1999-07-10 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

There was a certain irony to the events on the night the new school board was sworn in.

The board managed to pull off a difficult feat. It managed to embarrass both the educational community and the political community in one asinine act.

A little history! Back in the days of the suspended school board, black parents were not looked on with favor. Ernest Brown was at the time a "community activist" who spoke at every meeting. I mean that literally, he spoke at every meeting. Most often, several school board members got up and walked off the stage whenever he spoke I would name them, but many people complain that I should forget the past and concentrate on the future. This disrespect got Ernest angry, but it gave those school board members the chuckles.

Ernest fought hard for the right to speak at school board meetings. He fought hard to get the respect that he deserved. He finally won a seat on the board and is now the board’s president.

I have to tell you that Ernest often angered me in those days. He fought against a much-needed health facility at IS 53 because he feared that there would be abortions at the school.

He most often attacked the school where I taught arguing that the faculty and administration were not minority enough, which he believed somehow accounted for the school’s poor showing.

Today, however, we agree on much of our individual educational philosophies.

We stopped agreeing last week. A large number of people wanted to speak at the meeting in support of Superintendent Brenda Isaacs. Since the local board is charged with choosing a superintendent with the advice and consent of the Chancellor, most of those who wanted to speak felt that they had a valid interest in doing so in that forum.

Brown, however, who fought so hard for the right of the public to speak at meetings refused them the right to do so.

Instead, he acted like a spoiled child whose favorite toy had been taken away.

He told the audience (who held up signs calling for Isaacs to remain for the rest of her contract) that it was their fault that the board no longer had any power over personnel and budget matters.

"Your unions called us corrupt and took away our power in this area," he told the crowd, "why should we listen to you now?"

Isaacs pointed out that the people who wanted to speak were individuals and not union organizations. Brown seemed not to hear. He kept talking about "spending the night listening to folk," and "taking too much time for meetings."

James Sanders, to his credit, argued that the people had a right to be heard on such an important issue. He made a motion that two people be allowed to speak. Shalom Becker seconded the motion.

With only seven members in attendance (Ronnie Schwab and Art Beroff were absent), five of the seven were needed for passage. Brown and Jim Adams were joined by Donna Caltabiano to defeat the motion even though it got four votes.

At that point, Superintendent Isaacs left the meeting, joined by about 75 supporters. The school board was left sitting there facing three parents and their own consciences.

The major discussion both before and after the meeting, however, did not deal with the issue of speaking at the meeting. Rather, it dealt with the release of the fourth grade reading scores from the parochial schools.

Even though the parochial schools (and I include private schools and Jewish schools in that term) do not have any special Ed classes nor ESL classes, even though they remove disruptive kids that the public school have to keep and even though the figures included schools in Westchester County, parochial schools only did three percent better in the new fourth grade reading tests than the public schools did.

I did a quick analysis of neighborhood schools, parochial versus public. The statistics are not surprising to me, but they might be alarming to anybody who pays $5,000 a year to keep their kids out of the public schools because they believe those schools provide an inferior education.


% At or Above


St. Frances


PS 114



St. Virgilius


PS 47



St. Camilus


PS 225



St. Mary’s


Darchay Torah


PS 197



St. Rose


PS 183


In only one case is the local parochial school doing better than the local public school. This, despite the fact that the two are not playing on a level playing field. And, in the case of that one school, many of the lower functioning kids are bused in from other parts of Rockaway.

The statistics only serve to buttress my belief that parents who want their kids to have a religious education should continue to send them to parochial school. That is the education the want for their children and they have every right to seek it despite the fact that it is inferior to a public school education. Those, however, who want their kids to have a good education, period, should send them to public schools.

Parochial schools have been yelling for years that they provide a better education than the public schools. I have disagreed with that on numerous occasions in this space and elsewhere. The latest scores seem to bear me out. Kids are better off in public schools and little-d democracy would be stronger if kids were less isolated from each other. This all, despite a public school board that seems not to remember its roots.


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