A close-up look at NYC education policy, politics,and the people who have been, are now, or will be affected by these actions and programs. ATR CONNECT assists individuals who suddenly find themselves in the ATR ("Absent Teacher Reserve") pool and are the "new" rubber roomers, people who have been re-assigned from their life and career. A "Rubber Room" is not a place, but a process.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Thousands of People Crowd Brooklyn Tech Auditorium To Protest Joel Klein's Closing of 20 Public Schools in NYC
On tuesday night/wednesday morning January 26-27, more than 3,000 angry people showed the world what they think of Joel Klein and his army. Brooklyn Tech High School erupted with chants against the NYC BOE, constant booing of Joel Klein, and the closing of 20 schools throughout the city. At about 3AM in the morning, the fake school board, The Panel For Educational Policy, voted to close the schools anyway, despite the fact that Klein has no contract, and the PEP has no legitimate mandate to vote on anything. The main issue on the protesters' agenda was to ask "why not fix the schools rather than close them and replace with small schools and charters?"
The closing of all 20 schools was voted on after 3AM, and of course, the Panel For Educational Policy voted in favor of Klein's policy. The vote was 9 - Yes; 4 - No.
Here is what the Queens PEP member, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, said just before the 3:30 a.m. vote on Wednesday morning:
Good morning Chancellor Klein, members of the Panel and members of the public. First, I want to thank my colleagues, parents and everybody at the DOE for their dedicated time on this delicate, but necessary topic. I've dedicated many hours to this matter. I listened to the community outcry during their public hearings. I held parent meetings in Queens in order to get a better understanding of the school community concerns and the effect this decision would have on those Queens communities. It was important to understand the topic in order to make an informed decision.
As many of you know, I take my role seriously, and have done so since being first appointed to this board 2 years ago.
I believe that is why I was selected by Borough President, Helen Marshall, to serve as her representative and the communities' advocate during these public meetings.
We are here, whether appointed by the mayor or by different borough presidents, and together we face monthly decisions that at the end of the day affect more than a million students. We need to be mindful of that role, whether it's in front of a standing room auditorium, or in the near empty rooms that are far more common for these meetings.
Our task is still the same.
To safeguard student interests without making a hasty decision.
I don't believe that simply following the letter of the law is what was expected of the Department when our state elected officials called for hearings on these major matters of concern.
I don't believe the intent of that legislation was for a DOE official to sit in the front of the room, simply to let those most affected vent their frustrations.
I also don't believe the intent was for families and community members to have none of their concerns addressed, while answering none of their questions.
That can't be what the legislature envisioned these school hearings to be.
Communication is a key component to a successful proposal and listening goes along way too… The DOE needed to consult and listen to those who would be most affected by these proposals.
"Listen" means to "hear," but also to digest and to allow the information to have an affect on our opinions and thought process.
I went to those school hearings to do just that.
And I believe I did.
There very well may come a time when I will raise my hand in support of one of these schools being closed.
But I am not there yet, not because I think closing a school should never be a considered choice, but because I think in order to get to that point, we must first ensure it is THE LAST CHOICE.
And, so Mr. Chairman, on behalf of Queens and the Borough President, tonight I vote No and urge my colleagues to do the same.
Panel for Educational Policy
Borough President Appointee
There is no democracy in New York City today.
The Daily News published a piece by Diana Ravich on January 13, 2010, and I have re-posted below this excellent assessment of what has gone wrong with charters in New York City:
Charters need to focus on neediest
Be Our Guest
Diana Ravich, NY Daily News, January 13, 2010
Most of New York City's 99 charter schools, which enroll 30,000 students, have gotten superior results on state tests. It is important to understand why
many of them perform so well, since Mayor Bloomberg has promised to double the number of charters over the next four years.
Last fall, a report by economist Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University hailed the city's charter schools and suggested that any student who attended a charter school for nine years would be almost as well educated as a student in well-heeled Scarsdale. A new study by economist Margaret Raymond of Stanford has confirmed that many of the city's charter schools get higher test scores. Raymond found that 51% of New York City charters produced significant gains in math, but only 29% did so in reading.
Last year, Raymond's research team conducted a national study of charter schools and found that only 17% had better results than traditional public schools; 83% produced gains that were no different or significantly worse. This study shredded the myth that charter schools are a sure cure for poor education.
So why are charters in New York City doing so much better than those in the rest of the nation?
Unlike Hoxby's study, Raymond's research did not say that all was well with the charter sector. After all, 49% of charter schools produced no significant gains in math, and 71% produced no significant gains in reading. Raymond concluded that charter students who were either special-education or English-language learners made no significant gains. She also found that charter students who had previously been held back in their grade made no gains at all in reading and were outperformed in
math by similar students in traditional public schools.
Charters in New York City have important advantages that make them different from the rest of the nation. Many have wealthy sponsors who donate millions of dollars to their schools. This helps them to have smaller classes and more resources than the
local public schools.
Another important factor in their success is that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has placed 70 of the city's 99 charters in public school space,subsidizing the charters' facilities, utilities, transportation, custodial services, food services and whatever else is provided to the regular public school. In other districts, the charters must find their own space and bear these costs. This policy has set off bitter battles between charter school parents and those of students at public schools that lose classroom space to the favored charters, especially when the city renovates classrooms for the charter students, but not for the regular public school students.
Most charters in New York City have lotteries for admission. The lottery screens out students whose families are not well informed. New York City's public schools have 50,000 homeless students, but only about 100 are enrolled in charters. The special-education students admitted to charters tend to be those with the mildest disabilities because charters are not equipped to meet the needs of those with extreme disabilities. In addition, charters are able to "counsel out" students who are "not a good fit," who then return to the traditional public schools.
According to data compiled by the United Federation of Teachers, less than 4% of those enrolled in charter schools are English-language learners, compared with a citywide average of 14%. Less than 10% of charter students require special education, compared with a citywide average of 16%. Charters enroll fewer Hispanic or immigrant students than the regular public schools. The gaps are even larger when charter schools are compared with their neighborhood public schools, rather than citywide averages.
Charter schools and public schools do not compete on a level playing field. Those who attend charters are enrolled in small classes with other motivated students, while those in public schools attend schools in overcrowded classrooms with a full range of students, including those who left charters.
Critics may rightly wonder if charter school success has more to do with their admissions policies, their resources and their ability to remove low-scoring students than to their academic prowess. The city's Education Department should require charters to focus on the students whose needs are greatest, not on those who are likeliest to produce the highest test scores. And the department should make sure that every public school has the same advantages and resources as charter schools.
Ravitch is a historian of education. Her latest book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," will be published in March.
UFT President Mike Mulgrew has spoken out against charters, and was at Brooklyn Tech until the protest was finished.
United Federation of Teachers Recommends Changes to Charter School Law
By Stephanie Lam, Epoch Times Staff
NEW YORK—The United Federation of Teachers released a report on Sunday stating that New York City charter schools are not serving the neediest students, and recommended changes in the state charter school law.
The recommendations focus on making charter schools more fair, accountable, and transparent. They include mandating charter schools to enroll at least the district-wide average number of needy students including English language learners and special need students, allowing a neutral third party to oversee the lottery process, banning for-profit companies from owning or running charter schools, adjusting charter school staff’s salaries to public sector levels, and making charter schools’ financial and operational data available and auditable by city and state officials.
The original intent of the charter school law passed 10 years ago was fairness and access for all students, said Mr. Michael Mulgrew, president of UFT, but says it is not being fulfilled.
“New York’s charter school experiment has led to some promising innovations, but as a group New York City charter schools have become a separate and unequal branch of public education,” Mulgrew said.
According to the report, charter schools in New York City have significantly less students eligible for free lunch than public schools. Similarly, charter schools enroll less than 4 percent of English language learners, while public schools enroll a number almost three times more. In North-Central Brooklyn, charter schools enroll 1.3 percent of English language learners, compared with 11.2 percent in public schools. As for special education students, charter schools are enrolling 9.5 percent, while public schools enroll 16.4 percent.
There is also a racial disparity between charter and public schools. “Despite their concentrations in highly diverse neighborhoods, charters as a group admits substantially fewer Hispanic and/or immigrant students,” according to the report.
In addition, corporations running charter schools are making a lot of money, which the lawmakers intended to use for the students.
“When this law was passed 10 years ago, it was clear that there was never an intent for corporations to be making profit and putting that into their pocket,” Mulgrew said. “I do not believe those who voted for the charter school law 10 years ago ever intended that people running three or four charter schools would be making three, four, or five hundred thousand dollars.”
“We must fulfill the promise that was intended 10 years ago. We need to have fairness for all students. We need all parents to have true choice in their neighborhood, and we need to ensure that we are making all schools accountable in the same level, and we also need to ensure, now more than ever, that the dollars that this state intends for public education are going into the classroom.”
Below, Joel Shatzky writes about the protest in The Huffington Post, while his Editor, Dan Collins, New York Editor-At-Large of The Huffington Post, pines away at the loss of $700 million in federal funds if only New York would stop preventing unlimited charters. It's nice to see such diversity of opinion in the same publication!
The Huffington Post, January 27, 2010 01:36 PM
Educating for Democracy: Protesting Twenty NYC School Closings (Photos)
At a hearing at Brooklyn Tech Tuesday evening, Chancellor Joel Klein and the PEP (Panel for Educational Policy) listened from 6:00 p.m. into the early hours of the morning to students, teachers, union representatives, parents, and political leaders protesting the closing of twenty city schools. The conclusion seemed to me to be foregone that the schools would be closed since Mayor Bloomberg appoints eight of the members of the panel. Yet the passion and often logical arguments of many of the speakers should have given them pause before they decided to vote. Early this morning the board approved the school closings.
A crowd of over a thousand people marched, displayed signs and listened to speakers from a giant screen set up a block from the school. James Vasquez of the Queens UFT pointed out that there had been no hearings prior to the decisions made on which schools were to be closed and many of the speakers revealed inconsistencies in the way in which the closings were determined, opening the possibility for lawsuits. Inside the vast auditorium, which could seat three thousand, people streamed in, filling the hall to capacity.
Chancellor Joel Klein, who was roundly booed even before he said a word, declared that "the first obligation in public education is to our children. The schools we are closing tonight did not come up to our standards." Klein was observed several times to be detached enough from the proceedings to briefly read a paper during one of the speeches and, receiving a cell phone message, absented himself at another point from the meeting.
Crowd reactions inside.
The speeches by noted public figures such as Bill de Blasio, (pictured above) Public Advocate, Michael Mulgrew, President of the UFT, the NYC teacher's union, and Councilman Robert Jackson, head of the Education Committee of the New York City Council, touched on similar themes: that the decisions made to close the schools chosen to be shut down were based on faulty or inconsistent criteria -- that these schools could be salvaged if there was more of an opportunity for parental and community involvement as well as more resources; and that the process by which PEP decided to close the schools and the reasons for replacing some of them with charter schools should be made "transparent."
Bill de Blasio.
The pattern followed by the Department of Education and Chancellor Klein is, at least to me, fairly obvious: many of the public schools being closed were "made to fail" by the conditions in which the teachers were forced to teach:
1. A successful school is suddenly burdened with an influx of students from another school that has been closed. Many of these newly arrived students have high needs but the DOE does not give sufficient support to enable the school to accommodate these students with some chance of success.
2. The school begins to perform badly in standardized tests, four-year graduation rates, and other indicators of "success," as determined by the DOE.
3. Parents of many of the high-achieving students withdraw their children from the school because it now has a "failing" reputation.
4. The school, now completely overburdened by special needs students and inadequate staffing and support, is judged a "failure" and is closed.
5. Smaller schools, many of them charter schools, replace the "failed" school and the cycle begun when the first school was closed repeats itself.
This is like a swimming coach requiring a successful swimmer to wear concrete shoes at all future competitions and then kicking him off the team for "poor performance."
The inconsistencies in the evaluation of schools and the neglect that the DOE has shown in their treatment of schools in predominantly minority areas seem to me to give the accusations of "racism" leveled by a number of the speakers at the PEP committee some foundation. (PEP conspicuously over-represents white males and females, considering that only 14% of the City's students are white.)
When one of the most respected of the speakers, Annie Martin, President of the NYC chapter of the NAACP, was rudely treated when her microphone was shut down because she'd gone over the two-minute "limit" before she had finished her statement, I wondered at the insensitivity of some of those on the PEP panel who should have been very much aware that "lack of respect" was the most persistent accusation running through the hearing. This action was so egregious that one of the panelists interrupted the proceedings to object to Ms. Martin's treatment and she was allowed to finish her talk. But the damage had already been done.
What struck me in my interviews with teachers, parents and students was the inconsistency and even irrationality in which the DOE has administered and evaluated these schools. Several sources told me that the Mayor had forbidden fund raising at Beach Channel High School, while recently I personally attended a fund raiser at a Manhattan school in East Harlem. At Beach Channel, a math teacher, David Pecoraro, who later spoke eloquently at the hearing, informed me that two of the specialized programs at the school, oceanography and culinary instruction, were phased out while these same two programs are going to be re-instituted in one of the schools replacing it.
Joy Blakeslee, a teacher at New Day Academy, one of the "new" smaller schools that is going to be closed, expressed her confusion at the treatment of her school. (I "embedded" myself in the line of those waiting to enter the building and was struck by her students' sophisticated awareness of what was happening to the school, especially when one of them referred to the school as "our family.") In November, New Day, she explained, which is a member of a progressive consortium that relies more on the portfolio system than drilling students on test scores, was given a new principal, who has an excellent reputation in "turning around" a school to make it successful; three weeks later, it was announced that the school would be closed.
Students from New Day Academy.
There are many more stories about the mismanagement by the DOE of these so-called "failed" schools which I plan to include in a following article. But my strong impression from the evidence I have gathered from students, parents and teachers over the past few years is that the Bloomberg Administration is practicing a form of "educational colonialism" on our school system. Whatever good he believes he is accomplishing, in favoring those students who are fortunate enough to have parents or other people who can look out for their interests at the expense of those students who do not, he is making a terrible mistake.
When I attended Music and Art -- now La Guardia High School back in the 1950's, the only "school closings" I ever heard of were due to unsafe building conditions. And I still remember, as I plan to celebrate my 50th class reunion this spring, how disturbed I was when M and A left "The Castle" on Convent Avenue and merged with our arch-rival, Performing Arts, at a brand new building near Lincoln Center. But even merged, the title of the school includes the names of "Music and Art" and "Performing Arts."
These schools that are being closed were an integral part of their communities. Such venerable names as Columbus High School and -- though much newer -- Paul Robeson High School are an important part of the identity of people whose schools will now be associated with failure. And failure, as one eloquent young woman, holding her baby as she spoke, insisted, is the one thing that is most resisted in minority communities because our culture often tells them in one way or another that they are failures. It is our society that should be considered "failed" for creating that impression; closing these schools reinforces it.
That Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration are encouraging this kind of "educational triage" in their "Race to the Top" grants is a very serious mistake, especially Duncan's enthusiasm for Mayor Bloomberg. Considering that many of these communities, so badly served by our educational system, gave President Obama their most enthusiastic support, this is not just a mistake. It's a tragedy for democracy: to the teachers, the parents and most of all, the children of New York City.
New York Editor-At-Large of The Huffington Post
Posted: January 28, 2010 11:38 AM
Albany Gets an "F" in Education
Just when it seemed impossible that our opinion of New York's state legislature could get worse, it does. Now, it turns out these people can't even pick up free money.
The Obama administration is trying to improve American public education through bribery. It's dangling $4 billion in front of the states, challenging them to meet a series of benchmarks. Some of them, like embracing common academic standards, are simple enough that only Texas and Alaska seem incapable of making the grade.
Others are more challenging. But the one New York is hung up on - eliminating barriers to charter schools - is easy enough that even Albany ought to be capable of handling it.
No way. New York is eligible for up to $700 million in the money, but the deadline came and went without any action in the capitol to eliminate the current cap of 200 charter schools statewide.
The state handed in its application anyway. But the best grade it will probably be able to get is an incomplete.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but run by groups outside the regular school system. They're generally smaller, more innovative, and wildly popular with parents. Some of the charters in New York are nationally recognized as success stories - like Harlem Success Academy, which a recent study says has erased the gap between black and white student performance.
But with the current cap, New York City won't be able to create many more. Plus there's that matter of the $700 million.
What gives? The teachers union opposes charter schools. That's perfectly reasonable, since most of them aren't unionized. But not nearly enough cause for the rest of the state to refuse to continue these very promising experiments.
In some other states - including, once again, Texas - inept or shady sponsors have created disastrous charters that run out of money or wind up educating their students en masse in auditoriums or churches. But that hasn't happened in New York. The city regularly closes schools that seem to be floundering. There are some on Superintendent Joel Klein's hit list this year.
The legislature grudgingly went along with part of Gov. David Paterson's request for lifting the charter cap. It offered 400 schools, as opposed to the 600 the administration and New York City wanted.
Then the lawmakers in Albany started adding caveats. One would have left the approval of additional New York City charters to the state Board of Regents in Albany, rather than Chancellor Klein. Another would have barred Klein from allowing charters to use space in public school buildings, unless the school parents approved.
Which they wouldn't.
The regular public school community - teachers, administrators, parents and sometimes even students - resent the charters. They take up precious space in a system where there's never enough room. They often have better equipment, because parents and sponsors donate. And the teachers who struggle to educate kids with all the variety of challenges and troubles that New York City children bring to the classroom feel the charter schools cream the best of the crop, leaving them with the problems.
All of this is understandable. But we do pay our legislators to rise above the normal squabbles of life and see the big picture.
Which in this case is $700 million.
The state could lose out completely, although it's more likely it will get a slice of the original pie. But as the New York Times noted in a recent editorial, whatever is lost could be added onto the federal mass transit funds the city lost when Albany refused to pass a congestion pricing plan that involved new tolls on cars entering Manhattan during rush hour.
If I remember correctly, we kissed about $354 million good-bye in that debacle. With any luck, this year the state legislature could hit the $1 billion mark when it comes to thrown-away federal aid.
Dan Collins is the New York Editor of the Huffington Post. A veteran journalist, Collins has worked as a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, a reporter for the New York Daily News and a senior producer for CBSNews.com, the Web site of CBS News. His stories have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice and other publications. Collins has co-authored four books, including Grand Illusion The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11 (with Wayne Barrett); I, Koch, a biography of New York Mayor Ed Koch; In the Name of the Law, the story of former Abscam prosecutor Tom Puccio; and The Millennium Book, a book about the year 2000.
My guess is that Mr. Collins does not have children attending New York public schools.
Make sure that you read John Tarleton's January 29, 2010 issue of The Indypendent
Taking the Public Out of Schools
As soon as New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein leaned into his microphone and started to speak, the jeering began. When he proclaimed the DOE had to shut down 19 schools because “my first obligation is to our children,” the crowd of two thousand public school supporters roared in disbelief.
Over the next nine hours, more than 300 speakers challenged Klein’s reasoning, his motives and his right to decide the fate of their local schools at the Jan. 26 meeting of the Panel for Education Policy (PEP) held at Brooklyn Technical High School. The PEP, whose majority was selected by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would ultimately approve all 19 school closings by a 9-4 vote in the middle of the night. Yet, there was little doubt that the panel’s action would end the growing controversy over the way Klein and Bloomberg are managing the City’s schools. “Education is a right,” said one parent as she waited to speak. “If we don’t fight, we’re going to lose it.”
The drama that unfolded at the PEP meeting was the product of years of simmering frustration in communities across the city. When Bloomberg plucked Klein, a lawyer, out the corporate world in 2002 to oversee over a school system that educates 1.1 million children in more than 1,500 schools, he promised a new era of mayoral accountability.
Instead, critics say the two men have exercised their power in an arbitrary and reckless manner — reorganizing the system’s administrative structures to be more remote from parents, spending millions on high-priced consultants and no-bid contracts, pushing high-stakes testing regimes that lack a sound pedagogical basis and closing scores of neighborhood schools.
When the DOE announced its proposed school closings in December, it struck a nerve. It was the largest rounds of school closings to date and it hit large high schools that have anchored their neighborhoods — Maxwell and Robeson in Brooklyn, Jamaica and Beach Channel in Queens and Columbus and Alfred E. Smith in the Bronx — especially hard.
Rallies and marches were held. At the affected campuses, hundreds of people turned out for hearings that were mandated under new State rules passed last summer. On Jan. 21, a feisty crowd of almost 400 demonstrators marched outside Bloomberg’s Upper East Side mansion.
“You have the pieces of a perfect storm starting to brew,” said Lisa Donlan, president of the District 1 Community Education Council in the Lower East Side. “Before, they did this and there were no consequences.”
The opposition to the school closings was propelled by a profusion of small groups many of them working under the umbrella of the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM). Participants included radical teachers union activists, students, parents and community groups that had already been fighting charter school invasions on their home turf.
In Red Hook, parents and educators from P.S. 15 mobilized against the DOE plan to expand PAVE Academy’s presence inside their school for another five years. The DOE claims the P.S. 15 school building is underutilized, a rationale it frequently invokes to justify moving an additional school into an already existing school.
P.S. 15 serves a large population of special education and English language learners, and has received A’s on the DOE’s annual progress report for the past three years. But all of that is at risk as PAVE, whose founder is the son of prominent hedge fund billionaire, continues to grow (see center spread).
“Beginning in year four we will have no other classrooms except for enrollment generating classrooms … and our class size would start to rise,” said P.S. 15 special education teacher Julie Cavanagh, one of the lead organizers of the Jan. 21 protest in front of Bloomberg’s home. “To us, under-utilized means we have room for small class size, we have room for pull out intervention. We have room for one-on-one counseling. We have room for dance, we have room for music, we have room for art. We have room for the services our special ed kids need and to get them in the private setting that they deserve. Not in the hallway, not in the closet, not in the corner of a library.”
Gov. David Paterson has joined Mayor Bloomberg in calling on the State legislature to abolish the current statewide cap on the number of charter schools which stands at 200. This effort stalled in mid-January but is likely to be revived again as the Obama administration continues to dangle millions of dollars of education aid in front of states that lift charter caps.
Critics of charter schools, including the powerful United Federation of Teachers, which represents 87,000 New York City school teachers, have called on the State legislature to amend the law to ensure that charter schools are open to all students, that their finances are transparent and that public monies are not wasted on excessive management fees or administrators’ salaries before raising the cap.
Back in New York City, it remains to be seen if organizers can build on the energy that was unleashed in the past month. Angel Gonzalez, a retired Bronx middle school teacher who co-founded GEM, wants to see teacher, parent and student groups coalesce into Save Our School committees.
“We are only beginning to wake up our sleeping giant, which is our community,” Gonzalez said. “We’re fighting a corporate power that has billions of dollars and Bloomberg is their front man. Eventually people are going to see through that.”
January 26, 2010
New York Could Use the $700 Million
Because of a disagreement over charter schools, legislative leaders in Albany are in danger — once again — of letting hundreds of millions of federal dollars slip through their fingers.
Washington is making $4 billion in education funds available under a program called Race to the Top. The money is aimed at encouraging states to improve or close failing schools, keep the most-qualified teachers and expand well-run charter schools. New York’s share could be as much as $700 million. The deadline for state applications was last Tuesday, and most states jumped at the opportunity. New York submitted its application, but it lacked a crucial ingredient: a plan that would allow for more charter schools.
A bill favored by legislative leaders would have doubled the number of charter schools allowed in the state to 400. But the bill was flawed and faced an almost certain veto from Gov. David Paterson. The big problem was that it would have undercut the schools’ independence by transferring the power to create charter schools from local authorities to the Board of Regents, which is appointed by the Legislature.
This shift particularly offended Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He called the bill a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” It would definitely have been a step backward from a system that has mostly worked well, especially in New York City. Charter schools are not without flaws. Their finances should be more transparent. And public-school parents often resent sharing much-needed space with charter schools. But none of these criticisms are a reason for Albany to undercut the whole system or give up on federal funds, especially during a state budget crisis.
A second round of applications for federal aid is due this summer. By then, the Legislature should be able to organize hearings and come up with a plan for the entire state. Otherwise, New York runs the risk of forfeiting, once again, money it needs badly. In 2008, Albany failed to approve even an experimental version of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan that would have imposed fees on cars coming into Manhattan during rush hours. That cost the city millions of dollars in federal transportation funds. New York can’t afford a repeat performance.
January 26, 2010, 12:57 pm
Themes From the Tumult of School Closings
By SHARON OTTERMAN, City Blog, NY TIMES
Ruby Washington/The New York Times Lisa Fuentes, principal of Christopher Columbus High, hopes to keep her school afloat.
January has been a tumultuous month for the New York City school system, but no moment is likely to be more contentious than Tuesday night, when a panel will decide the fate of 19 schools scheduled for closing.
The Panel for Educational Policy, newly vested this year with the final word on school closings, is likely to affirm the proposals, as a majority of its members sit at the pleasure of the mayor. But at least a few members say they will raise objections, so one never knows.
I’m new to the education beat after covering foreign news. For me, witnessing the debate over the closings has served as a crash course in school administration under mayoral control. And since the debut of this City Room column also comes on Tuesday, I thought I would step back and see what larger themes have emerged from the angry drumbeat of rallies, petitions, hearings, documents that has come with the closings.
As I’ve watched the closing decisions resonate, mostly from the vantage point of one closing school in the Bronx, Christopher Columbus High School, I’ve been struck by the gaps between the Department of Education’s stated goals and the way its actions are being viewed by the hundreds of students, teachers and parents in the schools facing extinction.
When the city decides to phase out a school for poor performance, it sends the school a short document called an Educational Impact Statement. It provides few details. No team of counselors or officials shows up to reassure students or faculty. Misinformation and anxiety promptly pour into this vacuum of information.
Though schools being shuttered are phased out over several years, allowing most current students to graduate, the question was often repeated at public hearings this month: Where will our children go? And though, as Chancellor Joel I. Klein has said, the closings are meant to be curative, not punitive, teachers still question why one school is being punished, while other schools — sometimes with lower scores — remain open.
Documents for six of the 20 closing schools included the phrase “while the overall scores on the D.O.E.’s accountability tools do not meet the standard criteria for closure,” opening the city to charges that it lacks transparency. In the case of Columbus High School, it was even more confusing; officials included this line, then later removed it.
In the fuzzy language category, the designation “proficient,” which appears on annual school quality reviews, seems not to carry much weight. Twelve of the 20 schools proposed for closing were marked as proficient last year.
When the closing list came out in December, the United Federation of Teachers, the city teachers’ union, told school staff members that if they wanted to fight, the union would stand with them. The battle lines soon took on a familiar shape. Arrayed against the closings were clusters of City Council members, community board leaders, and other local politicians who have had little say under mayoral control of the schools. They stood with the union, which has been aggressive in challenging the mayor in recent months, amid stalled contract negotiations. Aside from city officials, proponents of the closings stayed extremely quiet.
For the union, closings are particularly contentious, because one of the most significant effects of school closings is that they allow a school to clear out much of its staff. Most teachers in New York City have tenure, but in a closing, the building has to retain only 50 percent of its “qualified teachers.”
There’s a catch, though. Those teachers who aren’t hired elsewhere, whether because they are senior teachers with high salaries or because they are undesirable or unmotivated, end up going into a pool of unassigned teachers who work as substitutes or in other nonpermanent posts, often for years. This pool of 1,200 teachers costs the system about $100 million a year — and it is expected to grow in the latest round of closings.
Statistics can reflect whatever prevailing forces want to measure at a given time. The graduation rate, which has gone through many methodologies in recent years, is a good example. When schools are closing, officials fault their four-year graduation rates. But there are other measures floating around, and some people fighting the closings have seized on them. In 2007, for example, the city compiled a seven-year graduation rate that took into account General Educational Development diplomas. By that measure, 72 percent of city high school students graduated (compared with 54 percent in four years); and in Columbus High School in the Bronx (where the four-year rate is about 40 percent), 81.5 percent did.
At small schools, a few children can make a big difference in a school’s annual graduation rate, a factor in some closings, defenders of the schools argue. While statistics can show us trends, their fungibility is an argument for a greater range of qualitative measures that count.
It’s a Vision Thing
Chancellor Klein can be eloquent when he describes how he is pushing for the system to move forward. For high schools, he explains, the city has found a model — closing big schools and opening smaller ones — that works, and the small schools do seem to have found greater success. But in a system as large as this one, any change will bring short-term winners and losers, and critics say Mr. Klein should do better in mitigating the negatives.
In a letter to the chancellor, Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, called for more support for large high schools that absorb concentrations of high-needs students when other schools close. Advocates for Children, a nonprofit group, said that at Samuel J. Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, English language learners received fewer services, and some were pushed into G.E.D. programs, as that school began its phaseout in 2007.
While the closings as a whole may move the system in the right direction, the effects on vulnerable students have been a source of tension. “The D.O.E. must assure the public that its aggressive approach to school closing is not afflicting collateral damage on the city’s most vulnerable students,” Advocates for Children said last week in a statement.
A weekly feature, to run Tuesdays at midday on City Room, that tells you what’s going on in New York City’s schools, written by our education beat reporters. Have a tip? Send them to Sharon Otterman and Jennifer Medina.
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