Chinese Student at Townsend Harris Awarded for Ousting Principal

Alex Chen at the podium at his graduation (Photo via World Journal)

At the June 23 graduation ceremony of Townsend Harris High School, which just emerged from a maelstrom that eventually led to the head of the school being replaced, Alex Chen, president of the student council, was honored with a “Student Leader” award for leading the fight against the former principal. City Council member Nily Rozic, an alumna of the school, called Chen a model president of the student council. Mehrose Ahmad and Sumaita Hasan, editors of The Classic, the student newspaper, were also honored with “School Service” awards for the roles they played in the movement.

Last year, complaints had been rising against former interim acting principal Rosemarie Jahoda for not respecting the school’s humanities tradition, changing programs and curriculums without input from teachers and parents, and neglecting to address the unfair treatment minority students suffered. Students held peaceful protests and rallies. And they signed letters together with elected officials [addressed] to the Department of Education calling on the DOE to not appoint Jahoda as principal. They won the battle in May when the DOE selected a new principal for the school.

Chen said he received many complaints from students against Jahoda since he became president of the student council last September. And when he looked into the situation, he believed Jahoda was not a good choice to be the principal. So he started to lead protests. Chen said he was under enormous pressure at that time, worried the protest would end up in vain. Fortunately he got the support of teachers, students and parents, under which he organized the first big protest in the school’s history last December. The protesters kept communicating with the DOE and elected officials until their request was fulfilled.

Chen said his parents are immigrants from Taiwan. At first, they worried there would be retaliation against their son for the role he played in the movement. “My parents reminded me to make sure things wouldn’t get out of control. They worried there would be physical conflicts. Other than that, they supported me wholeheartedly,” he said. Chen, who will be attending Baruch College in the fall, told young people like him to “be persistent as long as you believe you are doing the right thing.”

Brian Condon, the new principal who took the position in May, praised the courage of the students of the class of 2017. “You fought for what you believed and what you valued. You resisted against someone who was trying to break the order and the culture. You made New York City greater. You may not be the city’s creators, but you are its real watchmen,” said Condon. He also encouraged students to always be grateful, give back to society, treat others with love, be passionate and be united.

Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president who helped a great deal in pushing the DOE to make the process of selecting a new principal transparent, joked: “I didn’t realize that this may be the longest year (for the students).” She said the happy ending was the result of the joint efforts of parents, teachers and students. “This is what we want to teach our new generation and our graduates – that if you want something or want to make a change, you have to devote your time and your courage to it, and you have to know how to organize,” said Katz. She said everybody is helped by others in his or her lives, if one doesn’t help others in the same way, he or she cannot be considered as accomplished. She invited the graduates to come back to Queens in the future to serve people here.

Huimin Li, co-president of the alumni association, said Susan Karlic, the president of the Parent Teacher Association, and several former presidents all joined the movement to prompt the DOE to reopen the interview process to select a new principal. And they helped to build a bridge between the school and the DOE. “The PTA does not only work on fundraising for many programs of the school, it is also the supporting column of the students,” she said.

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