Icahn 7 Charter School administration, teachers clash over contracts during drama-filled last day of class

Icahn 7 Elementary School, located inside P.S. 93 in Soundview. Photo Emily Swanson
Icahn 7 Elementary School, located inside P.S. 93 in Soundview.
Photo Emily Swanson

At Icahn 7 elementary and middle charter schools in Soundview, teachers and school officials are offering wildly differing accounts of what happened on the last day of classes — when as many as half of all teachers were told not to return in September.

At the elementary school, the staffing dismissals came midway through Friday, June 30. Teachers told the Bronx Times they were not allowed to retrieve belongings from their classrooms or finish out the day with their students — but school officials dispute those accounts and say that the situation was handled “in the best interest of the students.”   

Nonetheless, some parents are sticking by the teachers. Rebecca Tavarez, who has had all four of her children enrolled at Icahn 7, told the Bronx Times that she and her husband were appalled at what she heard. 

“To be escorted out of the building? I’ve only seen that in movies,” she said. 

Although the exact number of teachers affected remains unclear, only a few were left at each building after June 30, according to Icahn 7 middle school Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis, who claims that six to seven teachers were let go from both the elementary and middle schools. The schools began the 2022-2023 year with 24 faculty members, according to an Icahn 7 spokesperson.

The spokesperson told the Bronx Times that the number of teachers remaining on staff was “significantly higher” — off by as much as 50% — and that the amount of dismissals teachers are alleging “ is not accurate.”

The spokesperson said that the school could not confirm the exact number of unfilled vacancies or teachers dismissed, but told the Bronx Times they “are very confident that all the positions will be filled by the beginning of the school year.”

The 2023-24 academic year at Icahn 7 is scheduled to begin on Sept. 11.

The Bronx Times reached out to Gail Golden-Icahn, chair of the school’s board of trustees, and schools Superintendent Edward Tom; Golden-Icahn responded that “as network policy we cannot discuss employment matters.” SUNY’s Charter School Institute, which authorized the Icahn network charter in 2011, also said it was unable to comment on personnel matters and that Icahn operates autonomously in terms of staffing decisions.

But for those let go, the emotional toll remains. 

Kyra Powell, an elementary school teacher at Icahn 7, told the Bronx Times that as she was being let go on June 30, she repeatedly tried to press for an explanation but was only told, “We’re choosing to go in a new direction.”

“I was flabbergasted, honestly,” Powell said.


Test scores

While teachers said they did not receive specifics as to why they were asked not to return in the fall, the school administration indicated that slipping math and English test scores were a major factor.

A July 21 statement from the Icahn 7 spokesperson sent to the Bronx Times read, “[I]t concerned us that Icahn 7 passing rates began to decline for both NYS English and Math exams despite the considerable extra resources the Network provided. As a result, it became necessary to make personnel and systemic changes ahead of the upcoming school year.”

And the New York State Report Card data seems to bolster those claims as Icahn 7 students’ proficiency rates in math and English exams have slipped over the past several years — although they still remain higher than state levels. 

Icahn is a network of seven schools throughout the Bronx with two buildings that house Icahn 7’s elementary and middle schools inside of the city’s Department of Education schools P.S. 93 and 107. According to public records, Icahn 7 opened for instruction in September 2013. 

Charter school teachers can be members of a union, but those who spoke with the Bronx Times said they were not. 

Icahn, like all charter schools, receives funding from the state on a per-pupil basis. But while charter schools are publicly funded and held accountable for achievement goals, they operate independently of the Department of Education. 

New York’s charter schools, a source of longtime controversy, were established in the state in 1998 with the aim of providing more innovative school options. However, the concept has its share of cr​​itics who argue that charter schools lack transparency and dilute the funding pool for neighborhood public schools.

Charter schools operate on open enrollment, meaning they cannot exclude students on the basis of race, gender, academic ability and other factors. According to data from U.S. News and World Report, Icahn 7’s kindergarten through eighth grade student body is 99% minority and 67% economically disadvantaged.


Friday, June 30

On the final day of the school year at Icahn 7’s elementary school, students were supposed to be dismissed at noon. Powell told the Bronx Times that she planned some activities, including “one last group hug,” for her kindergarteners, whose emotions tend to run especially high before summer recess. 

That morning, Powell received an email telling her to bring her students to the auditorium at 10:30 a.m. According to Powell, the email indicated that teachers would have time later to clean their classrooms and wrap things up.

But Powell and others quickly sensed something was wrong. When they got to the auditorium, they were told that anyone who hadn’t already met with administrators was to go upstairs and wait.  

Powell, who had been at the school since March 2022, said it was normal for the principal to meet with teachers at the end of the year to discuss feedback and areas for improvement. A school official confirmed to the Bronx Times that Icahn teachers are on one-year contracts and typically meet with the principal at the end of each year to receive either an offer to renew their contracts or a non-renewal notice. 

But on June 30, when the teachers left their kids in the auditorium, it would be the last they would see of them in the building. Subsequently, the teachers did not meet with the principal but instead the deputy superintendent and a human resources representative. 

Icahn 7 middle school, located inside P.S. 107 in Soundview. Photo Emily Swanson
Icahn 7 middle school, located inside P.S. 107 in Soundview. Photo Emily Swanson

The deputy superintendent said, according to Powell, “Thank you for your service to Icahn 7 this year. However, we’re not asking you to return for the next year. Do you have any questions?” 

She pushed for an explanation and said she was told, “The network has come together and made the decision,” and, “Your contracts technically end today anyway.” 

Powell said the deputy superintendent and HR representative told her that she could not return to her classroom — a point disputed by school officials, however. 

But Powell claims not only was she not allowed to see the students, she was also asked to leave behind classroom items that she had purchased. 

According to Powell, as she and other fired teachers were rushed out of the building, she alleges that school officials told her, “Don’t make us call the police.”

Another elementary teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Bronx Times that when she tried to retrieve items from her classroom, the deputy superintendent said that her belongings would be shipped, and if she didn’t leave, her last paycheck would be withheld. 

But a school spokesperson told the Bronx Times that these accounts are “categorically untrue.”

“No teacher was threatened or prohibited from gathering belongings,” the spokesperson said, adding that the shipping offer was made because some staff had numerous and/or bulky items. 

Throughout the rest of the day’s chaos — as parents came to pick up their kids and gathered with shocked teachers in the parking lot — Powell said the newly-promoted elementary principal, Aisha Beverly, “hid” in a classroom. 

“Not once did she come out, not once did she address any of us,” Powell said.  


Parents react

Over the past nine years, Rebecca Tavarez sent all four of her children to Icahn 7. She also served as a parent representative on the school board. 

Now, she is pulling both of her kids out of the school. 

“It told me the Icahn network does not care about our children,” she said, referring to the mass exodus of teachers. “It made me see (that) this charter network is very corporate.”

Gina Estrada had children enrolled in Icahn 7 for almost the entirety of the school’s existence. She even began working there last fall as a paraprofessional.

But Estrada was among those let go and, like Tavarez, is pulling her eighth grader out of the charter school.

“They feel like they can do whatever they want,” Estrada said. “We put in our 100 percent, and for them to do that to us is wrong.”

But not everyone is taking such drastic steps.

Parking lot and playground at Icahn 7 Elementary School. Photo Emily Swanson
The parking lot and playground at Icahn 7 Elementary School. Photo Emily Swanson

Patricia Austin — an educator who previously worked at Icahn 1 and has twin third graders at Icahn 7 — told the Bronx Times that she plans to keep her kids at the Soundview school.

The family lives about 10 blocks away and had heard from another parent that Icahn 7 was “one of the most successful schools” in the area.

Austin saw it with her own eyes as her kids had a great year. “They were successful academically. We established a great rapport with their teachers. School administration was always wonderful,” she said. “They always communicate and were effective.”

Austin said she was “disappointed” to learn that one of her twins’ teachers wouldn’t be returning come September and that her child was “a little upset and didn’t understand.” But even so, Austin decided to keep them in Icahn 7 this coming school year because she felt their learning wouldn’t be severely impacted. 

Despite her disappointment, Austin said, “If my students are going to return, I don’t want any tension.”

A letter from the superintendent and board chairperson was sent to parents on July 6. The letter stated, “The process of renewing or not renewing personnel contracts is never an easy process…” and given the backlash, “we can assure you this will never happen again.”

The letter continued, “[B]ecause of your feedback and concerns, we will establish a special committee … to review our process and systems.”


Concerning trajectory

Some parents and teachers told the Bronx Times they felt the educational experience at Icahn 7 was in decline even before the mass terminations. What was once a nurturing environment, some said, became hyper-focused on standardized testing with few activities for the kids. 

From her involvement with the school board, Tavarez — the parent whose kids are leaving Icahn 7 — began to perceive glaring inequities within the Icahn network of schools.

She came to believe that the Pelham Parkway campuses (Icahn 3, 4 and 5) “are definitely cared for more.” Tavarez once told Superintendent Tom that Icahn 7 was “treated like a red-headed stepchild.” 

However, a school official told the Bronx Times that “Icahn 7 received more resources this year than every other school [in the network],” without specifying an amount. And spending on instructional personnel for the year ending June 30, 2022, was relatively equal among the campuses, ranging from $2.34 million (Icahn 7) to $2.97 million (Icahn 4).

But a review of 2022 financial documents shows that while the total assets of Icahn 7 increased by $270,512 between 2021 and 2022, the school currently has the lowest assets within the Icahn network.

Chart Emily Swanson

Data from U.S. News and World Report shows Icahn 3, 4 and 5 have similar student demographics to Icahn 7, but census data shows that the communities are far apart in terms of wealth. 

The median income of the Soundview neighborhood of Icahn 7 (Community District 9) is $39,322, while the median income of the Pelham Parkway neighborhood (Community District 11) is $57,394.

An elementary teacher who requested anonymity told the Bronx Times that not only was the school continually low on supplies like paper and ink for printing, it was plagued by understaffing in recent years. 

Schools nationwide are facing a shortage of teachers, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, charter school teachers tend to be younger and more inexperienced, which can lead to high burnout rates. 

While certainly not unique to Icahn 7, turnover there was an issue. Although Icahn 7 started the 2022-2023 year with 24 faculty members, seven resigned during the year and two went on medical leave. It is unclear whether any of those positions were filled by new hires.

Following a difficult end to the school year, Panagiosoulis, the Icahn 7 middle school principal, told the Bronx Times she is worried about the lasting harm of “a revolving door of teachers.” 

“The children are the ones who bear witness and suffer the consequences,” she said.

Reach Emily Swanson at emily.swanson63@journalism.cuny.edu. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes