Renaissance parents gather in support of principal Maria Francisco
principal of Renaissance at Rand Middle School.
(KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Parents joined together outside of Renaissance at Rand Middle School on Wednesday in support of the school’s principal, Maria Francisco.
Francisco’s position remains in question after a judge confirmed an arbitration decision reinstating former Renaissance principal Joseph Putrino at the school. The decision ordered that Putrino be “immediately” reinstated.
The group of 20 parents stood across from Renaissance school Wednesday afternoon, holding up signs and speaking of their admiration for Francisco and the community she has built. Several parents drove by the group, honking and rolling down their windows to shout their support. The parents cheered as students streamed out of the building and when the last students stepped onto the school buses, and Francisco was left standing in front of the school surrounded by staff, they cheered again.
“Thank you so much,” Francisco said to the crowd. “You’re amazing.”
In a Wednesday evening message to Montclair Local, Francisco said she is “often humbled by the overwhelming support I receive from our parents, students and staff.”
“It is my hope that we can go on with our school year without students being impacted negatively,” she said. “Student well-being must be the focus of the work we do and will absolutely be my top priority.”
Tenure charges had been filed by the Montclair school district against Putrino, who was placed on administrative leave more than two years ago after he showed a video to staff that some found offensive.
Last month, Judge Jodi Lee Alper, of Essex County Superior Court, confirmed the arbitration decision after the school district requested that it be modified. The district, among other things, was specifically contesting the assignment of Putrino back to Renaissance.
Now Putrino’s lawyers and the district's lawyers are working on a reinstatement timeline, he said. He is also suing the Montclair school district for filing the tenure charges, which he argues were “politically motivated and unwarranted” and made in retaliation for his objections to the district’s plan for in-person instruction at the start of the 2020-21 school year. The case is in discovery.
"We are aware of the strong parent support for Ms. Francisco and the relationships she has built this year with her students,” David Cantor, the school district’s executive director of communications and community engagement, said Wednesday. “We will continue to work in their best interests."
Earlier this week, Cantor declined to directly respond to questions about Alper’s ruling, the reinstatement timeline and additional details of the situation.
Parent Leslie Rubisch organized the gathering Wednesday after she heard the news of the arbitration confirmation.
“Not just for us, but for the kids to come and for this school in general, I think it’s on principle that we try to fight,” Rubisch said. “Maria is the glue.”
To have a gay, female, immigrant principal, the first in her family to graduate from middle school, is special and builds a certain sense of community at the school, Rubisch said. Francisco is Portuguese.
“You kind of understand why the kids go to her and feel safe,” she said. “What better representation for middle schoolers to have?”
Francisco goes out of her way to connect with parents and students, Rubisch said. There are countless stories she’s heard about Francisco calling up parents to talk about their kids and meeting with students to check in.
“I wouldn't think that it would be that emotional to the kids or the parents,” Rubisch said. “I think that this is a very specific situation because of who she is.”
Francisco is “very nice” and plans lots of events at Renaissance, like Friday assemblies and morning meetings, seventh grader Miles Ekroth said. Ekroth is Rubisch’s son.
“With her being here, it's changing everybody in a good way,” Ekroth said.
And Renaissance students have been talking about what will happen to Francisco, Ekroth said.
“They just want Ms. Francisco to stay,” Ekroth said.
Students at the school have been crying while discussing the news, Rubisch said. But she said Francisco does not want the kids to be swept up in the matter, and is thinking about them in particular as she handles the situation.
Since the arbitration decision has been confirmed, the matter is now “in the hands of Putrino,” who could decide he wants to go somewhere else, Rubisch said.
“I don't even have an opinion about Putrino and what happened,” Rubisch said. “We want nothing to do with it.”
Dana and Greg Nares, parents of a seventh grade student at Renaissance, were among those gathered on Wednesday afternoon. Francisco did an incredible job building up the school community after the coronavirus pandemic and working with the school staff and the couple wanted to show their support, they said.
“It's really special, and it's rare,” Dana Nares said. “And I think it's really important, especially in middle school, to really have a team that feels like it's a team.”
The school is a family, with many students that have been in class together since kindergarten, and Francisco nurtures that family, she said.
“Even if you run into her at ShopRite or you run into her at the school, it's that same energy, it's that same care and it's that same effort,” Greg Nares said.
Renaissance families have yet to receive communication from the school or the district about the situation, so parents have had to rely on PTA members and other community members to keep them updated, the couple said.
While they understand the district does not have much control over what will happen, the Nares family hopes there will be some way that Francisco can stay at the school, even if it’s in a different capacity.
Francisco is always accessible, Christine Imperiale, the mother of a Renaissance seventh grader, said Wednesday.
“Even if you just have a quick question and it could be directed at the nurse, you can email her and she’ll call you right away,” Imperiale said. “She’s really helpful, really warm, just kind of like a friend.”
Renaissance students returned to in-person learning and got to know Francisco, who began in the position in summer 2021.
“It's just been like a family environment and that's all they know,” Imperiale said. “I don’t know if that would change if somebody else came in.”
On Nov. 2, students and parents also spoke out in support of Francisco, pleading for her to continue in her position at the school. After more than 20 students and parents spoke at a school board meeting in her support, and the school board held an hour-and-a-half executive session, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds backed Francisco.
“We're going to do everything legally possible to keep Ms. Francisco as the school principal at the Renaissance School,” he said.
In November, Francisco declined to comment on the arbitration decision but told Montclair Local she was “overwhelmed by the support, praise and encouragement from the amazing Renaissance students and parents.”