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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Richmond Hills HS in Queens: Cannot Teach, Cannot Learn

Garth Harries. The name is well-known by any parent, teacher, or staff member as the person who swoops into a school and tells everyone there that the New York City Board of Education has found your school to be an ideal location for....whatever (a take-over, namely by a charter school, etc)

January 16, 2008
On Education
A Queens High School With 3,600 Students, and Room for Just 1,800

Correction Appended

From its brass entry doors to its rooftop observatory to the intricate oak paneling of the principal’s office, Richmond Hill High School in Queens was built to inspire something like awe for public education. The only discordant response during the structure’s dedication in 1923 was whether, with a capacity for 1,800 students, it was too large.

Nobody asks that question anymore. Over the past dozen years, Richmond Hill’s most notable architectural accouterment has been the quote-unquote temporary classroom. Twenty-two of these red metal trailers, encased within chain-link fencing, occupy the school’s former yard, evoking the ambience of the Port Elizabeth container-ship terminal.

As for the cargo, that would be the students, faculty members and staff. Richmond Hill currently holds more than 3,600 pupils, twice its supposed limit, and could have 4,000 next fall as other neighborhood high schools in Queens are broken into mini-schools with smaller, more selective enrollments. Andrew Jackson and Springfield Gardens have already closed, and next year, Far Rockaway will close. Just across the border in Brooklyn, Franklin K. Lane is scheduled to be phased out, too.

These days at Richmond Hill, the first lunch period starts at 8:59 a.m., class sizes routinely exceed city and state averages and students have four minutes to negotiate hallways that one biology teacher at the school likens to clotted arteries.

The classroom trailers, never meant for more than a decade of nonstop use, need new walls, ceilings and plumbing. One social studies teacher, Peter McHugh, was reduced last year to conducting class while holding an umbrella against a leaky roof.

To a certain extent, the growing enrollment at the school reflects the influx of immigrants from Guyana and the Dominican Republic to the neighborhood. But more broadly, the problem is the outcome of Department of Education decisions to open scores of small, niched schools in the area, close large ones perceived as academic failures and leave the excess students to land in traditional schools like Richmond Hill that, while relatively successful academically, were often overcrowded to begin with. In this version of education reform, it is never hard to tell the winners from the losers.

City education officials do not dispute that Richmond Hill is severely overcrowded. But they predict that as the department builds and opens new small schools, including several in the Queens neighborhood of Corona next fall, students who might otherwise attend Richmond Hill will choose these options, gradually reducing the overcrowding.

Yet Garth Harries,(see picture above right) chief executive for portfolio development for the school system, also said the department was “not in a position to say there is a specific target number, but it is a priority to reduce enrollment at Richmond Hill.”

The students and staff at Richmond Hill painstakingly calibrate their own comments. They cite the school’s myriad classes and clubs as a strength; they do not lay blame on the principal, Frances DeSanctis; and they hold Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein responsible for the situation.

“Who decides to treat people this way?” asked Brian Sutton, a dean and special education teacher and a 16-year veteran at Richmond Hill. “You don’t build a school for 1,800 students and stick nearly 4,000 in it. Why? Who would want to do something like that to other human beings? On purpose.”

When Christine Dayao entered Richmond Hill as a freshman in September 2005, she thought the 8:59 a.m. lunch period on her schedule had to be a misprint. “I was freaking out,” said Christine, 16, a junior. “My parents called up the school and said, ‘Is it normal for someone to have lunch that early?’ And they said, ‘At Richmond Hill, yeah.’ ”

To make it through her day, which ended just short of 3:30 p.m., Christine said she “drank a lot of water.” That way, her stomach at least felt full.

THE crowding has only grown worse since 2005. Freshmen take virtually all their classes in the trailers, separating them from the school’s community. When they do walk to and from the main building — for lunch, physical education and science labs — they can easily slip away to cut class.

Within the permanent building, the crowding has created a disciplinary headache. Ninety seconds after each new period begins, deans or teachers make a “hallway sweep” to catch the stragglers. Many of them wind up in detention for little more than having been caught in a human traffic jam.

“Students just have to cope with it,” said Shelleaza Ramdass, 18, a senior. “They don’t feel like they have a choice. That’s what they have to do.”

Richmond Hill received a C grade on its Department of Education report card, and its pupils perform decently on standardized tests. But daily attendance remains at about 80 percent, and the attrition rate from freshman year to senior year is more than 50 percent. It is only fair to wonder how much those numbers reflect the disenchantment or disengagement of students who begin their high school careers in trailers.

Ms. DeSanctis, the principal, has increased team-teaching, particularly in English as a Second Language classes, and has asked the education department to build a direct corridor from the main building to the trailer yard. (She is still waiting for an answer.) It is also possible, however, that next year Richmond Hill will have to extend its class day by one more period so that it will run 7:19 a.m. to roughly 4:15 p.m.

“What I’d love is a brand-new building,” said Ms. DeSanctis, offering her opinion. “What I know is that nobody who has trailers has ever had them removed.”

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His e-mail is

Correction: February 2, 2008

The On Education column on Jan. 16, about overcrowding at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, described the status of a nearby high school, Franklin K. Lane, incorrectly, and because of an editing error, referred imprecisely to its location. It is scheduled to be phased out over four years; it has not closed. And although Franklin Lane is near the Queens border, it is in Brooklyn, not in Queens.

Garth Harries '00: Shaking Up New York's Schools
By David McKay Wilson
Garth Harries '00
Garth Harries '00. Photo: Melanie Grizzel

From New York City's venerable Tweed Courthouse, which now houses the New York City Department of Education, Garth Harries '00 helps lead one of the nation's boldest education reform initiatives. This fall Harries will oversee the opening of 73 new schools in the city's campaign to boost student achievement.

Harries is among a cadre of young Turks, many from investment banks and management consulting firms, who were recruited by education chancellor Joel I. Klein to bring professional management to the sprawling bureaucracy. As chief executive officer of the city's Office of New Schools, Harries works with educators, parents, and politicians to transform the nation's largest school system.

"It's a wonderfully stirring thing we are doing," said the 32-year-old Harries, who lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Dina. "The challenge is to create a system of great schools, in an urban setting, where many kids come to us with lower skills and higher needs."

That challenge is all-encompassing for Harries, who arrives at the courthouse at 7 the morning of June 15 on a workday that won't end until 9 that night. First, there's a morning meeting with Klein, followed by another with his staff to discuss plans for charter schools. Then Harries takes the subway to the Bronx to discuss sites for new schools with borough president Adolfo CarriĆ³n. After returning for an afternoon meeting in Manhattan, it's back to the Bronx to confer with parents over the location of a new school which has yet to be finalized.

Klein says Harries has played a crucial role in moving the city's ambitious reform agenda forward. "Garth is an extraordinary manager," Klein said. "He is also a caring, committed leader. Our city is lucky to have him."

Harries wasn't sure what his career path would be when he arrived at Stanford Law School in the fall of 1997. After graduating from Yale University in 1995 with a BA in ethics, politics, and economics, he taught private school in Vail, Colorado, campaigned for the 1996 Democratic ticket, and worked on economic development projects in Philadelphia.

During the summer following his first year at Stanford, he realized that his legal training might not lead him to practice law. While working for Brancart & Brancart, a fair housing litigation firm located in Loma Mar, California, he was assigned to a case involving a landlord in Bismarck, North Dakota, who was accused of discrimination. But what Harries found most interesting during his stint in the upper Midwest was helping Fair Housing of the Dakotas reorganize its strategy.

Upon returning to Stanford, he took classes in nonprofit management at the business school. The next summer, he worked at the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "Stanford was a place where I could experiment and think about different disciplines," said Harries. "I could use my legal skills for issues that were broader than just legal analysis."

Though he passed the Pennsylvania bar exam, Harries never practiced law. Instead, he went to work for McKinsey in New York City. While there, Harries coordinated an efficiency program that saved a major insurer $80 million, and helped a large U.S. regional bank devise its corporate strategy.

After three years at McKinsey, Harries grew restless. So he jumped at the offer from Klein, a former assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Klein was brought in by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to revamp New York's educational system.

At the Office of New Schools, Harries is leading the effort to break up some of the city's huge, and often failing, high schools. Only about half of the city's public school students complete high school in four years. The new schools Harries is helping to create will have fewer than 500 students and provide the kind of personalized instruction that can help improve student performance. Harries is also helping parents create charter schools—experimental public schools that operate outside the dictates of local school boards but are accountable for student progress on statewide tests.

Harries wants New York to be known as a city where educational experimentation can flourish. In a public school system with 1,350 schools, 140,000 employees, and 1,100,000 students, Harries acknowledges that his task is not easy. "Turning around an organization this large takes time," said Harries. "It's like moving a flywheel. First you lean your shoulder in, you push, and you generate some motion. You push some more, and there's movement. And before long you've generated real momentum."

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