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After latest setback, Patel reveals reasons for non-renewal

The contract of North art teacher Nishan Patel will not be renewed, despite impassioned pleas from students and parents, a list posted on WW-P’s website yesterday afternoon confirms. The list, which names the untenured teachers whom WW-P Superintendent David Aderhold will recommend for contract renewals at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, does not include Patel’s name.

Patel told students about his firing last month, triggering a weeklong social media campaign that culminated in a sit-in in North’s main hallway during lunch on Thursday, April 23. At the school board’s April 28 meeting, dozens of students and parents urged Aderhold to renew Patel’s contract, calling him a dedicated and inspiring teacher who has forged unusually close bonds with students.

The firing of Patel, an Indian-American, has raised concerns about the scarcity of Asian teachers in WW-P. The district’s student body is almost 60 percent Asian, but Asians make up less than six percent of the teaching staff.

“In a school district that really pushes math and science, it’s really important to see an Asian role model who does something other than science and math,” said Elizabeth Drumwright, the mother of a North freshman.

In an interview earlier this week, Aderhold said race plays no role in personnel decisions. “We make the decisions on hiring and firing based on who we think is the best suited to be in the classroom,” Aderhold said. “You hire the best candidates you can based on the candidate pool that’s available to you.”

State law prohibits district administrators from discussing personnel matters publicly and Aderhold declined to comment on Patel’s case. But asked what he would say to parents and students disappointed at the firing of a popular teacher, Aderhold said, “It wasn’t that their voices weren’t heard. There’s something else going on that we can’t speak about because of the way the process works. I hope that they would respect that and trust the opinion of the administrators.”

Last month, Patel declined to comment on the reasons for his non-renewal. But this week he said his supervisors told him he was losing his job because his lesson plans were poorly designed and he did not run his classroom effectively. Patel said he received no reply to follow-up requests for a more detailed critique. “I still don’t exactly especially know what the specific things are,” he said.

Freshman Nora Binder said she finds Patel’s lessons well-organized and thought-provoking. “They really help us grow,” Binder said. “He always has our attention, and he manages to help us continue working but also start something new.”

Patel, who graduated from High School South in 2005, has worked in WW-P for two and a half years, teaching AP Studio Art and Art Foundation at North and South. He advises the Art Club and the Manga Club and has illustrated two published children’s books.

On Friday April 17, WW-P Supervisor for Fine and Performing Arts Jeffrey Santoro and North Principal Michael Zapicchi informed Patel that his contract would not be renewed at the end of the year, without explaining the district’s reasons, Patel said. Santoro did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment.

Four days later, at a follow-up meeting requested by Patel, Santoro told him that his classes do not run smoothly and that his lesson plans are weak, Patel said. According to Patel, Santoro has not replied to subsequent emails asking for more specific reasons for the non-renewal.  “That’s why I’m confused,” he said.

Patel added that Santoro has never commented on the lesson plans he submits to an Internet server every Friday. “It’s kind of tough to get better if you don’t get the feedback,” he said.  Bruce Salmestrelli, the president of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Education Association, the local chapter of the largest statewide teachers’ union, did not respond to an email requesting comment on Patel’s case.

Patel said he was surprised by the district’s decision not to renew his contract. After the firing, he said, Zapicchi assured Patel he had vouched for him with the superintendent. “He backed me, and that meant a lot,” Patel said.

But according to Aderhold, untenured teachers are not fired unless the entire team of six administrators, including the superintendent, the school principal and the department supervisor, has reached a consensus. “If you’re going to make that kind of decision about someone’s future, you want to make sure that there’s a unanimous decision,” he said. Zapicchi declined to comment on his role in Patel’s firing.

Patel said he has not decided whether to try to convince the school board to reverse the superintendent’s decision, in an appeal process known as a Donaldson Hearing. No WW-P teacher has ever overturned a non-renewal, Aderhold said.

Shortly after his first meeting with Zapicchi and Santoro, Patel emailed officers in the Manga Club and the Art Club to announce his firing. After hearing the news, seniors Ambika Nair, Sarmishta Govindhan and Michelle Xu created a “Support Mr. Patel” petition, which has received nearly 400 signatures.

At the sit-in, more than 150 students occupied a long stretch of the main hallway, holding signs that read “Save Patel” and “Patel 2k16.” When Patel walked past, the demonstrators greeted him with a standing ovation.

During the public-comment phase of the April 28 meeting, 20 students, some of them crying, lauded Patel’s enthusiasm and dedication.

“He reaches out and builds upon a student’s passion,” said senior Julian Chan, who spoke at the meeting. “If you love to knit, he’ll cheer you on, even though he doesn’t knit. And if you love comics, his knowledge of the Marvel and DC universe is so large that it’s unquantifiable.”

Senior Shayling Zhao said Patel helped her overcome depression. “He helped me be confident with myself and constantly pointed out all the amazing things about me that I should hold onto,” Zhao said.

Nair said she believes Patel will soon move on from his firing. “While it does come as a disappointment to the community that pulled together for Mr. Patel, the level of support from the student body just shows the profound impact Mr. Patel has had on all of us,” she said. “We know Mr. Patel is destined for great things.”

Patel said the student protest has helped him recover from the disappointment of the non-renewal. “It’s something I’m going to remember forever,” he said. “No matter what happens, it’s just the best thing.”

Bushra Hasan contributed reporting. 

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