When asked what she does for a living, Joyce Saly tells people that she took an early retirement from her 39-year career in the New York City school system. The reality, however, was that she was forced out abruptly after a cheating controversy.
Saly was principal of P.S. 58, a thriving elementary school in Carroll Gardens, when she was blamed for a testing scandal and cut loose in April 2006. For a year and half, the energetic 60-year-old has been doggedly trying to prove her innocence and simultaneously take down her former assistant principal, who she says is the real culprit of a test day gone bad.
“I knew a grave injustice was done, and that was my whole purpose here—to discover what they had done and expose it,” says Saly.
Largely because of Saly’s determination, what started as a cheating scandal over a fifth-grade test has snowballed into multiple investigations of alleged favoritism, scapegoating, and cover-ups. More than a year and half later, two of the investigations that sprouted from a simple testing issue still have no conclusion. All this despite the fact that P.S. 58’s fifth graders (now in seventh grade) were never asked to retake the test at the origin of the controversy. As usual, the kids’ education (isn’t that still the mission of the education department?) has been overshadowed by the bureaucratic quagmire of personnel disputes.
Flash back to December 2005: Saly was out on medical leave. Filling in was assistant principal Patricia Peterson, who was also the test coordinator for the school. An important state exam was a month away, and parents were getting anxious. A teacher would later testify that she got Peterson’s approval to send home copies of an old test as part of a fourth-grade practice exam. When Saly returned from medical leave in January, she claims she found a stack of similar fifth-grade practice tests on her desk. She distributed the copies dutifully, she says, not thinking that anything was amiss. By this time, Peterson, the assistant principal and test coordinator, had jumped ship—she left P.S. 58 for a pay raise as coordinator of the region’s Gifted and Talented program.
When the big test day arrived in January 2006, students and teachers realized the questions on the exam were suspiciously familiar. As it turned out, the practice test that Saly had passed out, as well as the fourth-grade practice test given out weeks earlier, contained some of the exact same questions as the current exam. At best, it was a careless mistake during a chaotic time at the school; at worst, someone had attempted to artificially inflate the kids’ grades by giving them a sneak peek at the test questions. The education department investigated and issued a report that blamed Saly. Despite a significant outcry from parents, Saly was forced to leave. The education department then declared the case closed.
In the year and a half since her ouster, Saly has dug up documentation that, she says, proves her innocence. She has also tracked down records damning her second-in-command, Peterson, who was never investigated or punished for her role in the test snafu.
“They allowed [Peterson] to be above the law” because she was connected with higher-ups at the education department, says Saly. In fact, education-department records do suggest a pattern of preferential treatment. For example, Peterson was ushered into her new job in the Gifted and Talented program apparently without being technically qualified or even applying for the job. The education department has no record of Peterson’s job application, and her appointment to the position was announced before the application period had ended, suggesting that she was allowed to bypass the selection process completely. Further, an e-mail from Human Resources explicitly stated that Peterson did not have the proper licensing for the job at the time of her appointment. Peterson did not return calls to her office seeking comment. (Since the regions were dissolved this summer, Peterson is now in a position at a Brooklyn learning center.)
Saly and a handful of her supporters repeatedly complained to the education department about these discoveries, as well as the inequity of the testing investigation, prompting two new investigations. According to an education-department spokesperson, investigators are looking into several claims: that the original investigation was done improperly; that Peterson did not have the proper licensing while she was an assistant principal; and that administrators allowed Peterson to bypass the regular selection process when they promoted her to a new job.
Saly says she expects to be exonerated next month, when she’s been told that one of the investigations will finally conclude. The education department, however, won’t confirm that time frame or comment on any of the allegations because they are, of course, part of an ongoing investigation. In the meantime, there’s only one thing that the test-taking children of P.S. 58 could have possibly learned from all of this: school sucks.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2007