The DOE Called This Queens School Newspaper "Fake News." The Students Responded With Journalism
Classic editors Mehrose Ahmad (center) and Sumaita Hasan (center right) livestream an interview with sit-in organizer Erela Datuowe.
Last week, the staff of the Classic, the student newspaper at Flushing's Townsend Harris High School, gathered in a third-floor hallway to discuss a plan of attack for reporting on a decision that could change their school forever. Following allegations that interim principal Rosemarie Jahoda had berated individual teachers, ignored students with disabilities at her previous high school, and bungled the handling of an Islamophobic incident at Townsend Harris, the New York City Department of Education was bringing in candidates who might replace her. The staff of the Classic, which had reported for months on the controversy, had decided to take it upon themselves to meet the contenders.
Classic editors Mehrose Ahmad and Sumaita Hasan explained that reporters would be stationed at every entrance of the school, while the two editors would host a Facebook livestream from a student sit-in happening outside the office where candidate interviews were being held. Photos of the candidates had been distributed to the student reporters so they could identify them on sight. Suddenly, the hallway fell silent: A candidate had arrived, and Classic news editor Aly Tantawy was already grilling him.
"How are you going to help the students of this school move past the controversy of the past few months?" Tantawy asked. The candidate, who had come from the Bronx, answered confidently — perhaps he'd been warned of an ambush from this fastidious team of student journalists, whose dogged reporting on their own school's alleged dysfunction had hurried the process of which this candidate was now a part.
For years, the Classic had focused on the regular beats of a high school newspaper — teacher retirements, curriculum changes, bell schedule. It was not an investigative outlet. But with Jahoda's appointment, the very nature of the school appeared to be imperiled, and the paper's staff decided it was time to step in. "The seriousness of the allegations [against Ms. Jahoda] kept on building up," Ahmad told me. "We needed some answers from Ms. Jahoda, and she kept not responding to our requests. So we needed to pursue and continue to investigate so we could write stories that evoke a response not only from Ms. Jahoda, but from the community as well."
Jahoda had arrived at Townsend Harris at the beginning of the school year, after the previous principal abruptly left to run a nearby high school. The DOE took the opportunity to install Jahoda as the interim principal after her rocky nine-year tenure as an assistant principal at Bronx Science, another elite public high school, which had culminated in an official complaint in which twenty teachers referred to Jahoda as a "dictator."
Immediately, she made her presence known at Townsend Harris with a crackdown on lax regulatory enforcement. The school consistently earns high national rankings, reflecting heavy student workloads and nearly nonexistent misbehavior. So administrators and teachers did not follow procedures as strictly as their counterparts at other schools — essentially a perk for the high-performing, constantly stressed student body. Jahoda disagreed, abruptly canceling an after-school field trip over missing paperwork and aggressively clashing with faculty about the minutiae of other regulations. Frustrations reached a head in December, when students staged a sit-in in a hallway outside of classrooms while a deputy superintendent, Leticia Pineiro, toured the school following the complaints against Jahoda. When Pineiro got into an argument with protesting students, the Classic was there to livestream the encounter. From there, the story took off.
"It wasn't my idea to do the livestream, or anything really," said Classic faculty adviser Brian Sweeney, an English teacher. "The student journalists were the ones who kept pushing this story along, kept asking questions, and stayed in school late to keep reporting."
An interim principal who wants the job usually gets it. But in the weeks following the December sit-in, the Classic reported that Jahoda had ignored discrimination against Muslim students at Townsend Harris; the paper also published an exclusive interview with the mother of a visually impaired Bronx Science student who said Jahoda had refused to provide her child necessary services. The Daily News and the Post picked up Ahmad and Hasan's reporting. Local politicians and alumni grew alarmed that Jahoda was poised to lead a school known for its diverse student body. In response, the DOE put the process "under investigation," then announced a complete restart after a pointed demand from the PTA, promising to "continue to listen to feedback from this school community."
But it did not react kindly to the Classic's coverage. According to a letter written by State Assembly Members David Weprin and Nily Rozic, at a recent District Leadership meeting a DOE representative called the Classic "fake news" while defending Jahoda. The paper's editors were astonished to hear a representative from the city's supposedly inclusive school system parroting Donald Trump. "We both felt very disparaged," Hasan told me. "While we're still students, I think what we're doing is real reporting, and it shouldn't be belittled in any way."
"Being called 'fake news' just motivates us," Ahmad added. "We now have even more questions than we began with, and we want to prove ourselves even more."
Jahoda herself has proven an elusive subject. Earlier this year, students waited outside her office for several hours after repeated requests for an interview had been denied. Their principal said she was busy and briskly avoided interviewers while exiting the building. Finally, two weeks ago, they got an interview, but still, access remained limited. Jahoda had banned media from covering Wednesday's sit-in (this reporter was allowed entry by virtue of being an alumnus) and wouldn't discuss several topics during the interview with the Classic.
Sweeney, the adviser, wonders if the paper will be able to keep reporting so independently if Jahoda is installed as the permanent principal. While the Classic's charter promises that Townsend's administration won't interfere with coverage, students would most likely self-censor criticism of the person responsible for running the school and releasing transcripts to colleges.
Back outside the candidate interview office, where students were still protesting, Ahmad summoned Hasan excitedly from across the hall. Their first FOIA, which requested that the DOE disclose who applied for the principal position, had just been denied — a frustration to which professional journalists across the city are accustomed. Despite the rejection, the two students together held Ahmad's phone as if it contained precious cargo, beaming at having gotten a response.
"Maybe we'll file an appeal," Hasan said. "Who knows? The answers are out there."
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