No room for ghosts in Yonkers schools

Yonkers, a district with a troubled past, stakes it future on a no-nonsense native son
By: | Issue: May, 2015
April 27, 2015

On the top floor of a new building overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York, just north of the Bronx, Superintendent Michael Yazurlo settles in his office after returning from reading Dr. Suess’ ABC to special education elementary students.

He sits at his desk, which is clearly missing a computer, and keeps his iPhone3 within arm distance, sometimes chewing on what looks like a plastic straw.

The office phone rings, and Yazurlo picks up. “Let’s wait until 12 or 1 and see what the weather looks like,” he says to one of his assistant superintendents. “I’m not cancelling any school activities until later. We have to wait until at least noon.”

Yazurlo, who is “Dr. Y” to his students, hangs up. “The sun is going to be out in a few minutes,” he says, knowing the threat of snow later on makes some parents and teachers worry. “I don’t trust the weathermen. They have millions of dollars of equipment and they can’t figure it out.”

The superintendent of Yonkers Public SchoolsÑwhich has 27,000 students (most of whom are poor, minority)Ñhas a big job in a complicated city that is one of the “Big 5” largest urban districts in the state. It has the highest graduation rate, 76 percent, of all the Big 5, which includes New York City, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. Geographically, Yonkers is part of Westchester County, which has some of the wealthiest districts in the nation.

But Yonkers, where more than 100 languages are spoken among its students, is highly underfunded by the state, Yazurlo says. The 2014-15 budget is nearly $523 million, but Yazurlo is battling with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature to give his district $89 million more, and to change the funding formula so Yonkers gets a greater piece of the pie.

In early April, Cuomo announced a budget proposal that left a $28 million hole in the school budget, which left Yazurlo saying he’d have to make deep, significant cuts.

The increase in state money that Yazurlo had wanted would not provide extra academic programs or electives. It would bring the district back to 2010 staffing levels, though the district has 2,000 more students than it did then, Yazurlo says. And he wants to be compared against higher-achieving districts, such as those in the more affluent areas of Westchester.

“I’m asking the state to provide funding to allow my students the same opportunities that other districts have,” Yazurlo says. “I have asked the board, the public, the teachers to no longer consider us as part of the Big 5. I want to be held accountable against Westchester standards. Why not?”

Yazurlo knows it sounds like “audacity,” but he calls it passion. He continues to explain how he “really” feels about the politics, but Public Information Officer Jerilynne Fierstein, sitting nearby, playfully shushes Yazurlo at times, so his honesty doesn’t get him into trouble.

Yonkers Public Schools stats

Schools: 38
Students: Nearly 27,000
Demographics: 56% Hispanic; 20% black; 18% white; 5.5% Asian; 0.5% other or multiracial

Yazurlo smiles and continues to talk. The increased state money would fix a few major problems. In decaying district buildings, with an average age of 74 years, some windows don’t open, some toilets don’t flush and broken boilers leave students and staff cold. Gas smells forced evacuations at three schools this winter when pilot lights blew out on kitchen ovens because the district doesn’t have enough custodians to conduct regular maintenance.

Yazurlo wants smaller classesÑnot the 30-plus kids in classrooms now. The district also needs more ELL and special education teachers. As for psychologists and social workers, Yonkers’ student-to-professional ratio is more than 1,000 to 1, far beyond the recommended numbers.

On top of all that, Yonkers is a city with a turbulent legacy. In the 1980s and 90s, it was torn apart by a complex desegregation case.

In 1985, a federal judge ordered the city to build low-income housing to better integrate the racially-divided community and its schools. The city government’s agreement to heed the order, after months of fighting it, divided its residents, spawning protests, bomb scares and even death threats against public officials.

The city’s desegregation saga was so riveting and controversial that it spawned a book, Show Me A Hero, by former New York Times reporter and local resident Lisa Belkin. That book about Yonkers is now being produced as a series by HBO, and will be broadcast later this year, starring Jim Belushi, Oscar Isaac, Winona Ryder and Catherine Keener.

The Yonkers district was a defendant in the federal desegregation case, along with the city itself, and Yazurlo was an educator in Yonkers then, with a ground-zero view of the disruption that the case caused in the city and its schools.

Imagine that

But Yazurlo’s ties to Yonkers go back much further, to 1949, when he was born in the city. His mother was a housewife and his father was a part-time musician who worked in insurance.

He grew up with two younger siblings. When he was in first grade, the family moved to Ardsley, New York, just 15 minutes north of Yonkers. He attended parochial schools and played drums in the Archbishop Stepinac High School marching band.

Dr. Y’s Favorite things

Teacher: Mr. Solanto, chemistry teacher at Archbishop Stepinac

Pastime: Music, playing drums at home

Sports: New York Giants and New York Yankees

City: Yonkers

Travel destination: Caribbean: “I can’t wait to go to Cuba … once they lift the travel restrictions.”

Dessert: Chocolate cake, but he’s not supposed to have any for health reasons

Books: Anything on educational leadership and classroom techniquesÑor biographies

Facebook or Twitter: “He hates the computer,” his assistant says with a laugh. Yazurlo explains that his iPhone is used only as a calendar for meetings and events.

Heroes: His father; big band drummer Gene Krupa; and boxer Muhammad Ali

Yazurlo continued playing drums in nightly gigs with his father and uncle to help pay for college. He attended New York Institute of Technology and received his master of science and doctorate of education degrees from Fordham University.

Over the next four decades, he would go back and forth to Yonkers schools, returning first as a science teacher, and then in administrative positions. He left education to help his brother run an auto body repair shop for a few years.

Then, in 1988, when the vitriol about the desegregation case was at its worst, he returned as assistant principal of Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, and became principal nearly two years later.

Roosevelt High School sits right in the middle of Yonkers, and it was at the epicenter of the east-side/west-side desegregation battle. So it was a testament to his leadership when, in 1991, he was named administrator of the year by the city’s Board of Education and the Yonkers Rotary Club.

Yazurlo stayed in Yonkers until 1998, when he became superintendent of nearby Tuckahoe Public Schools. In 2011, he retired and settled back in Yonkers with his wife, when soon after he learned about an alleged $55 million accounting error in the Yonkers district.

He called Mayor Mike Spano and asked if he could help in any way. Spano asked if he would consider being interim school superintendent. Yazurlo, who always wanted to be Yonkers’ chief, met with board members and was approved as interim superintendent in February 2014.

He moved quickly. He created “SMART” goalsÑan acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. A few months after taking over, he asked the board to give him the real power to make things happen. He received a two-year contract worth $199,000 per year, which runs through June 30, 2016.

Historic changes

While fighting the state is a big challenge, Yazurlo says the desegregation case was equally as grueling. The east side of Yonkers was and still is mostly white and middle class with some affluent areas, and the west sideÑjust a few blocks from the sprawling new buildings where Yazurlo worksÑis where poor and minority residents live. And most residents of the east side wanted to keep it that way.

Yonkers City Council voted Aug. 1, 1988 to defy the judge’s order to build 200 low-income units in the east side. But just 41 days later, after accruing millions of dollars in fines, the city agreed to comply, according to Show Me a Hero.

Superintendent Yazurlo’s opinions

Testing: “I don’t believe in state testing, I don’t think it has any credibility or reliability. Most of the school day now is spent on ELA and math. The students don’t get much science or social studies. They think Albanians come from Albany.”

Common Core: “The Common Core is poorly planned and poorly implemented. And we get rave reviews from the state that we’re doing it better than anyone.”

Board relations: “I maintain positive board relations. The biggest part of a superintendent’s job is to educate the board as to what’s important and why.”

Teacher tenure: “I believe in tenure. Some people are good teachers. But I need great teachers.”

Transportation: Yazurlo has a committee studying how the district can improve bus routes, some of which take up to an hour to complete. “Transportation is too expensive. I’d much rather be spending money on children while they are in school rather than getting to and from school.”

Yazurlo was then assistant principal of Roosevelt High School, which had been historically mostly white.

“Roosevelt really felt the transition because prior to that, few black families lived there,” he says. “When desegregation hit, public school buses would come in droves down Tuckahoe Road and drop off hundreds of black and Hispanic kids. The neighborhood wasn’t ready for it, and I’m not sure the teachers were ready for it. It happened quickly.”

Yazurlo was in charge of discipline. Most problems at the school stemmed from turf fights between students who had come from Yonkers High School, which had closed down and later became a middle school, and their new classmates from Lincoln High School. They both wanted “to rule” the school, he recalls.

But extracurricular sports and music programs became the dominant forces that ended the turf conflict. Soon enough, the students bonded “and nobody beat Roosevelt [football]. We went to sectionals and regional playoffs and the state championship,” Yazurlo says.

Straight talk

A week before he became principal in 1990, Yazurlo says the state listed Roosevelt High as failing. Only 7 percent of students were passing the Regents Competency Test in math and English language arts. The test was given to students who couldn’t pass the full Regents exam.

That year, he gathered all the teachers and asked them to reach out to students, even the unruly ones. “I need you as teachers to take an interest with the kids,” he recalls telling them. “Spend a few extra minutes with them. Stand outside your classroom door. Welcome them. Don’t slam the door in their faces.”

At the end of the school year, 70 percent of students were passing the competency test. And suspensions declined, attendance increased and hallways were empty during instructional time.

A couple of years later, the construction of low-income housing on the east side reignited community tensions. Yazurlo said many store owners and drivers on Tuckahoe RoadÑthe main commercial strip in that part of the cityÑwere not ready to welcome minorities. He gathered all 1,500 students in the gymnasium one day and told them some residents “think you are savages and animals.”

He told them to rise above the prejudice and stop crossing in front of drivers in the street or cursing at motorists. “Come to school on time. In the morning before school, don’t hang around the strip mall and smoke cigarettes and throw garbage on the ground. If you want people to think about you differently and respect you, then act with respect.”

He then told the students to hold their hands up in solidarity. Some students’ heads were down, and others were crying with emotion after that speech, and all hands went up, he says.

Yazurlo walked the schools’ hallways, visited the cafeteria to talk to students, and attended most school events and gamesÑeven soccer games, which he said he didn’t understand, and still doesn’t.

Avoiding a “bloodbath”

But in between the successes, the district still had its problems. A student who had just transferred from BrooklynÑand who had a criminal background that administrators were unaware ofÑstabbed a student in the school hallway. Fear and anger spread through the school.

Yazurlo called his studentsÑnow numbering 1,700Ñback to the gym. You could hear a pin drop as soon as he walked to the middle of the floor.

“I’m not supposed to do this, but we need help,” he says he told the students. “So whatever god you pray to, or whatever you believe in, let’s pray to get through this. We don’t want people to see Roosevelt as a bad school. This is a good place. Show me how good we are by regaining our good name.”

And they left the gym quiet, orderly and calm. PIO Fierstein, who worked with Yazurlo when they were both teachers in the 1970s, adds that Yazurlo had the respect of all those students. “He knew how to take a situation and turn it around,” she says. “What could have been a bloodbath, he made it so the kids had to own it. They had to straighten their own act out.”

Looking ahead, aside from improving the graduation rate to 80 percent and literacy so all students are reading on grade level by grade 3, Yazurlo has also made raising ELA and math scores in grades 3 through 5 a priority.

“I always think it sounds hokey, but it’s notÑit’s in my heart. I always wanted to work in a diverse population,” he says. “I wanted to work with kids with disadvantages, in poverty, with language or special needs. Those kids are the ones who excite me and I want to do the most for.”

While Yazurlo has no aspirations to be mayor or serve in political office (although people have asked him to run in the past), he hopes to be superintendent for at least three or four more years to reach his goals. “

What people might not know about me is that I don’t quit,” he says. “I’m a pit bull. There really is nothing I would not do to improve the opportunities for children.”

Angela Pascopella is managing editor.