2000-05-06 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Schools fail not because of the teachers or the administration. They fail because of the kids and their parents.

I have seen it over and over again, both in Rockaway and in other places in this city. Schools fail when the top students and their parents run, first from the school and then from the community.

They leave behind them destroyed communities and schools that are peopled by kids who cannot and will not read and by parents who either do not care or are too busy staying alive to do anything to support their child’s education.

It is sad, and it will continue to happen as long as people run.

A look at the history of the Rockaway schools will be instructive to understand the phenomenon.

IS 53 in Far Rockaway opened as a middle school more than 25 years ago. It served the middle class sections of Far Rockaway, Bayswater and Edgemere. It also served the Redfern Houses and then the Edgemere Houses, two city housing projects that started out middle class and have wound up as two of the most dangerous city housing projects in this city.

IS 53 had a good reputation among parents. Most of the kids were middle class and white. Reading scores, such as there were at that time, were high and achievement was good. There was a thriving two-year special program in which kids did the three years in two and graduated to high school early. The majority of kids went on to Far Rockaway High School, because the idea of magnet high school program had not yet been invented.

More and more minority kids moved into the housing projects as those in the middle class areas aged and their children moved out. IS 53 became 25 percent minority and then 35 percent and then 40 percent.

At that point, two things happened. The educational experts came up with the "emotionally handicapped" (MIS II) classification for students who could not function in a regular classroom. Smaller classes addressed with both a teacher and a paraprofessional were formed. Those classes soon began to terrorize the rest of the school. Secondly, the "tipping process" seen in hundreds of communities around the nation began to take place in Bayswater and Far Rockaway.

Middle class white parents brought their kids to school and saw that there were lots of minority faces in the schoolyard. They heard stories about minority MIS II kids beating up a student or stealing his sneakers or his wristwatch. They began to look at other schools. They began to look at Nassau County.

They heard about an incident where a gun was brought to school or where a girl was assaulted on a staircase. That these stories were not true does not matter. We are talking about perception here, not reality. I came to the school as a resident and as a teacher in the early 1980’s. The process was well underway at that time. Both of my kids went to that school and got an excellent education. I am not sure that I would send them there today.

White residents began to sell homes that they had bought only a few years before for well over $200 thousand for $50 thousand to minority buyers. They wanted out and they wanted out fast.

They were taken advantage of by block-busting real estate agents and by the media.

In no time at all, IS 53 became 90 percent minority and many of those minority students came from cultures and nations where education was not a priority.

The elementary schools in the area, PS 104, PS 106, PS 215, PS 197, went quickly from some of the best schools in the city to some of the worst.

It might sound racist to recount what happened, but it is not. It is fact that those from a lower socio-economic level do not do as well in school. There is a nation-wide indicator of school performance and that indicator is the number of free lunch applications. One can predict the educational achievement level of the school by the percentage of free lunch applications the students proffer to the school. Calling one a racist for reciting the facts will not change the fact that this exists.

JHS 198 in Arverne was once a thriving school with a middle class white population and a high achievement level. I first taught in that school in 1965, upon getting out of the navy. I had a class that included a student who was later nominated for a Pulitzer. Today, there are only a handful of students who read on grade level.

There are a number of teachers who were there from the beginning. They will tell you that it is the student body that has changed and that the change is what precipitated the absolute failure of the school, not the faculty or the administration. They are right on in their evaluation of the facts.

What brought the change? The construction of the myriad of city housing projects in the middle of the peninsula caused the middle class to flee. All that was left were those who could not get their education elsewhere. At the same time, the district began an ASTRE program for gifted elementary schools at PS 183. That school was in the JHS 180 zone. Students who graduated from that program, even those living in the JHS 198 zone, went to JHS 180. That effectively removed all of the students with high academic standing from JHS 198 and left it a wasteland for everybody else.

JHS 198 became a failing school and changing its name to MS 198 and bringing in state "experts" will not change the fact. Even those schools in Rockaway that have worked their way off the "SURR" list are still not really successful schools by any normal measurement. They are simply no longer among the worst.

Which brings us to MS 180. This school was once, not so long ago, called the "School of Champions," by its administration. It had a thriving gifted program and its reading scores were way above average.

Today, less than 10 years later, it is no longer the school of champions. Its scores are way down and it is shunned by most of the middle class families who live in its "catchment" area or zone.

Why? There is no middle class flight from the communities that are served by the school. There is no traditional "tipping" pattern at work at MS 180. No city housing projects have been built in the west end. There are, however, a number of negative factors at work.

All of the middle schools lost their ninth grade several years ago. Many good teachers at MS 180 who had taught the ninth grade but had common branch licenses lost their positions because they had no contractual rights to a middle school position with an elementary school license. Those teachers went to other schools.

At the same time, the district took over the gifted programs for all of the schools in the district. They reduced the number of gifted classes in the school’s Scholar Research Institute (SRI) program from three to one. Many parents perceived this as a diminution of the school’s academic standing.

Some of the teachers who had taught in the SRI program and one who had coordinated the program for a few years left for greener pastures. The parents perceived this as the death of what had been a good program.

Several years ago, the district decided to consolidate its special education classes to save money. Several of the MIS II classes from other schools were redirected to MS 180. I am not sure why. Perhaps the school had lots of room because it had lost its ninth grade. Perhaps, as some say, the school board and the district had it in for Principal Bob Spata.

Whatever the case, the special ed students, who were mostly minority, were moved into the school. While some of the schools had responded to the problem of the gifted students being assaulted by the special ed students by isolating the gifted students in their own wing, in their own lunch and gym periods, MS 180 did not do that for philosophical reasons. It took only a few assaults by special ed students upon the gifted students to get the word around that the school was "unsafe." In one year, 60 of the top students from PS 114, all of who were scheduled for MS 180, went elsewhere. They went to parochial schools and they went to Brooklyn’s District 21. That district had destroyed its own elementary schools by making them K-8 and by reopening its failing middle schools as "magnet schools" that recruited Rockaway parents.

While I understand that many of the parents who ran from Rockaway are now unhappy about it, they feel that there is little place in Rockaway for their children.

The schools reputation was not helped by the fact that some activists used the local media to inflame parents against the school.

Again, perception and not reality was the key.

The same process is beginning anew in some of the mainland schools. I have heard parents say, "I drove past the school yard at lunchtime and all of the kids in the playground were Black." They added, "I just can’t see my kid going there."

The district exacerbated the problem by allowing some schools in non-minority areas, such as PS 47 (Broad Channel) and PS 107 (Howard Beach) to become K-8 schools. That reduces the number of white kids in the local middle schools and creates more racial isolation and a feeling that the middle schools are becoming increasingly minority.

When that happens, "tipping" will begin in those neighborhoods. It may still be a few years off, but it is coming.

Blame not the school system for its problems. Blame the community. Blame the parents who run. Blame the parents who take their kids from neighborhood schools and put them on buses for hours on end to a school that is no better than the one they fled.

As Pogo once said. "We have met the enemy and he is us."


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