Controversial Queens Principal Under Investigation

Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to clarify the circumstances under which one teacher left the school in question. Lisa-Erika James transferred to teach at another school.

The Department of Education said it is investigating allegations against a Queens high school principal, including claims that she made racially disparaging remarks about two African-American teachers. 

The teachers, John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, filed complaints with the D.O.E.'s Office of Equal Opportunity which were shared with WNYC. They claim their poor performance ratings were racially motivated.

The remarks by Minerva Zanca, principal of Pan American International High School, were allegedly made to Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo. His witness statement said she "ruthlessly targeted" Flanagan and Hightower, who were among seven teachers up for tenure this school year.

Hightower taught English as a Second Language science classes and Flanagan was a Spanish teacher. During a conversation in December, following an observation of Hightower, Riccardo stated that Zanca said the teacher "looked like a gorilla in a sweater." Another time, he said the principal referred to Hightower's hair as "nappy" and said, "I could never have hair like that."

Following an observation of Flanagan's lesson, in which he was called to the principal's office and seemed upset, Riccardo said Zanca later asked, "did you see his big lips quivering?"

"Those are things that nobody should be speaking, let alone a principal of a school," Riccardo said in a phone interview.

Zanca declined to comment, referring all questions to the Department of Education's press office which said only that the agency is investigating the allegations. Zanca has worked for the city school system since 1988, starting as a substitute teacher. The D.O.E. said she has not been involved in any prior cases. She became principal of the Pan American International High School last fall, after previously serving as an assistant principal in another school.

The Pan American school opened just a few years ago and got a D rating on its past two report cards from the city. It serves new immigrant students who are not yet fluent in English, nearly all of whom are Hispanic. Teachers union chapter chair Peter Lamphere said the teachers who filed the complaints are the only black educators in the school.

Queens City Council member Julissa Ferreras sent a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott urging an investigation, and a petition was circulating last month urging Walcott to terminate Zanca.

Riccardo said he is currently fighting for his job because the principal tried to remove him this spring, after he gave Hightower a satisfactory rating. He said a third teacher, Lisa-Erika James, also filed a complaint. She left the school to teach elsewhere.

The D.O.E. has a strict anti-discriminatory policy that protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.