Teachers accuse Elmhurst principal of racism

Kevin Powell (c.), president of BK Nation, leads a rally outside city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott's office in Manhattan to protest Elmhurst Principal Minerva Zanca's alleged discrimination against several teachers. Photo courtesy Devin Lightner
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The city Department of Education is investigating the principal of an Elmhurst high school who allegedly made racist remarks about two teachers who were later fired, a DOE spokesman said.

Two teachers at Pan American International High School, at 45-10 94th St. in Elmhurst, filed discrimination claims June 24 with the DOE’s Office of Equal Opportunity against Principal Minerva Zanca, contending they were mistreated because of their race and had their civil rights violated.

According to discrimination claims, John Flanagan, a Spanish teacher, and Heather Hightower, an ESL-science teacher, who are both black, alleged they were denied tenure during the 2012-13 school year and later fired by Zanca after biased teacher observations, unwarranted insults and harassment. Zanca gave them unsatisfactory ratings and both teachers were later dismissed.

A third employee, theater teacher Lisa-Erika James, who is black, also filed a discrimination claim, alleging she was targeted by Zanca, who pulled funds for the theater program and put them toward Smartboards at the school. Although James was not fired, she left the school.

Zanca, who is white, arrived at the school last September. The school serves immigrant students, many of whom are black and Latino. She joined the DOE as a Spanish teacher 24 years ago, and previously taught English, journalism and ESL at the high school level. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Marymount Manhattan College, a Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and another Master’s degree in Counseling Education from St. John’s University.

In a written statement sent to the Office of Equal Opportunity June 24 by the school’s assistant principal, Anthony Riccardo, , he alleged Zanca made racially charged remarks about Flanagan and Hightower after observations of the two teachers.

After Flanagan’s observation Dec. 18, he was informed he had received another unsatisfactory rating. Zanca allegedly asked Riccardo, “Did you see his big lips quivering?”

Riccardo also wrote that Zanca said Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater.”

Zanca was not available for comment.

Riccardo’s statement also claimed Zanca would determine whether or not a teacher would receive an unsatisfactory rating even before entering a classroom.

On Monday, teachers and staff from the school, representatives from the United Federation of Teachers and other advocacy group members rallied outside city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s office in Manhattan to protest Zanca’s alleged discrimination.

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), who represents Elmhurst, sent a letter to Walcott calling for an immediate investigation.

“The allegations brought against Ms. Zanca are very serious and concern me deeply,” she said. “I have zero tolerance for racial discrimination, especially from someone who is supposed to be a steward of the values we cherish.”

Kevin Powell, president of BK Nation, a new nonprofit focused on progressive, multicultural and national issues, also called for an investigation. Powell said Tuesday that Riccardo has also been dismissed from the school.

“Any kind of bigotry should not be tolerated,” he said. “We want all three teachers to have the opportunity to continue to teach there if they so choose. And Riccardo, we don’t want him to be penalized for having the courage to come forward.”

Reach reporter Chris Engelhardt by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 2:54 am, July 12, 2013
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