North students hold sit-in to protest Patel firing

More than 150 North students held a sit-in in the main hallway during lunch last Thursday to protest the firing of popular art teacher Nishan Patel.  The demonstration was the climax of a week-long social media campaign that has elicited impassioned tributes to Patel’s teaching and drawn nearly 400 petition signatures.

The students, holding signs that said “Je Suis Patel” and “Support Mr. Patel,” occupied a 50-meter stretch of hallway, propping their backpacks against trashcans and balancing their lunch trays precariously on their laps.  Halfway through lunch, Patel walked past the demonstrators, who greeted him with a standing ovation.  “There are no words.  This means everything,” he said, stifling tears.  “You guys are the best.”

The reasons for Patel’s firing remain unclear. Patel does not have tenure, and earlier this month, WW-P officials informed him that his contract would not be renewed at the end of the school year.  New Jersey law prohibits district administrators from discussing personnel matters publicly, and Patel declined to reveal why the district is letting him go.

Patel, whose boyish appearance makes him almost indistinguishable from his teenage students, has taught in WW-P since 2012, rotating between the two high schools and Grover Middle School before moving to North last September. He teaches Art Foundation and AP Studio Art and advises the Art Club and the Manga Club.  A  High School South graduate, he holds a BFA in illustration from Syracuse University and an MA in Art and Art Education from Teachers College of Columbia University and has written and illustrated two published children’s books.

At the sit-in, demonstrators praised Patel’s energetic teaching style and called him one of North’s most approachable teachers, saying that even students who have never taken his classes visit his room during lunch and study hall to work on art projects.

“Mr. Patel is one of the most committed, dedicated, passionate teachers I’ve ever met,” said senior Alex Sine, who plans to attend art school in the fall.  “He’s pretty much the reason I got into college.”

Senior Shannon Sheu, who helped promote the sit-in on Facebook, said Patel inspired her to pursue drawing more seriously.  “I never really had the confidence to do anything until I met Mr. Patel,” she said.

Several students described Patel as a friend and mentor whose willingness to discuss their career plans and personal problems sets him apart.

One student, who asked to remain anonymous, said Patel helped him overcome clinical depression.  “I had many problems back in junior year,” the student said.  “He was the one who helped pick myself up.”

“Mr. Patel is the one who helped me solidify my determination,” said Frewin Hu, president of the Manga Club.  “I didn’t become an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or any of those things that my parents told me to become.  Instead, I decided I wanted to become an artist.”  Hu was recently admitted to the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the nation’s top art schools.

Sophomore Rebecca Yang, a member of the Manga Club, said Patel lent her a Super Mario costume to wear at an anime convention the club attended earlier this spring.  “He goes above and beyond anything that any teacher goes,” freshman Shubham Saharan added.

On Friday April 17, Patel emailed Hu and several other officers in the Manga Club to announce his firing, which he feared would complicate the club’s plans for upcoming events.

The news spread quickly.  Students in Patel’s art classes sent emails protesting the decision to North Principal Michael Zapicchi and WW-P Superintendent David Aderhold.  On Facebook, seniors Sarmishta Govindhan, Ambika Nair and Michelle Xu circulated a “Support Mr. Patel” petition and urged classmates to participate in last Thursday’s sit-in.

“Immediately, when we found out, we knew we weren’t going to let him go,” freshman Nitya Laab said.

The Patel campaign is not the first time North students have rallied behind a staff member.  In July, Student Council gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition calling for Aderhold to reverse his decision to transfer North Vice Principal Melissa Levine to Grover.  Levine remained at North.

WW-P’s contract with the local chapter of the New Jersey Education Association, the largest statewide teachers’ union, stipulates that supervisors must formally evaluate untenured teachers three times a year.  The district uses the evaluations in determining whether to renew the untenured teachers’ contracts at the end of the school year.

Under New Jersey law, teachers who meet performance requirements earn tenure after four years in a district. Tenured teachers can be fired only for significant misconduct or incompetence, and then only after lengthy and complicated legal proceedings.

Zapicchi declined to comment on Patel’s evaluations.  But he said that typically a team of six WW-P administrators—including the school principal, the department supervisor and the superintendent—decides whether to rehire untenured teachers.  Aderhold and Jeffrey Santoro, the district supervisor for fine and performing arts, could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

District administrators do not need approval from the WW-P Board of Education to finalize a non-renewal. But a teacher facing non-renewal can try to persuade the school board to reverse the administrators’ decision, in an appeal process known as a Donaldson Hearing.

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