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‘Hostile’ environment in Jackson Heights school prompts teacher exodus and parent concern

Oct. 26, 2023 By Haidee Chu and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY

 

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Back-to-school anxieties are mounting at P.S. 398 in Queens in an ongoing standoff between its faculty and principal, at a school named after a revered local labor leader.

The school’s United Federation of Teachers chapter filed a grievance complaint in January alleging anti-union actions by the principal of the Héctor Figueroa School, where teachers have complained about what they call a “hostile” and unhealthy environment they say affects students.

Several teachers quit after they were advised by school principal Erica Ureña-Thus to transfer schools, they said. Another teacher was dismissed over the summer.

In 20 letters sent to schools chancellor David Banks in June, staffers called out what they described as a “downward trend of disorganization and lack of communication that brings along with it disrespectful comments.”

The main complaint: They say Ureña-Thus second-guessed and micromanaged their work while making erratic decisions, making it difficult for them to serve their multicultural students.

In their letters to Banks, two staff described witnessing Ureña-Thus personally calling the state’s child welfare hotline with what they described as a “fabricated” story involving a student. They alleged she did so to prove that a social worker at the school was incompetent after the social worker had called in a report that the state concluded didn’t warrant opening a case.

Another staff member wrote Banks to say that Ureña-Thus had announced through the school’s public address system that “We have a doggie in the hallway” because a young student had innocently used a urinal for his bowel movement.

A third said Ureña-Thus asked students performing in a concert to not recite remarks they had prepared in Bengali — a language spoken by many in Jackson Heights — leaving some students and their parents feeling ostracized.

Ureña-Thus and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principal’s union, did not respond to THE CITY’s questions.

Principal Erica Ureña-Thus speaks at P.S. 398 in Jackson Heights.

City Department of Education spokesperson Chyann Tull said in a statement that the agency was investigating the situation at P.S. 398 and that “providing a safe and supportive environment” for everyone in the city’s schools is the agency’s “highest priority.”

“We take all allegations seriously, and are conducting a thorough review,” Tull said.The district superintendent is providing support to the school while we prepare to welcome students into an environment that centers learning, growth and development.”

Five of the school’s 32 faculty members have left since the end of the school year. When school begins on Sept. 7, it will be without the librarian, interim acting assistant principal, or teachers for art, music and physical education students were familiar with from last year.

“I’m just worried from now until the first day of school, how many more teachers are going to leave?” said PTA president Victoria Medelius, who says she is concerned about morale at the school. “I think it’s important to have a very positive, nurturing environment for these children, because otherwise everything is going to fall by the wayside.”

Teachers who signed the letters and still work at the school declined to comment. United Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Alison Gendar said “educators at the school will not tolerate harassment or retaliation against fellow union members.”

“Teachers simply want to teach and build on the learning and enrichment that they have established at P.S. 398,” Gendar said. “However, the erratic and inconsistent leadership at the school has prompted many wonderful educators and staff to leave, which is a loss for students and the entire school community.”

Melissa Zavala, a parent with two children at P.S. 398, recalled to THE CITY how upset her 9-year-old was to hear that her two favorite teachers would not be returning in the fall — how she would miss reading with the librarian and playing Jedi mind tricks with gym teacher and fellow Star Wars fan Mr. Thai.

“It’s hard enough for kids to go to school for the next academic year expecting change, but then this much change — how much change are we going to be expecting?” said Zavala. “Now we’re wondering what else is going to happen. I mean, is this instability built into the school at this point?”

Héctor’s Legacy

P.S. 398 first opened its doors in 2019 and currently serves children from 3K to fourth grade. The school is closely linked to the labor movement: Its namesake is Héctor Figueroa, the late labor leader who crusaded for a $15 minimum wage in fast food and beyond and was president of 32BJ SEIU until his untimely death in 2019 at age 57.

Erica Ureña-Thus was the founding principal and steered the school through the COVID shutdown and remote learning.

Then a personal health crisis struck: in August 2021, she had a stroke, and took a seven-month leave of absence to recover. She has been open with the school community about her health challenges and identifies proudly as a stroke survivor.

Parents and teachers say they are sympathetic but still want a reckoning with her leadership. Gym teacher Terry Thai worked at the school since it opened but said he was dismissed by Ureña-Thus this summer after receiving an “ineffective” rating from her.

“Her demeanor has always been there, it’s just that it took maybe a month or two for her to show her true color,” Thai told THE CITY, referring to Ureña-Thus. “But she’s always been the same person as she was from the very beginning.”

Her interference took a turn for the worse, however, after Ureña-Thus came back from her medical leave.

Thai said he lost not only his job but his teaching license this summer, after clashing with Ureña-Thus. “She opened up a case to have the superintendent step in to discontinue my service,” he said.

In his letter to the chancellor, Thai recalled asking the principal for permission to take recess indoors into the gym on a below-freezing day. By the following week, Thai said, Ureña-Thus had removed him from his head of recess duty, and left the children with only school aides during that play time.

She also insisted on having kids play on the 34th Avenue Open Street, he added, over his objection that kids were injuring themselves on the rough road surface.

“You give her an inch and she takes a yard,” Thai said, adding: “She put the students at risk — their safety at risk — for her own aims.”

He said he is convinced Ureña-Thus retaliated against him for pushing back, as well as for signing onto the grievance against her.

Thai said in his letter that he had received mostly “effective” and “highly effective” ratings for his instructions just days before he signed onto the collective grievance. But less than two weeks after the complaint, he was rated as “ineffective” and “developing” across the board — which he saw as a “clear sign of retaliation.”

Daniel Gomez, whose son attends the school, says he is concerned about the climate, after hearing that students went outdoors for a fire drill without their coats last winter. Another time, he said, he had to explain to his 5-year-old why the school had suddenly canceled a field trip scheduled for the next day.

“We’re just concerned that they’re maybe not using the best of their resources,” said Gomez. “Like, why are teachers leaving if everything is so great?”

Councilmember Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens), who represents the district, said his office has received “multiple concerning reports from parents and teachers regarding leadership issues at the school” and that “we take them very seriously.”

Some parents say that they hope to see leadership shifts. “At a minimum, I think there has to be more of a formal assistant principal in place — someone with experience and actual power to be a buffer for teachers,” said PTA secretary Rich Stein.

Zavala said she sympathizes with how the principal’s “massive health issue has set her at a disadvantage.”

“I’m sure she has struggled, with fatigue, with frustrations over her new limits, and even all of the emotions that go with illness or disease,” Zavala said. “Having to deal with her own personal and physical conditions and still respond to the duties demanded by her job must represent a real challenge. I feel for her in this regard.”

Still, she said she had considered transferring her children to another school, but there’s a waitlist for the dual Spanish/English language program she’s seeking.

“For now, I feel like I have to ride this out,” she said.

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