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Monday, February 7, 2011

Michael Winerip in the NY Times: As Far as Changing the Script On Closing Schools, Forget It

Cathie Black
February 4, 2011

In Panel’s Votes to Close Low-Performing Schools, Rage and Foregone Decisions
By MICHAEL WINERIP, NY TIMES, February 4, 2011

They knew how the script was going to end. Still, on Thursday night, 2,000 students, parents, teachers and union officials filed into Brooklyn Technical High School, voicing their frustration for five hours.

When the schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, opened her mouth, she was drowned out by people yelling (“Cathie’s gotta go” and “Black is wack”); ringing cowbells; blowing whistles; and in the case of one woman, M. Ndigo Washington, pounding a drum.

It was the second long night of hearings this week to decide whether 25 low-performing New York City public schools would be closed.

The outcome was never in doubt. The decisions on school closings are recommended by the chancellor and voted on by the Panel for Educational Policy. Under mayoral control of the schools, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appoints the chancellor and a majority of the 13-member educational panel: eight people who never fail to deliver for him.

So why did the 2,000 bother to attend? Why did 350 sign up for the privilege of waiting up to five hours for the chance to speak for two minutes? As Charles Barron, a city councilman, said during his two, “You will let us scream until we get hoarse, and then we know what will happen — you’ll shut all our schools down.”

Why bother? The closing of struggling schools has been a key piece of Mr. Bloomberg’s agenda, and his eight-person majority has stood behind him, phasing out more than 100 schools, often replacing them with small schools and charter schools.

Why did Tyrek Greene, a senior at University Heights High School in the Bronx, bother protesting?

“Even though we know the D.O.E. is going to close the schools no matter what,” he said, “we’re here to enter their consciences until they can’t sleep at night.”

Stephanie Campbell of Brooklyn came to praise her son’s school, Explore Charter. And yet, she said, the decision-making process bothered her.

“I’m not pleased with the closings,” she said. “They should fix those schools instead. I wish they would let us feel what we say means something.”

Thursday night, after 12 hours of being pounded over two days, Ms. Black and her deputies did not appear happy. As Jose Herrera, a parent who spoke in support of Coney Island Prep charter school, said, “You look like you’re all in detention right now.”

On the other hand, 12 hours of pounding is easier to take when you know you’re going to win.

In an editorial this week, The Daily News focused its wrath on the audience’s behavior, calling the meetings a “disgraceful, rowdy, shoutfest.”

“These meetings cannot continue to resemble World Wrestling Entertainment throwdowns,” the editorial said. But the paper’s comparison was incomplete. Like a professional wrestling promoter, the education panel knows in advance who will win.

The illusion of having a say, when they have none, may help explain audience members’ rage.

On the surface, it seems to make no sense: Why would people fight for the right to go to low-performing schools, when the city is promising better schools to replace them?

The city has documented the below-average performance of the schools it plans to close. City officials point out that Jamaica High School, in Queens, has received D grades the last two years and has been labeled persistently dangerous by the state. They say Jamaica High is already occupied by three small schools that are doing better.

And yet, on Thursday, there was Charm Rhoomes, president of the Jamaica High PTA, arguing that instead of closing the school, the Education Department should finance it better. She described how her son Shawn started in an honors math class last fall, but after one day, the teaching position was eliminated and Shawn was switched to a standard math class.

Ms. Rhoomes argued that Jamaica High had a disproportionate share of children with challenges, skewing test results. The high school has 23 percent English language learners, much higher than the three small schools in the building. The High School for Community Leadership and Hillside Arts and Letters each have 12 percent English language learners; Queens Collegiate has 6 percent.

Thursday night’s meeting had that Shakespearean feel of fates sealed long ago. In the center of Brooklyn Tech’s stage sat Ms. Black, who said little and deferred to her deputies.

Those deputies — Shael Polakow-Suransky and Marc Sternberg — had facts and figures to support every closing. Meanwhile, standing behind the stage curtain was Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott, Mr. Bloomberg’s educational liaison to the schools, emerging occasionally to whisper into a panel member’s ear, then disappearing behind the curtain again.

If there’s one thing the chancellor, the deputies, the deputy mayor and mayor share — they do not appear to be slowed by second thoughts. They seem to share a sureness they are right.

But what if they aren’t?

The schools scheduled for closing are evaluated in good part by test scores. How dependable are the scores? In 2009, when the mayor was running for re-election, he cited skyrocketing scores as one of his most important achievements: 69 percent of city students scored proficient in English, 82 percent in math. And then, last summer, the state announced the tests were too easy and the results needed to be rescaled. Suddenly, 54 percent of city students were proficient in math and 42 percent in English.

Many of the big high schools to be closed will be replaced by small schools. Yet studies indicate the size of a school is no guarantee of quality. Indeed, of the two dozen schools chosen this week to be closed for low performance, 8 are small schools.

Seven of the schools replacing the closed schools are charters. But a national study on charters indicates that 17 percent are superior to traditional public schools; 37 percent are worse; and the balance, 46 percent, are of similar quality.

These facts, however, were just notes in the margin. The script was written, and was not to change.