You’d think a principal would have better sense than to make random cracks about women’s appearances. You’d think a school leader would refrain from walking around cavalierly suggesting teachers retire. You’d think anyone using the bathroom would have the sense to close the door.
If that’s what you think, you probably don’t work at Forest Hills HS.
Forest Hills HS Chapter Leader Adam Bergstein and his members have had a trying time ever since Ben Sherman, who has allegedly done all of the above, became the principal in March 2017. With the full support of the UFT, Bergstein and his chapter have been fighting back. Forest Hills HS has long had a reputation as one of the best schools in the city, and union members at the school want to keep it that way.
Staff members passed a vote of no confidence in Sherman on Feb. 14. They are determined to keep up the pressure until they can save their school community by removing Sherman. The school’s parent association agrees that Sherman must go and has written a letter to the superintendent asking for a new principal.
“Forest Hills educators are fighting for what’s best for their students and school community,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “They are not going to stand by and let a successful school be ruined. By coming together, they are making sure that their voices are heard.”
How did Forest Hills get to this point? Bergstein recalls a school leadership team meeting in the 2017–18 school year at which he challenged the principal’s decision to eliminate one-on-one tutoring as a Circular 6 assignment for teachers. When several parents agreed with Bergstein, Sherman announced, “I’m the principal, and I can do what I want.”
The school community wanted better answers. The way Sherman rebuffed Bergstein spoke to a pattern of ignoring the voices of teachers at the school. Sherman’s disrespect for teachers has led to an erosion of the overall school culture, UFT members say.
Safety has been a persistent problem since the new principal’s arrival. Sherman, a graduate of former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s notorious Leadership Academy, removed aides from the exits and bathrooms, suggesting they could be better deployed elsewhere. To ensure students could come and go as they please, he also turned off all the door alarms. Consequently, disputes that began in the school building tended to spill out into the neighborhood.
The final straw was Sherman’s ongoing permissiveness of student marijuana use, which “promoted a Wild West environment,” said Bergstein. Staff noticed a rise in pot smoking around the building. When multiple UFT members reported the pot smoking, Sherman shrugged it off, telling them that pot was legal in a lot of states and would soon be legal here.
Sherman, facing the no confidence vote by staff, decided to restore some aides to their positions, but reports of pot smoking all over the building continue.
Forest Hills HS members report that Sherman is often shut away in his office. In fact, he is so intent on avoiding staff that he fails to hold faculty meetings. He says he’s heckled at meetings, a charge Bergstein vehemently denies.
The DOE hid its face in the sand and pretended everything was fine. The UFT chapter members at Forest Hills HS reached out to the press, and their story was covered twice in the New York Post (the first article on the pot smoking and the second on the no-confidence vote), the Queens Chronicle and The Chief. Bill de Blasio, while in Iowa, had to answer a question about pot smoking at Forest Hills HS. On “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Fallon mentioned the pot epidemic in a monologue. After all this publicity, the DOE has appointed a new supervisor for the principal, but has curiously left Sherman in place.
Bergstein credits UFT members at the school for their patience and persistence. “Not a thing would have happened if we didn’t have the 200 members working together,” he said. “Without membership, this would’ve fizzled out.”
Bergstein hopes their model will encourage other UFT school chapters to fight back against bad principals.
“Through their organizing campaign, the UFT chapter at Forest Hills HS has taken collective action in support of their students and their award-winning school,” said UFT Vice President for Academic High Schools Janella Hinds, who has visited the school several times. “Their activism serves as an inspiration for all educators across New York City.”
Several elected officials, at the invitation of UFT’s Queens borough office, met with staff on March 8. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, City Council member Karen Koslowitz and State Assemblyman Dan Rosenthal all had words of support for the beleaguered UFT members.
“We know you’ve been fighting the fight, we know you’ve been bullied,” said Katz. “We didn’t want you to think you were on your own.”
Bergstein says the fight with the principal has brought UFT members together and empowered them. “Staff members have pride in belonging to a union,” he said. “This has reinforced how important the union is to workers’ rights. People who would normally never say anything are speaking out and glad to be part of the union.”
UFT Staff Director and Assistant Secretary LeRoy Barr said the chapter is fighting on behalf of the entire school community. “Despite the anger, these members are totally vested in not just the survival of the school, but also the continued academic growth of the students,” he said. “They want the school to continue to be a pillar of the community, and they will do everything they can to turn it around.”
In early March, when Barr and UFT Queens Borough Representative Amy Arundell went to meet with the chapter, more than 200 members showed up.
Bergstein is grateful that the UFT has supported the chapter’s organizing efforts from the beginning.
The question now becomes: Is the DOE intent on serving the interests of the parents, students and teachers of New York City, or is it still all about protecting principals?