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El-Hewie v. Board of Education of the Bergen County Vocational School Dist.

December 24, 2009


On appeal from the State Department of Education, Docket No. 225-6/06.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 5, 2009

Before Judges Lisa, Baxter and Alvarez.

Petitioner Mohamed F. El-Hewie (El-Hewie or petitioner) appeals the termination of his employment with the Board of Education of the Bergen County Vocational School District (Board). On April 10, 2008, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) adopted the twenty-eight-page February 27, 2008 decision of Margaret M. Monaco, ALJ, that El-Hewie was lawfully terminated for the 2006-2007 school year. The Commissioner further agreed with the ALJ that petitioner failed to prove his claim of discrimination. We affirm.

The following facts were developed at the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) hearing. Petitioner's employment as a teacher of mathematics for the 2005-2006 school year, beginning on November 28, 2005, required him to teach two calculus classes and three statistics classes at the Bergen County Academy (Academy), a highly competitive magnet school. El-Hewie "held the equivalent of a Master's Degree and a Doctorate in Engineering," but did not have any prior teaching experience. El-Hewie's ten-month non-tenured teacher's contract stated that either party could terminate the agreement by giving the other sixty days notice. Additionally, on November 15, 2005, petitioner acknowledged receipt of an employee handbook stating that his "employment may be terminated by the Bergen County Technical Schools District or the Bergen County Special Services School District, as applicable, at any time, with or without cause or notice subject to any collective bargaining agreement."

Because El-Hewie was not a certified teacher, he was registered in the State's Alternate Route Program (ARP) on November 23, 2005. He attended training in the spring of 2006 and received a certificate of completion for the first of three phases. He was discharged from ARP on March 15, 2006, however, when the Human Resource manager for the District learned of his termination. As an ARP participant, El-Hewie was required to participate in a mentoring program.

According to the Academy's Dean of Students, problems with El-Hewie's classroom performance began within two weeks of his arrival. Students began to complain on a daily basis; on one occasion, three-quarters of a calculus class came to her office to do so. Their complaints included that El-Hewie was difficult to understand; that he appeared frustrated or angry when asked questions; that he would seat students according to their test scores, thereby embarrassing them; and that he assigned an excessive amount of homework. Several students and their parents also complained that El-Hewie discriminated against them, singling out individual students for embarrassing and unfavorable attention in class. Students also complained that not only were they not learning anything, but that they were concerned about their performance in standardized tests administered at the end of the year.

As a result of the complaints, petitioner's classroom was observed on several occasions by school administrators, including Dennis Montone, the District's Supervisor of Math and Science. When he observed El-Hewie, he noted that petitioner was "teaching above the kids' head[s]" and did not teach basic skills. As Montone walked around the classroom, a student tapped him on the hand and whispered, "please help us."

Principal Patricia Cosgrove began to receive complaints from students and their families during the second week of December 2005. As a result, she asked "the most seasoned recognized teacher on campus, . . . Joe Holbrook," to mentor and assist petitioner. Although Holbrook had never received formal mentor training, unlike those who were designated as ARP trainers, he had previously mentored approximately fifteen or sixteen math teachers. He met with petitioner nearly every morning, resulting in approximately fifty meetings. Cosgrove did not assign the official ARP math mentors to El-Hewie because she did not believe they could meet his significant needs.

School administrators came to agree that despite El-Hewie's advanced degrees, he was unable to effectively communicate any of his knowledge to the students and entirely lacked basic teaching skills due to either lack of prior teaching experience or other reasons. On February 16, 2006, the principal directed that the process begin to remove petitioner due to "the complaints, the embarrassment, the way [petitioner] treated students, [and his] lack of classroom management." At the end of March, two of petitioner's five classes were assigned to a teacher who had returned after maternity leave. All of petitioner's classes would have been reassigned to her if she had agreed to take the additional classes.

The record also demonstrates that petitioner's second formal evaluation should have been "formative" rather than "summative." The difference between the two is that a summative evaluation is done in paragraph form, whereas a formative evaluation is completed by way of a checklist. Participants in the provisional teaching program typically must undergo a ten-week formative evaluation, a twenty-week formative evaluation and a thirty-four-week summative evaluation. Only the first two evaluations were completed as to petitioner.

At the end of the school year, petitioner refused to submit grades for students in his three remaining classes. This especially impacted his senior students, whose transcripts were delayed in being sent to colleges due to petitioner's refusal to turn in grades.

Commencing on April 13, 2006, El-Hewie began to make broad-brush attacks against school administrators and teaching staff similar to those made in his appeal brief. Specifically, petitioner wrote to the District superintendent and requested that an investigation be conducted into the "deceptive tactics of the administration of Bergen Academy in regards to mentoring new teachers, manipulating students' grades to serve personal ties at the expense of academic proficiency, and not disclosing information upfront on hiring new teachers."

During his OAL hearing, El-Hewie complained that he should have been mentored for the entire first month of his employment, rather than being placed in a classroom, so that he would have understood "the culture and politics of the district." He also maintained, despite the plain language in his employment contract, that provisional teachers could not be terminated unless there was a "very good reason to terminate," meaning that the teacher "did not fulfill his professional obligation." ElHewie's testimony contradicted that of the Board's witnesses as far as meetings, mentoring efforts, and complaints. He denied that anyone had explained lesson plans to him or that he had ever been given lesson plans. El-Hewie insisted that when he asked questions of the mentor assigned to him, he was referred to the vice principal because the mentor would not respond. He also claimed that the mentor frequently lost his temper with him.

At the OAL hearing, petitioner admitted that he was not surprised when his calculus classes were reassigned. He also admitted forwarding letters in District envelopes to the parents of his students stating he would not submit final grades until "each student and family [knew] about the fraudulent management of an educational institution."

On April 28, 2006, petitioner sent a letter to the District claiming that his non-renewal was racially motivated. On October 24, 2006, he was advised that the claim was investigated and was not substantiated.

When El-Hewie appeared before the Board on May 17, 2006, he told them that he did not have any mentor and that he "never saw Holbrook teach anything." He explained that he was "really too exhausted, too loaded, too pressed to teach," ...

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