowledging that she’s given the far more difficult task with less support and less experience.

And if that teacher up and walks out mid-year, then why compound the staffing difficulties by shoving the most dispensable of the assistant principals into the line of fire? “Vandlik thought it would benefit Carton…to gain hands-on experience with curriculum,culture, and classroom”. Ha, ha.

Nick Carton is much smarter than that. He quits Success Academy at Christmas break, realizing that he’s not one of Vandlik’s chosen. So once again, Bronx I is short a second grade teacher and is down to one AVP.  This time, though, Vlandik gets lucky and hires an excessed NYC public school teacher–in fact, she puts two fulltime teachers in the class and give them full support.

Perhaps she should have given that support to Elena Ortiz in the first place.

Later, Pondiscio learns that Ortiz might have left because principal Vandlik wanted her to lie. Adama’s parents have retained Nelson Mar, a lawyer who has often taken on the charter network for its many abuses. He was there to meet with Ortiz and Vandlik on what turned out to be Ortiz’s last day.

“We get there, we’re waiting, and 4:45 comes, 4:50 comes, we see Ms. Vandlik walking back and forth. We’re like, ‘Well, this is strange.’ Usually they’re fairly prompt about starting a meeting,” Mar recalled. Ortiz walked up and told them that she’d just quit her job. “She said, They want me to say that Adama did this and did that and I can’t say that,'” Mar said. “The thing that I remember distinctly was that she said, “They want me to lie, and I’m not going to do that.'”

Four different staffers with whom I discussed the matter expressed skepticism, even incredulity, that Vandlik would ask Ortiz to lie…Others noted Ortiz herself had had a rocky tenure at the school and was erratic even before her flameout. One former colleague suggests she was looking for an excuse to quit.

Pondiscio reached out to Ortiz but she refused to interview with him. Given his clear sympathy for Vandlik, who he refers to as “very good at her job”, and his readiness to allow a bunch of Success Academy staffers to stab Ortiz in the back, I don’t blame her in the slightest.

Pondiscio concedes that “the story Adama’s parents tell cannot  be dismissed.” But it’s not the parents, but the parents’ lawyer who told him that story, which is a different matter altogether. And unlike all of Vandlik’s defenders, the lawyer uses his own name. Would a lawyer make such a charge, leaving himself open to a litigious, aggressive charter network, if he couldn’t back it up?

Moreover, even before Nelson Mar’s story, Pondiscio reports that Elena Ortiz walked out “during a prep meeting with the leadership team prior to the sit-down with Adama’s parents”.  Teachers, even teachers on the edge, don’t storm out before a parent meeting without significant cause.

Pondiscio’s own evidence strongly suggests Ortiz was outraged by something that occurred during the meeting, and it was the last straw for her. I find it entirely believable that Vandlik asked her to lie. It’s consistent with Success Academy practice of dumping students who’ll hurt their test scores.

But leave aside that question and I still wonder why Pondiscio is so admiring of Vandlik, who he consistently presents as competent, assured, and impressive.

My read: Vandlik created the entire second grade staffing fiasco through her own mismanagement and obvious favoritism. She seems to have a ranking system, and treats teachers and staff based on her own priorities, rather than on needed support.  She gave the lead teacher, Belkin, the most resources rather than offer more support to a teacher with more difficult students. Then, when the second grade team confesses they aren’t working together, she not only doesn’t hold the lead teacher responsible, but rather calls Belkin aside to tell her not to feel she’ll be held responsible for the two other losers on the team.

Staffing a school is by far the most important job a principal has. Vandlik seems completely unaware that she created the second grade mess, and is content to let her staff badmouth the teacher struggling to handle difficult kids without support.

Disclosure: I’m a teacher who doesn’t trust principals. (My own admins are gods, naturally). Vandlik is exactly the sort of person I dislike on general principle. I like creative people, not control freaks. There literally isn’t a single moment where I’m not rolling my eyes every time Pondiscio goes ooh-ahh over some impressive Vandlik maneuver, like answering the phone or telling a parent off. But I’d argue the data supports my interpretation.

As always, I want more data. Pondiscio doesn’t seem to have checked for any patterns in which second graders were kept back, and whether these students were disproportionately assigned to particular teachers. He doesn’t appear to wonder if perhaps Belkin’s better results were a product of classroom assignment rather than superior teaching. He doesn’t ask why Elena Ortiz didn’t have an assistant teacher. He seems to share the negative opinion of the struggling teacher, which might explain why he repeats the trash talk to cast doubt upon possibility that Vandlik told a teacher to lie. It may be he knows more than he’s writing, information that would lead to judging Ortiz more harshly, Vandlik less so.

Missed opportunities.

All three of the assistant principals have left Success Academy. Nick Carton is now principal of the school that hired him away. Amy Young is an assistant principal at another charter. Kerrie Riley is in senior management at KIPP.  Meanwhile, Kaitlynn McDermott,  who Pondiscio says is “not unlike the Wolf the character played by Harvey Keitel in the movie Pulp Fiction who shows up to try to clean up”–well, she left as well.  So in the end, favoritism doesn’t seem to pay off. I suspect most staffers see Success Academy as a place to come from, not stay.

But to every rule there is an exception: Laura Belkin is still teaching at Success Academy.

In my last article, I argued that principal education profiles suggest the school is  grooming some teachers for leadership roles and the rest–well, if they returned after one year, that was kind of a surprise. Anyone who wants to work for Success Academy should read How The Other Half Learns to get an inkling of what might await those teachers who aren’t targeted for, er, success.