Founding Principal Arisleyda Ureña has allegedly been involved in very questionable ethics, financial, contractual, and educational violations during her seven years as principal at the Academy for Language and Technology (ALT) in the Bronx. What is even more telling is the fear that permeates the school community. Despite complaints placed to the UFT, CSA, Department of Education, and numerous Children First Network offices nothing has been done to investigate Principal Urena or the school. Thankfully, Ms. Ureña has been removed from her position as Founding Principal but only time will tell whether she will be transferred to a different position within the Department of Education or undergo Educational Law 3020a charges for “conduct unbecoming.”
We at “Don’t Tread on Education” sincerely hope that this piece gives some clarity and insight to what has allegedly happened at ALT under Principal Ureña’s “leadership.” We applaud the numerous students, parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, and aides who have spoken up about the toxic environment at this school which resembles a prison by the way it is organized: with students remaining in the same classroom for 6 hours a day and Principal Ureña’s dictatorial leadership. It should be no surprise to anyone who would examine the NYS Accountability Report Card for ALT that teacher turnover has reached catastrophic levels over the past few years.
One person who did find the courage to ask tough questions was a young teacher named Ms. Maria Gomez.* She has agreed to share part of her very complicated and emotional story. Ms. Gomez spent the early part of her time at ALT happily. She received two observations in September and October which received rave reviews from Ms. Ureña. Both of these observations resulted in a satisfactory rating. Things changed rapidly by the New Year for Ms. Gomez.
According to Ms. Gomez and other former staff members, Ms. Ureña has certainly not acted alone in wielding power and fear over the teachers. She has allegedly used spies — including Special Education Coordinator Jessica Orban, students, and School Aide Pablo Guzman — to ensure that her rules and decrees are followed without question. Another of her lackeys includes Claire Brennan.
Claire Brennan was a Founding ELA teacher at the Academy for Language and Technology when it opened in 2007. She was hired by Ms. Ureña. Because the turnover rate at ALT was over 30% each year (progressively climbing to 50% in 2013), with few seasoned and tenured teachers, Ms. Brennan assumed leadership roles that included serving as a mentor for new teachers and as UFT Chapter Leader from 2011 to 2013. It was well known that Ms. Ureña and Ms. Brennan were (and still are) close; Ms. Brennan was allegedly named the godmother of Ms. Ureña’s youngest child (clearly a conflict of interest!).
At ALT, the school used grade-teamwide Common Planning Time to count as mentoring. This is in violation of Article 8 of the Contractual Bargaining Agreement. Teachers meet for Common Planning Time for thirty minutes daily while the students are at lunch. During Common Planning Time (CPT), teachers in a particular grade team meet COLLECTIVELY to discuss improving student learning, data analysis, school culture, and responsibilities. Mentors and mentees MAY NOT be in the same grade team; or if they are they might not even share the same content area. During CPT, there is no time for mentors and mentees to meet individually yet mentor teachers are instructed by Ms. Ureña to enter in the CPT minutes to “count” towards mentoring.
In January 2013, Ms. Gomez, approached her mentor, Claire Brennan, and inquired about the lack of hands-on mentoring she was receiving. Ms. Gomez had gone on the Mentor Tracking Service (MTS) System and had observed that the activities listed on particular dates never occurred and, moreover, the time period for each supposed activity matched the thirty-minute block for CPT perfectly. Other times, two thirty-minute CPT sessions would be combined to “count” as a mentoring session which never occurred. Ms. Gomez was privy to the CPT meeting minutes. The topics discussed in CPT on those days never matched the “Interaction Type” described in MTS. When Ms. Gomez requested one-on-one mentoring from Ms. Brennan and implied that what was entered in MTS was fraud, Ms. Ureña was notified. Ms. Ureña proceeded to vilify and harass the young teacher through “gotcha” observations (resulting in unsatisfactory ratings), a disciplinary letter, and eventually being removed from the classroom in June.
As a UFT Chapter Leader, Ms. Brennan never held union meetings with teachers. Teachers were left ignorant of the contract, their rights and benefits, and how to defend themselves against a very oppressive and cruel administration. Ms. Brennan failed to educate teachers of their contractual bargaining rights and speak to Ms. Ureña about insuring the demanding school culture at ALT followed the provisions of the contact. The contractual provisions violated by Ms. Ureña and Ms. Brennan are numerous but include:
1. Article 8
2. Article 2
3. Article 20
4. Article 7
Ms. Gomez emailed the Superintendent of Bronx High Schools, Carron Staple, about the lack of support she was receiving at ALT. Ms. Gomez was issued a disciplinary letter by Ms. Ureña two days after speaking with the Superintendent. Upon information and belief, this disciplinary letter was crafted in retaliation for her speaking to the Superintendent and naively asking for help in a cold school environment.
When she received no response from the Superintendent, Ms. Gomez filed two grievances against Ms. Ureña and Ms. Brennan towards the end of the year. On Jun 12th, Ms. Gomez filed Grievance #1, regarding improper mentoring. CPT was an improper form of mentoring and not recognized by the CBA. At the grievance meeting (which Ms. Ureña refers to as a “conversation”), Ms. Ureña called Ms. Gomez “unprofessional” for filing a grievance with a UFT rep from a different school. “ALT Teachers do not associate with teachers and staff from the middle schools housed within our campus,” the principal declared.
Minutes after the grievance conference, Ms. Brennan confronted Ms. Gomez and informed her that she had “made a very poor choice.” Ms. Gomez refused to retract her grievance and informed Ms. Brennan that she was free to file a grievance with whomever she wished. Ms. Gomez affirms the following statement: “Just because something has been done at a school for five to six years, doesn’t make it right!”
Twenty-four hours after Ms. Gomez’s first grievance was filed, Ms. Ureña issued Ms. Gomez her Annual Pedagogical Performance Review (APPR) form. Ms. Ureña and Superintendent Staple had signed off on the U-rating and recommendation for discontinuance of probationary service on June 12th. On June 14th, in the morning, Ms. Gomez filed a second grievance against Ms. Ureña. The new grievance was for retaliation and interference with union business (a violation of Articles 2 and 20 of the CBA). Both of Ms. Gomez’s grievances were denied by Ms. Ureña at a Step 1 grievance hearing. However, with help from the District Representative at the Bronx UFT, Ms. Gomez’s second grievance was processed to a Step 2 Grievance hearing. While the Chancellor denied the grievance at the Step 2 Conference, Ms. Gomez filed an improper practice violation regarding the retaliation. This charge will be heard in front of a judge at the NYS Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) in Fall 2014.
Conflicts of interest and labor relations issues aren’t the only concerns within the troubled school. The school budget is another cause of concern at ALT. During School Leadership Team (SLT) meetings, parents and other members of the Parent-Teacher Association/ Parent Association (PTA/PA) have complained about the lack of transparency in the school’s budget. Ms. Ureña would share copies of ALT’s three million dollar budget with members of SLT at the beginning of the year yet during the remainder of the year there would be no follow-up on how the school had used City, State, and Federal money to pay for resources, programs, and consultants.
Ms. Gomez was concerned with obtaining high-quality rigorous textbooks for her students and was dismayed to discover that the school’s textbook funding was depleted and that there was no funding available for student government activities or field trips. Teachers were encouraged to place orders for textbooks during CPT meetings in the month of March. Furthermore, teachers had been informed by early Fall 2012 that $31,000 (estimated; obtained via a New York Freedom of Information Law request) worth of the school’s Title III LEP (Limited English Proficency) funding had already been used up.
Considering this to be suspicious, Ms. Gomez requested an audit done on ALT’s budget. She then notified the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District (SCI) to do an investigation regarding conflict of interest violations (which include Ms. Ureña’s hiring her former boss, Elena Papaliberios, as a consultant, and hiring Pablo Guzman to do construction on her home). These phone calls were placed anonymously.
SCI and/or OSI traced the calls to Ms. Gomez’s phone and notified Ms. Ureña. In response, Ms. Ureña expedited the process to discontinue Ms. Gomez. When Ms. Gomez filed a second grievance accusing Ms. Ureña of retaliation, the principal then opened a case with OSI on Ms. Gomez.
Ms. Gomez and several other teachers, assistant principals, and counselors who were whistle-blowers retold their stories of the days leading up to their removal from ALT as “traumatic and depressing.” While their accounts differ from case to case, common threads that do remain include:
1. Attending a disciplinary meeting with the union representative “sitting like a pot of flowers” doing little to nothing in the victim’s defense while the teacher/AP/counselor is maligned by Ms. Ureña.
2. Being stripped of duties interacting with students and doing “busy work” such as organizing book closets and filing papers.
3. Feeling as if their movements were being closely monitored by Ms. Ureña who would spend hours in the main office watching teachers and students via the school security cameras.
4. Observing their colleagues drift away and refrain from “unnecessary interaction” with them.
And then, finally, the letter! It is never delivered by Ms. Ureña who loathes direct confrontations, but usually by Mr. Guzman or the assistant principal, Jose Viñales. These letters come “out of the blue” and say very little other than, “Due to your discontinuance, you have been reassigned to the Network’s Office located at 1 Fordham Plaza.” The teacher is told to collect their belongings, punch out, clear their mailbox, and leave the building. No, you will not be able to attend prom, graduation, or any other faculty end-of-year festivities. You are officially a nonperson and if your name is ever mentioned again, it will be mentioned only in a derisive mumble or half-curse. This person, a dues-paying UFT member, dared shake the boat, demand that the students deserve better, and believed she had rights.
What are these crimes Ms. Ureña accuses her teachers of? In particular, Ms. Gomez’s “charges” have yet to be disclosed to her. These “charges” barred her from accepting a position at a school outside of the Bronx. But through a Freedom of Information Law request, Ms. Gomez told us of the role her mentor and union representative Claire Brennan played in getting her removed to a rubber room simply because of an email sent to students that explained to them that Ms. Gomez had been “asked to leave” and thus would not be returning to teach at the school. The email to the students was sent on the evening of June 10th. On June 17th, Ms. Gomez received her letter exiling her to 1 Fordham Plaza. The captions below show the speed and efficiency in which Ms. Gomez was targeted and reassigned.
Ms. Ureña had “placed” numerous student and faculty “spies” within the school. In particular, each homeroom had at least one student spy. This practice was so clandestine that most students at ALT had no idea there were spies in each of their classes. Miguel Juarez,* one of Ms. Gomez’s former students, had informed his teacher that student spies were selected based on academics and behavior: a quiet and diligent student made a very trustworthy confidante for Ms. Ureña who was curious about understanding the weaknesses of teachers and students alike. In this sense, Ms. Ureña did not have to be everywhere to know everything that was going on at ALT.
Mr. Juarez, loyal to and fond of both Ms. Gomez and the value of integrity, had informed his teacher that her email had been infiltrated by one of Ms. Ureña’s spies. The informant forwarded the email to Ms. Brennan and at least three other teachers. Instead of speaking to Ms. Gomez privately and explaining to her why sending such an email was not the best decision, Ms. Brennan then forwarded the email to Mr. Vinales and Ms. Ureña. Finally, Ms. Ureña forwarded the email to the school’s CFN Leader and eventually the Senior Field Counsel, the attorney to which a group of schools is assigned. The email was forwarded from Ms. Ureña’s DOE email account on the afternoon of June 14th. Upon information and belief, Ms. Ureña forwarded the email to the CFN and requested for Ms. Gomez to be “reassigned” to a rubber room because of the grievances filed on June 12th and June 14th.
This started the rapid process of the “rubberization” of Ms. Gomez. On June 17th, the letter informing Ms. Gomez of her reassignment to a rubber room had been drawn up, printed, and the school was informed that there was room for Ms. Gomez at 1 Fordham Plaza to spend the remaining eight school days before summer holidays commenced. Ms. Gomez received this letter unexpectedly, when she was proctoring a Regents Exam. She was pulled out of the classroom and was issued the letter by Vinales. When Ms. Gomez asked Mr. Vinales what the vague wording of the letter meant, he declined to respond and told her to pack up her things and leave. Ms. Urena did not speak to Ms. Gomez regarding her removal from the school. Ms. Gomez was never informed why she was reassigned. This is in violation of DOE lawful procedure!
Upon information and belief, Ms. Gomez was discontinued and “rubberized” because of this innocent email sent to her students, her complaints over the lack of proper mentoring as a probationary teacher, and the investigations initiated with SCI and OSI. Upon information and belief, Ms. Gomez’s grievances filed against her mentor/UFT Chapter Leader caused Ms. Brennan to spitefully ruin Ms. Gomez’s career while advancing her own.
We at Don’t Tread on Education wish all former and current employees at the Academy for Language and Technology the best. Let us hope that Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña will devote time, energy, and funding in ensuring a fair and unbiased investigation into the financial, contractual, and ethics violations committed at the Academy for Language and Technology. Ms. Gomez and countless other staff members and students at this school deserve that much.
One of the top postings on Betsy Combier’s blog (nycrubberroomreporter.
You can view the article here: https://nycrubberroomreporter.
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