2001-04-07 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

I was going to continue my mini-series on standards this week, but there are so many things to write about that I decided to skip standards for a week and move to the odds and ends that make this job so much fun.

The debacle over passing five schools on to the Edison Corporation proves once again that it is the parents and the kids, not the school staff that is the problem in problem schools. The New York Post did one of their no-nothing editorials that blamed Chancellor Levy, city politicians, the UFT, teachers, ACORN and Al Sharpton, in that order. Almost as an afterthought, the editorial says, "at four of the schools, most of the parents did not care enough to vote…" That is precisely the problem. There were large numbers of parents who did not care enough to come to school to get their child’s report cards earlier this school year. There are large numbers of parents who do not care enough to come to school to meet their child’s teachers. There are large numbers of parents who do not care enough to come to school when their child engages in inappropriate behavior. There are large numbers of parents who do not care that their child is brought late to school many days by the police truancy patrol. There are large numbers of parents who just do not care enough. Unfortunately, the majority of those parents have children who are in low-performing schools. Is there a correlation between the two? Of course there is, but anybody who says that there is immediately gets branded as a "racist," so nobody will say it. Therefore, the problem will never be solved because it will never be addressed.

There is one group of school staff members that are seldom mentioned but who are integral to the school and are sorely overworked. I am speaking of the school secretaries. In the smaller elementary schools in the district, one secretary often functions as payroll secretary, pupil accounting secretary and principal’s secretary all in one. It is an impossible job and it is being made more impossible by the new attendance tracking standards and by the increase in reports and paperwork required of principals. In the middle schools, there are often individual secretaries in each of the jobs, but it is an equally difficult one. Pupil accounting secretaries in schools with a mobility rate of more than 40 percent often have upwards of 2,000 students to track at one time and tens of dozens of admissions and discharges to handle each year. Payroll secretaries have more than 100 staff members to track and to deal within addition to tracking the work in after school programs, Saturday programs and an enhanced summer school. My hats go off to these ladies who are often overworked but seldom get any recognition from parents, staff or administration.

I received several faxes and some e-mails of a message that District Superintendent Matt Bromme has sent out to all schools. At first, I thought it was some sort of April Fools joke, but it turned out to be real, too real for Catholic teachers who will be greatly impacted by Bromme’s edict. The school holiday this year runs from Monday, April 9 (the first day of Passover) to Easter Sunday, (on April 15). Easter Monday has traditionally been a holiday, but it is not this year. The central board, however ruled that teachers who believe that it is a religious obligation to be off that day can take it as a "religious observance day," which means that they get their day’s pay minus the cost of a substitute. Bromme, after a "conversation with the central board," mandated that any teacher who takes the day for religious observance has to "provide documentation from their spiritual advisor that the day is of such a nature that the person seeking to take the day off can not perform their professional responsibilities." In addition to the grammatical problems the sentence presents, I find it personally chilling. Not being Catholic and not planning to take the day for religious observance or for any other reason, the edict does not affect me. If I were Catholic, however, I would be incensed that I would be asked by a public official to explain my particular brand of religion to him or to anybody else and to require my "spiritual advisor" to give me a note excusing my absence for the day. Somehow, this smacks of a violation of my Constitutional rights and I would think that the union or somebody would explain to Bromme what America is all about.

It’s nice to see schools doing something for their communities. Most of the schools do some sort of community service and it sometimes gets notice in this paper, sometimes not. Recently, the students of PS 104 collected 1,000 cans of food for the residents of the Skyway Family Center, which is in our district. The food will go a long way towards feeding the 75 families residing in the city shelter. The fundraising effort is under the direction of Principal Maureen Gonzalez, assisted by Jeanette Walrond’s fifth grade class. The school’s AIDP facilitator, Ken Yanek, aids the program. Yanek has been instrumental in bringing both food and much-needed donated clothing to the shelter.

A few years ago, a number of alternative high schools were opened to "address the needs of students who were dropping out of traditional high schools." These schools were given a free hand to hire their own staff and to develop their own curricula. Liberals and politicians hailed them as the answer to the high school drop out program, saying that those schools were somehow better than the traditional schools. Now, the results are in. The drop out rate in the alternative schools is actually higher than in traditional schools. Of the ten schools with the highest drop out rates in the city, six of them are alternative schools. Of the 785 students who entered those schools to earn a general equivalency diploma, 53 percent dropped out before graduating.

Speaking of dropouts, the highest drop out rate in the city belongs to Hispanic students, particularly Hispanic girls. While the percentage of Caucasian girls dropping out is 6.9 percent and the percentage of African American girls dropping out is 13.0 percent, the percentage of Hispanic girls dropping out is a whopping 26 percent. The only group that is higher than Hispanic girls is Hispanic boys, who drop out at a rate of 31 percent (compared to African American boys at 12.1 percent and Caucasian boys at 7.1 percent). What is the reason for that high drop out rate? There is lots of speculation, but I believe the answer can be found in bilingual education and in the fact that Hispanic kids realize that education is not really addressing their needs because they are not being educated to live in the real world of America.

When I went to Far Rockaway High School back in the late 1950’s, there were three diplomas available to students: An academic diploma (similar to today’s Regent’s diploma); a general diploma for those who took commercial subjects such as automotive and machine repair and a commercial diploma for those who wanted to go into office careers. There was no stigma in being in any particular group until somebody realized that more African American kids were in the general program than there were in the academic program. They ended the three-diploma program and now every kid has to take a Regents program whether they can handle it or not. That was a stupid decision then and it is a stupid decision now, when people who are skilled in auto repair and electrical repair earn more than teachers and live better lives to boot.

Just a note to the mayor: there really is a teacher shortage and it will reach epidemic proportions next September when many schools will not have the wherewithal to staff their classrooms. This is not a union ploy and it is not a negotiating ploy. Get your head out of you know where and begin a process of bringing in teachers – not from Canada and Australia, but from our city.

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