Former Pittsburgh principal to lead Boston English

Struggling school divided on change

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is pushing ahead with the ouster of English High School’s longtime headmaster and has named a replacement in hope of turning around the beleaguered school.

Sito Narcisse, 33, a former French teacher who has worked for a year as a principal in Pittsburgh, will start his new duties next Wednesday. He replaces Jose Duarte, who has led the school since 2000.

Narcisse, who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh, will confront immense challenges in taking over leadership of English High, which has been operating under the threat of a state closure for the last two years. Poor standardized test scores and graduation rates have dimmed this one-time prestigious institute, which proudly presents itself as America’s oldest public high school.

The Globe chronicled Duarte’s efforts to improve the school in a yearlong series.

The staff has been bitterly divided on the need for new leadership at English. Some of Duarte’s supporters had been lobbying the superintendent, the School Committee, and the state to keep Duarte on the job, arguing that he has been effective; other staff members had been pushing quietly for change.

Narcisse said English High staff gave him a warm reception when he visited the school for the first time on Monday, about a week after accepting the job. He said he was told only recently about the controversy surrounding Duarte’s departure.

“People seem committed to continuous improvement, and they have a lot of enthusiasm,’’ said Narcisse. “It’s a great opportunity to lead the oldest public high school in the nation.’’

Narcisse and Duarte will initially work together to ensure a smooth transition and already have begun meeting.

Sandra McIntosh, the school’s parent coordinator and a key Duarte supporter, said she hoped the new headmaster was not being set up for failure. She expressed concern about his brief administrative experience while noting the complexity of running a large high school with its various political factions.

In Pittsburgh, Narcisse served as the principal of a start-up middle and high school, which opened last September with 150 ninth-graders and 14 full-time teachers. English High, by contrast, has about 850 students and 77 teachers, according to state data. Previously, he served one year as an assistant high school principal outside Pittsburgh.

“We’ll have to give him a chance,’’ McIntosh said. “He came across as a very nice man.’’

Johnson has remained silent about her decision to remove Duarte. In a letter to the English staff dated June 18, Johnson thanked him for his efforts, saying, “He has worked many hours to ensure that excellent teaching and learning occur for all children at English High, and he will be missed.’’

Before introducing Narcisse to the staff at an after-school meeting on Monday, Irvin Scott, who oversees the district’s high school improvement efforts, made a point to first applaud Duarte’s work. He then explained how Narcisse would build upon Duarte’s turnaround efforts.

“We are going to do everything we can to ensure his success and trust everyone will do the same,’’ Scott said in an interview a day after the staff meeting.

Duarte initially had a year, starting in September 2007, to show signs of a school turnaround in order to keep his job. Johnson then gave him another year. The first year of state standardized test results, released last fall, showed mixed results.

Duarte did not return phone calls for comment. Last night, Johnson announced that he will become principal of Henry Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury.

Strong leadership is critical at English High, which is participating in a three-year-old experimental state program that, if successful, could offer a cure for ailing schools. The program, which focuses on schools threatened with a state takeover, allows principals of schools to work under looser teacher contract rules and district regulations in hopes of fostering innovation.

One key aspect of English High’s turnaround plan is a partnership with Boston University and developing other partnerships.

It’s an area of expertise for Narcisse, who did his doctoral dissertation on school and community partnerships. The Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 University Preparatory School, where he was principal, had a partnership with University of Pittsburgh.

Narcisse announced his resignation in Pittsburgh in April after his wife accepted a residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Narcisse, who was born and raised in New York, said the couple views Boston as an ideal city to settle in.

As a son of Haitian immigrants, Narcisse said he is looking forward to working with the large number of immigrant and first-generation American students at English High.

But some remain disappointed about Duarte’s departure.

“He’s not going under the right circumstances,’’ said Peter Powilatis, a trustee of the English High School Association of Boston, an alumni group. “I think he has done a good job, and there’s no reason why he should be leaving. If he was doing a poor job, that would be another matter. Be that as it may, it’s now up to the new person, and we’ll see what he can do.’’