Sunday, January 24, 2016
A Beloved Bronx Teacher Retires After a Conflict With His Principal
Tom Porton is used to drama: Since arriving at James Monroe High School as an English teacher 45 years ago, he has taught and staged plays. Outside, in the Bronx River neighborhood where the school is, there was plenty of drama in the 1980s, when AIDS and crack ravaged the area. His response then was to establish a group of peer educators who worked with Montefiore Medical Center to teach teenagers about H.I.V. prevention. His efforts earned him awards, including recognition from the City Council and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and led to his induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
Now he is at the center of drama: Last month he clashed with Brendan Lyons, the school’s principal, who disapproved of his distributing H.I.V./AIDS education fliers that listed nonsexual ways of “Making Love Without Doin’ It” (including advice to “read a book together”). This month, he said the principal eliminated his early-morning civic leadership class, which engaged students in activities such as feeding the homeless, saying it was not part of the Common Core curriculum. Mr. Porton was already skeptical of that curriculum, saying it shortchanged students by focusing on chapters of novels and nonfiction essays rather than entire works of literature.
So, next month Mr. Porton — a 67-year-old educator whom students praised as a lifesaver and life-changer — is walking away from teaching. He handed in his retirement papers on Friday.
“My career has always been based on the emotional and social well-being of the child,” he said, inside an office whose walls were decorated with awards, proclamations and photos of him alongside several school chancellors, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the rapper DMC. “Now, I don’t know where teaching is headed. I just know I can’t anymore. I find it torture. I’d rather separate myself from the classroom doing something that is distasteful and try to spend my days doing things that are important.”
Mr. Porton has been teaching and coordinating student activities long enough to see Monroe go from a large urban high school to one housing several smaller schools, including his, the Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design. Mr. Lyons — who repeatedly replied “no comment” to questions during a telephone conversation — arrived at the school at the start of the academic year. A previous tenure at a Manhattan high school was marked by his replacing paper hall passes with toilet plungers, which students used to wreak havoc on property and one another.
In December, on World AIDS Day, Mr. Porton handed out his flier, as he had for almost 25 years. Mr. Lyons sent him an email saying the flier was “inappropriate,” and asked that he collect those already distributed. Though Mr. Lyons said he would discuss the matter later with him, Mr. Porton said that conversation never took place.
H.I.V. and AIDS may have faded from the public mind, but they remain a danger in places like the South Bronx, especially among young blacks and Latinos. Mr. Porton said the school has failed to meet Department of Education mandates to educate students about the diseases, making his work all the more necessary.
Mr. Lyons, who would not say if the school met the mandates, never explained his objections to Mr. Porton. At the start of this semester, Mr. Porton said, the principal eliminated the 40-student leadership class because he said it was not part of the standard curriculum, even though the class met before the formal start of the school day. Because of that, combined with Mr. Porton’s disappointment over the standardized test frenzy that rules in many schools, he chose to leave.
“School is not pleasant, the way it was when I started,” he said. “They pay lip service to the social and emotional well-being of the child. My generation of teachers had a mind-set about how to teach a child. Today, young teachers see teaching as a way to kill time on the way to something else.”
Reaction among students and former students, many of whom learned of Mr. Porton’s retirement on Facebook, was immediate and full of outrage.
“How can anyone think what he does is inappropriate?” said Janelle Roundtree, a former peer educator who graduated from Monroe in 1995 and went on to Howard University. “He changed Monroe. He was in the forefront of so many things. The school is losing out on this one.”
David Gonzalez (no relation to this writer), amusician, poet and performer who graduated in 1973, was so grateful to Mr. Porton that he nominated him for the Kennedy Center’s Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, which he received in 2011.
“Tom has been the consistent heart of that building since I was at Monroe in the ’70s,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who still wonders how the teacher managed to get tickets to Broadway shows. “He was always looking for the heart and soul of the individual. I would never have had the confidence to do what I do without him. He changed my life forever.”
And now, Mr. Porton will change his own life.
“It was bittersweet,” he said after filing for retirement. “I’m sort of resigned to making the change. But there’s still a part of me that feels I’ll have to figure out where I’m going to go each day. Hopefully, somebody’s going to ask for my expertise somewhere. Let’s put it this way: I’m looking for job.”
The principal of Banana Kelly HS in the South Bronx has faked classroom observations of her faculty, staffers charge.
“She’s destroyed the integrity of the whole evaluation system,” an insider told The Post of Charlette Pope.
The accusations come as Mayor de Blasio this month named Banana Kelly one of 94 low-performing “Renewal Schools” to share $150 million for extra classroom time, after-school and summer programs, and teacher training.
In one case, Pope allegedly fabricated a formal observation of a teacher who had called in sick on the deadline to file the reviews.
“The observation never happened. It’s unethical,” the teacher said. When she refused to sign the dummied-up papers, Pope retaliated by rescinding a summer-school job, she said.
After repeatedly demanding to see her personnel file, the teacher was shocked to find a second fake observation, she said.
In another case, Pope submitted nearly identical observations of two teachers — both for the same eighth period last Oct. 23, records show. She rated both teachers “effective” or “developing” in the same categories.
One of the two teachers said Pope never came to her classroom to formally observe her all school year.
“Charlette Pope had a history of being openly aggressive with teachers,” the staffer said. “I feared that by confronting her, I would not be rated fairly.”
In addition, Pope’s observations lift boilerplate language from DOE grading guidelines without citing specifics about the teachers’ lessons. She also failed to conduct teacher conferences required before and after observations, staffers said.
Staffers reported the alleged misconduct to special schools investigator Richard Condon, who launched a probe last week.
On Friday, after investigators spoke with Pope and collected records, she took steps to fire one of the whistleblowers, an untenured teacher.
Reached by phone Friday, Pope said, “I’m not allowed to speak to the press,” and hung up.
Pope, 40, became principal of Banana Kelly in December 2012, making $137,190.
While the school lacks laptops, paper and other supplies, staffers said, Pope handed out iPads — in custom cases engraved with a Maya Angelou quote — to 43 June graduates, at an estimated cost of $17,000.
Previously, she raffled off mini-iPads, an Xbox and Beats headphones to students who attended a Regents prep session. The DOE forbids schools to give “incentive” prizes costing more than $25 each.
A Bronx principal has been demoted after a probe confirmed she faked teacher observations and blew taxpayer money on extravagant purchases, officials said.
Charlette Pope, 42, was principal of Banana Kelly HS, one of Mayor de Blasio’s “Renewal” schools under pressure to improve. Her removal followed Post reports that Pope filed bogus documents falsely stating that she had evaluated several teachers in their classrooms.
The DOE said Pope would receive an assistant principal’s pay. She made $144,000 in 2015. She’s now assigned to the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of substitutes, and spends time idling in a “rubber room.”