2007-10-05 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

MS 53 in Far Rockaway: Why Some Principals Should Not Be Empowered
Commentary By Howard Schwach

I first met Claude Monereau, the principal of Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway in January of 2004, nearly four years ago.

He was the assistant principal at Beach Channel High School at the time, and he wanted to be principal.

In September of 2003, a black woman, Andrea Holt, was appointed principal of the high school to replace Bernard Gassaway, who left the school to take a superintendent's position with the then Board of Education.

In January, however, the board decided to remove Holt from the building because of a controversy over students who were asked not to return because they had not made "sufficient progress" towards a diploma.

In late January, prior to a new principal being named, Monereau and another assistant principal, Regine Lifranc (who is now an assistant principal at MS 53, working for Monereau), came to The Wave office asking for the paper's support to make Monereau the principal of the school. They wanted an editorial calling for his appointment and they wanted a campaign of stories about how good he would be for the community.

He told me that Holt would be out of the building in February and that only he was capable of leading the school.

He showed me a letter that the parent's association had sent at his bidding asking that Monereau be appointed.

Lifranc produced a letter that she had sent to Chancellor Joel Klein, asking that Monereau be appointed.

She claimed in her letter that Holt showed "great disdain" for the minority students in the school and had to be replaced by Monereau, a minority man who lives in the Rockaway community.

Monereau also produced a letter signed by all but one of the school's assistant principals (including Monereau and Lifranc), telling of Holt's shortcomings and demanding that Monereau be appointed principal.

One parent wrote to The Wave complaining that her son was coerced into signing a student petition asking that Monereau be appointed. She said that a social studies teacher promised a better grade if he signed the petition. School staff denied the charge, but several parents told me similar stories at the time.

After teaching for 33 years, my perception of Monereau was that he was an educational charlatan; more interested in his own career than he was with the students in the school.

I told him that I would not support his candidacy for principal and he angrily left the office.

After John Marcus acted as principal for the remainder of that school year, Barbara Pleener, a white woman, was appointed principal at the beginning of the school year in September.

She was the fourth principal for the troubled school in a little more than a year.

From the beginning, sources tell me, Monereau attempted to undermine Pleener's authority at the school.

At her insistence, Monereau was removed from the school and sent to the Region Five office for reassignment.

Monereau, a member of the Far Rockaway branch of the NAACP and a friend of its president, Ed Williams, reportedly asked the organization for help.

The NAACP called for an emergency meeting on October 15.

"This is outrageous," Williams told New York Post reporter Carl Campanile at the time. "Mr. Monereau is a pillar of the community and the principal has to go."

The lead in the Post story the next day said, "A racially charged battle has exploded at a Rockaway high school, with the NAACP and black leaders calling for the ouster of its new white principal, who bounced a popular black staff member."

Monereau told the paper that he had been removed because he "was too popular with the students."

The morning after the meeting, a number of adults, including Williams and Democratic District Leader Lew Simon picketed the school, demanding Pleener's ouster and Monereau's appointment in her place.

At lunchtime, a number of students walked out of the building in support of Monereau. A number of small fires were set in the building as some students urged others to take to the streets.

The school was in anarchy over the protests started, I believe, by Monereau.

On September 24, we reported a story about Pleener's past problems as principal at Jamaica High School and the charges that she created a sexually hostile environment for a male physical education teacher.

Pleener resigned and David Morris was appointed in her place. Pleener has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education, which is still pending.

Monereau was sent to Middle School 53 to assist principal Ken Graham in setting up for the new school year.

I called Region Five and spoke to superintendent Kathy Cashin about the appointment (those were the days when she was still speaking to me). She told me that it was a temporary assignment and that it would be shortlived; only until a new principal was chosen to replace the retiring Graham. I taught in that building for 25 years and both my son and daughter graduated from that school. I did not want to see Monereau as its principal.

Later that school year, he was made principal.

When the Empowerment Program was started by Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg, Monereau was one of the two principals in Rockaway to be named to the program - a move that game him virtual carte blanche in hiring, firing and budget.

He began to fire long-time staffers who he perceived were not loyal to him.

He gave respected teachers U ratings for not having proper bulletin boards.

The test scores in his building continued to drop.

In January of this year, only 29.1 percent of his sixth grade students read on grade level.

Only 30.3 percent of his seventh graders and 18.6 percent of his eighth graders read on grade level.

For that, he got a "satisfactory" rating from the region and was allowed to hold on to his empowerment status.

This week, MS 53 was named as one of the worst schools in the city, along with two other Queens schools.

They will share $5 million in special funds to assist the school. More money for Monereau to spend any way he wants.

"A principal [on the list] could potentially lose his or her job," a DOE official said. Oh, that it were true.

Next week, the school's Report Card.

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