2004-06-04 / Columnists

School Scope

By Norman Scott
Now Playing: New York

By Norman Scott
Now Playing: New York’s Latest Disaster Movie

A disaster movie has struck New York. It is non-fiction but still has lots of drama and intrigue. The infrastructure gets destroyed as we witness arrogant, know-nothing leaders who ignore the warnings of knowledgeable people who toil under their yoke — warnings that the damage resulting from their polices will take decades to repair. No, it’s not "The Day After Tomorrow," where the city is hit by an instant ice age that results in massive destruction. This movie runs continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can catch it at the Loews Tweed, headquarters of the Department of Education (dubbed by teacher/writer Ron Isaac, the Department of Public Education— DOPE).

This horror movie, "The House of BloomKlein," has been playing to packed audiences in schools throughout the city. I have seen it many times and still find it difficult to keep track of the devastation. Starring the poster boys for the "Formula For Failure" (the Three F’s) theory of management — no logic, no consultation, no consensus, no transparency, no long-range understanding of the impact of policies being promulgated, decisions on the fly, policies determined by political expediency and political agendas, public relations over substance, changes instituted to make it appear as if something is being accomplished, blaming everyone else for their own failures, blaming the previous failures of the system on the "culture of excuse" while best exemplifying this very same trait, priority interest in how things appear, total disregard for the experience of educators and major research in the field of education, corporate backroom deals, and nepotism. Did I leave anything out?

The "Formula for Failure" most recently reared its head in the attempt by Tweed to shove small high schools into large overcrowded ones, leading to resentment and the creation of conflicts between the small schools and their hosts. The inequities result in a disparity in class size (25-28 at the small schools vs. 34 at the large ones) and are also fueling the increased rates of violence at these schools. The Bronx has become a testing ground for these policies, where three large overcrowded high schools — Columbus, Walton and Kennedy — have become targets.

Walton, at 200% capacity, one of the most overcrowded schools in the city, is up to three shifts a day (going to four next year) and has lost, or is about to lose, up to 18 more classrooms, its guidance counselor’s office and college advisory room. JFK is threatened with having its automotive repair shop replaced by a small school. At Columbus the DOE responded to complaints about being shoved into an overcrowded situation by offering it an annex — a mile and a half away.

A May 29 New York Times article slanted towards the BloomKlein spin indicated that annexes are being created for students who are overage and at most risk of dropping out. Will these annexes provide the necessary services and smaller class sizes, or simply be a dumping ground for the kids nobody wants in their schools? The Times seemed to accept the House of Tweed argument that the high dropout rates in the large high schools justifies these measures — sort of like doubling the amount of people in a rowboat and blaming the boat when it sinks.

This issue had been submerged in the giddiness begotten by the donation of millions of dollars from Bill Gates and the aggressiveness of New Visions, one of the major players in the small school movement. While rational educational reformers recognize that something has to be done to fix the problems with the high dropout rate by providing much needed services, they increasingly understand that the denizens of Tweed not only will not spend the necessary money, but will come up with solutions that will drive those students out of the system. With execution of Level 1 scoring students not an option (at least currently) Tweed looks for ways to hide them away from statistics until they just go away. (See third grade retention plan for another example.)

The position of the UFT has been ambiguous, and that is putting the best face on it. At the May 24th UFT Executive Board meeting representatives from two of the Bronx high schools presented a petition signed by over 700 staff members calling on the UFT to withdraw further support for this policy, call for an immediate moratorium on putting small schools within large schools until there is a clear long-range implementation plan, demand that the staffs of all affected schools be included in devising this implementation plan, call for more creative school redesign models to be considered, take some form of action (i.e. a demonstration at a regional office). The teachers summed it up: "We…are concerned about the integrity of our school[s], worried about our jobs, disturbed by the secretive manner in which this plan is implemented, uncertain about our contractual rights and angry about the UFT’s lack of intervention on our behalf. We believe that the UFT’s continued support of putting small schools within large schools is contrary to the interests of its members."

When the teachers announced a rally at Walton on May 26, UFT leaders responded that a task force chosen by UFT leader Randi Weingarten would be set up to study the issue. (Memo to would-be government, corporate and union leaders: when faced with a potentially inflammatory issue presented by constituents, set up a task force, stack it with your own people who will come to the conclusion you want, make sure it takes at least a year to report and hope the anger will fade by then.)

Parent groups have also been active on the issue. The United Parents Associations passed a resolution on May 3rd calling for a moratorium on putting new schools into already overcrowded buildings. Citing the further overcrowding, larger class sizes, the probability of more violent incidents, forcible transfers of students out of neighborhood schools, and inequities in resources and services, the resolution said "this is a situation fraught with real concerns for students in both the larger and smaller schools and only adds to tensions between them and detracts from their opportunities to receive a quality education."

Small schools have also suffered under the bizarre decision-making process at Tweed. Now housed at Clinton HS in the Bronx, the Celia Cruz Music School is one of those small, specialized schools. Clinton is overcrowded but not as much as Walton. The DOE is now inexplicably trying to relocate Celia Cruz into Walton, which can’t physically asorb it. Celia Cruz doesn’t want to move, the parents feel betrayed, and the big question is why is this move better – for anyone.

No answers have been forthcoming from the House of BloomKlein, which used the Stealth Bomber to drop the news on both Walton and Celia Cruz.

On May 26th both schools demonstrated at Walton to articulate the points in the UFT and UPA resolutions. They wanted to bring attention to the problems created by the DOE’s inept implementation of the small schools movement and the often-negative role New Visions has played in this process.

Though some of the Walton teachers were chanting "no new small schools," Walton’s UFT chapter leader Alan Ettman and Clay Smith of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy (NWBCC), who has been working with the Celia Cruz parents, quickly worked things out to clarify the message: both small schools and big schools are fine and the students at both deserve schools with smaller class sizes and adequate services and programs.

They held joint and separate press conferences for the considerable press that showed up (almost all TV and radio). Ettman used great diplomacy, saying that the music school would be welcome if Walton had the room.

And both groups talked about how the nearby Kingsbridge Armory, a huge space lying vacant that should have been turned into a school years ago, was up for sale. Real cheap, too. Supposedly going for one dollar. BloomKlein never bid on it.

With the BloomKlein centralized management and the attempt to shove one-size-fits-all education policy down everyone’s throats, look for the sequel to this disaster movie to open soon at a large high school near you.


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