2003-11-28 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk By Howard Schwach

For many years, students graduating from PS 114 in Belle Harbor decided to eschew Middle School 180 for
a number of magnet schools in Brooklyn.

In some years, nearly the entire sixth grade graduating class went over the bridge because their parents believed that MS 180 was not a safe alternative for their children.

Kathleen Cashin, the new Regional Superintendent for Region Five (which includes all of the Rockaway schools) has a plan to change that, to bring west end students back to the peninsula for middle and high schools.

Her plan is as controversial as it is wide-ranging.

Minority parents see the plan as a move to get rid of their students and make MS 180 a mostly-white school.

West end parents see it as a chance to once again gain access to a safe, academically-oriented Rockaway school.

I am ambivalent.

First of all, I do not particularly like gifted magnet programs and I do not like K-8 education.

I will tell you why.

When Townsend Harris High School was in the planning stages, I was the PA president at Far Rockaway High School.

At the time, I said publicly that I did not like the idea of gifted high school because it would draw the ten or twelve best students from every high school in Queens.

I was right.

Despite the fact that my daughter went to Townsend Harris and got an outstanding education, I would have preferred that she had gone to Far Rockaway.

Gone from Far Rockaway and Beach Channel High School and every other Queens school were the kids who would be the newspaper editor, the school president, the valedictorian.

The magnet gifted program at MS 180 would do the same on a smaller scale. It would draw every decent student from one end of the peninsula to the other, drawing all of the best and the brightest from both MS 53 (where I taught for 18 years) and from MS 198 (where I was a staff developer for three years).

And, though I graduated from PS 106 when it was still a K-8 school (JHS 198 was still two years from its opening), I think that middle school kids get shortchanged by taking the seventh and eighth grades in an elementary school setting.

For a year or two, I programmed PS 207 in Howard Beach, a K-8 school. That experience, seeing how the middle school kids were treated as an appendage of the elementary program, reinforced that belief.

A school not built originally as a K-8 school does not have the facilities (gym, lunchroom, science labs, etc.) to support a middle school program. Take a look at PS/MS 43 or PS/MS 207 if you do not believe me.

I also believe that isolating groups of kids from one another, be it for religious reasons, racial reasons, economic reasons, gender or for ability to do school work harms democracy. A true democracy demands that kids get to know each other and have the same basic understandings and background. That is no longer the case.

Now, however, to my ambivalence.

I have a grandson who is a public school student. I want him to have the ability to go to top schools on the peninsula, to get a sterling education, as his father and his aunt did.

A special program such as the gifted magnet might be just the thing to really make MS 180 a better school, to give his parents a viable alternative.

I really want him to have a viable alternative. I do not want him to have to go to Brooklyn to get an outstanding education.

That is the conundrum.

I have a philosophical problem with gifted programs that draw kids from their neighborhood school, but I want a gifted program (or the like, because he is too young, and it is too early to know if he will be eligible for a gifted program) for my grandson and his school colleagues.

I am opposed to K-8 programs, but I know that many parents will stay in Rockaway because their kids can stay in a school in which they have been for years and in which they feel safe.

I would like to see Cashin’s plan given a chance. I believe that it will, for some parents at least, serve to keep kids in Rockaway schools.

Her plan, which calls for a MS 180 gifted magnet program (called a Scholar’s Academy) and a middle school unit for PS 114 kids in grades 4 to 8 who cannot get into the magnet program (done because there is no room for a 6-8 component at PS 114 due to overcrowding).

Kids who now go to PS 225 and PS 183 who cannot get into the magnet, or into the new ALPS program (6-12) that will run at Beach Channel High School, will remain at their elementary schools through the eighth grade.

That is why many minority parents believe that the Department of Education is "getting rid" of their kids to make room for the PS 114 kids, who are largely white.

While kids who do not get into the special programs from PS 114 will still go to MS 180, those from the other feeder schools will not.

The fact that kids who now go to MS 180 would be allowed to stay to finish the eighth grade does not do it for minority parents.

Like the PS 114 parents, they look to the kids who might want to go there in the future.

That is not an easy nut to break.

There has to be some accommodation to insure that minority kids have access to both the gifted magnet and the ALPS program. I do not mean a quota.

I have heard that minority parents are going to ask for a quota to insure that a specific number of their children get into the magnet program.

I would oppose that. I know that there are many minority students who are gifted and will qualify for the magnet program on their own.

Some minority parents do not seem to think that is true. There is a basic mistrust that has grown in the past two weeks between the minority community and Cashin.

The other problem that I have with Cashin’s plan is the unstated desire to get rid of MS 180 principal George Giberti. I believe that the move to oust him is based in politics, not in education and that he should be kept.

For many parents, this controversy is literally black and white. The white parents see it as a chance to reclaim a neighborhood school that was once called "The School of Champions."

"That school is as much ours as those who are complaining about the plan," a white parent told me. "We have a right to have that school as a safe and viable alternative."

Minority parents, however, see it as a sort of "ethnic cleansing," a plot to make MS 180 an all-white, west end school.

Both those parents are right, and both are wrong.

I believe that Cashin is genuinely looking for a way to bring the Belle Harbor students home to what remains of District 27. I am not sure that this will do the trick, but the plan is worth a try -- if all students have a level playing field for entrance to the new and better school.

Hence, the ambivalence.

Anybody who sees it as black and white is just not thinking.

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