2002-05-25 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

When I was working as a staff developer for District 27, I often worked in mainland schools. Most of my career was spent at IS (now, MS) 53 in Far Rockaway. I had also worked at JHS (now, MS) 198 in Arverne for a time as a teacher early in my career and then later as a staff developer. I was used to the Rockaway schools, and the conventional wisdom was that the mainland schools were a better place to be.

Those of you who have followed my School Scope column over the years know that the conventional wisdom is not necessarily correct, but that was the perception nevertheless.

I remember walking down the hall at a mainland middle school where the principal of the school was chastising a student for some transgression.

"If you don’t start acting correctly, we’re going to transfer you to a Rockaway school," he told the student.

That is when I realized that Rockaway has become a sort of bogeyman in the district, a place that you didn’t want to be.

What brings this up now is a report that Iris Nelson, the principal of PS 65, a mainland school that is having problems with toxic waste, is using that bogeyman to keep her teachers in line.

The published report (which I have not been able to confirm) said that Nelson called all of her teachers together in a meeting designed to stop the information leaks that had been coming from building personnel to the media.

The teachers were reportedly told to "keep their mouths shut" when dealing with the media, particularly with the local media. The report says that Nelson then told them that if they said anything more than "no comment" to the press, they "would be shipped off to the Rockaways."

That threat was obviously very real to the teachers in the building, because none are any longer willing to speak either on the record of anonymously.

One teacher did go on television with Marcia Kramer of CBS on Monday night. The teacher’s face was covered electronically and his or her voice was digitalized so that it was not recognizable.

The teachers are afraid. Speak out and get shipped to Rockaway. What a concept!

Under present union rules, it is not possible to transfer a tenured teacher unilaterally. The rules require that the teacher request such a transfer.

Untenured teachers, however, can be moved around at will under the threat of losing their jobs entirely.

That is a good rule and Nelson’s purported threats point to the reason that it is a good rule.

Those who favor the Mayor’s plan that would allow district superintendents to move teachers at will say that it is simply a management tool that would allow the boss to place workers where they are needed most.

That explanation does not take into account the fact that the plan would also allow the superintendent to move "troublemakers" and "whistleblowers" around at will. That is not something that would serve either the schools or their students well.

I am a prime example that tenure and school assignments are necessary components of educational freedom.

For a dozen years, I wrote a school column while working in district schools.

I said what had to be said. Often, that angered the powers at the district office.

At one point in time, a school board member cornered me at a meeting.

"If you keep writing about me," he said, "you are going to wind up at a school in Bed Stuy."

I guess that I was already in Rockaway and Brooklyn had to be the bogeyman.

The same school board member tried to have me fired, both from the school system and by The Wave. He instituted a boycott of The Wave by local bar owners.

The Wave stood by my columns and the school rules did not allow him to either transfer me or fire me without cause.

That is a protection that is necessary if the truth is going to be told.

That protection is available to the teachers at PS 65 as well. Many of them, however, are too afraid to use it.

Teachers have a right to speak out on the issues that are affecting their students. They should not be stifled by a principal’s threat to transfer them to a less desirable school or to punish them in any way.

Under the mayor’s proposed governance plan, however, the superintendent (and, by extension, the principal) would be able to do just that.

I have no problem with the mayor controlling the schools. I don’t think it will make any real difference who controls the schools. It never has.

I met last week with City Council speaker Gifford Miller and Eva Moskowitz, the chair of the council’s education committee.

The two had called the editors of Queens weekly newspapers together to push their budget plans.

Of course, the question of education came up over and over again.

I asked them if they really believed that education in New York City would be improved should the mayor take over without reforming what happens at 110 Livingston Street. Without imposing strict rules for student behavior and strict punishments for improper behavior. Without changing the fact that supervisors without any expertise in a subject area often supervise teachers who are experts at that subject. Without changing the fact that teachers are forced to pass students who do not deserve to pass and are sanctioned by administrators for failing too many students.

They looked at me as if I were from another planet.

Those who do not work in the system do not understand why the system is failing in many schools and succeeding in many others.

The system cannot be fixed by people who do not understand what is broken.

If you don’t know the questions, you will never get any of the right answers.

Giving the mayor control of the schools will not change much of what is going on in those schools; Not unless some systemic changes are made at the same time.

Not as long as principals can threaten to transfer teachers to Rockaway as a punishment for telling the truth about their schools.

Not as long as truth-tellers and whistleblowers can be punished for trying to find the truth, and like "The X-Files", the truth is out there.


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