2004-11-19 / Columnists

Yes Virginia, We Do Local

Greenberg Redux

I’ve been using a piece of recent columns to address some of the issues raised by former CSB 27 President Steven Greenberg’s letter to The Wave on Oct. 1 regarding the School Scope column. Greenberg touched on so many interesting points it might take me all year to deal with them all.

Today’s lesson will touch on his statement that “…all the elementary schools from Arverne to the west end of the peninsula are structured K-8, something for which the parents had been asking for years.” Is Greenberg claiming all parents in Rockaway want K-8 schools? I remember some serious opposition from some parents to the plan. (Hey! I read it in the Wave.) Given that middle schools are generally disaster zones for education, it would seem like a slam dunk — when I saw my 6 th graders in Williamsburg disappear into the local catastrophe that was a junior high, I often felt the same thing.

But a number of parents have raised questions, such as, whether they want to see kindergarten kids occupy the same space as 8th graders. And can children in the 7-8th grades get a real prep for high school without the specialized facilities and subject area teachers that middle schools can offer? Is there a way to somehow rescue the middle schools without taking such a drastic step? They seemed to work for many of us growing up and I know a number of people who still live in Rockaway who went to local junior high schools and survived the experience. So what has changed? There are lots of answers to this question and The Wave often dealt with issues related to the question over the years.

Greenberg gives credit for the ability to create K-8 schools to the restructuring of the school system that gave the mayor control. He praises Region 5 Superintendent Kathleen Cashin for being able to implement her school change policy in a very short time. I would agree that the top-down management of the DOE surely allowed Cashin to remove roadblocks – more like bulldozing right over voices of opposition from parent and community groups, according to some reports.

One of the most serious charges against the restructuring of the school system has been that many of these groups have been shunted aside. Some people think this is a good thing. (As a teacher I sometimes thought so.) But it is surprising to see that point of view coming from someone who at one time was elected to represent parents under the old school board system, which Greenberg seemed to be trashing in his letter despite the fact he was such a prominent representative of that very system.

A number of other regions have not taken the K-8 route but have tried to find ways to make the middle schools work by breaking them down into smaller units. I have actually recently been in large middle schools that seem to work. One is in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, which has gathered the top-performing students in the district into one building. The rest of the middle schools in the area are struggling, to say the least. What do we have to learn from this? The kids left behind in these schools need many more resources. Has anyone tried reducing class size drastically in middle schools that aren’t working? Or pouring as many resources into the schools as necessary? Last year when Far Rockaway HS was branded one of the “dirty dozen” unsafe schools plenty of resources were poured in – in the form of police. What next? After the invasion of Fallujah, send the marines to the worst NYC high schools? Why not “invade” a school with – and here’s a novel concept – teachers and guidance counselors and social workers?

The calls are rolling in

One of the tenets of Greenberg’s letter was a critique of School Scope for not covering local events. Greenberg pointed to the positives from the DOE central management and the wonderful way R5 Supt. Kathleen Kashin was implementing them. In a recent column I wrote, “Greenberg should be careful about what he wishes for... He may find that sometimes it is best to just let sleeping dogs lie.”

Calls have started to trickle in. Stories about the harassment of veteran teachers at JHS 180 – stories about the chaos going on in some schools as principals push older teachers out and replace them with younger teachers who have not yet learned how to control a class. Almost every young teacher goes through that trial but we all learned a lot from the vets. With so many vets being denigrated as “incompetent” they are too busy defending themselves to worry about helping others.

Information has started flowing in from PS 197 in Rockaway where the principal, Michael Koss, has not exactly endeared himself to the staff. Koss, who supposedly went to school with Joel Klein, was brought out of retirement from Maryland by the Chancellor. Not exactly nepotism, but a close relative. Koss has followed what seems to be a DOE mantra of targeting some veteran teachers for scrutiny and harassment.

Koss apparently goes along with DOE tenets to make life miserable for UFT leaders in the school unless they are “cooperative.” Rumors are that some UFT Chapter Leaders seemed to just disappear soon after taking the job. When teachers complained to UFT District Rep. Marilyn Cooper about what they could do to get rid of Koss, she responded, “Who do you guys think you are?” and told them they would just have to live with it. (Many teachers have complained for a long time about the all too cozy relationship between the UFT and the former District 27 that has now been translated to Region 5.)

A number of members of the staff at PS 197 recently demonstrated their displeasure by boycotting a “Lunch & Learn” set up by the Local Instructional Superintendent. The action was not aimed at the LIS, but directly at Koss, who is charged by teachers with having little sensitivity or empathy to teachers and students. That got Koss called down to the Region 5 HQ for a little chat. Being able to force the teachers to give up their lunch hours for even more professional development is considered a big plus to get a good principal’s rating.

Koss has supposedly started talking about retirement again. When he asked teachers to fill out a questionnaire about how to improve the school, he received a whole bunch of responses that said the school would only improve when he leaves. You see, teachers can have input.

The DOE “Leadership” Academy

Though trying to emulate its philosophy, Mr. Koss is not a graduate of Chancellor Klein’s $75 million Leadership Academy, which is designed to imbue new principals with a corporate-tinged educational management philosophy in how to browbeat teachers, manipulate parents, and use PR to cover up a school’s deficiencies. (Teachers claim the Academy must have a yearlong course in bulletin board management.) Raise the money issue with Klein and he is quick to say the funds came from private sources. He ignores the fact that the $75 million could have made some impact in reducing class size, providing supplies like toilet paper and meeting other crucial needs more important than brainwashing principals with former GE chairman Jack Welch’s corporate mentality – get rid of your 20% most negative people, find at least 3 people to get rid of to strike fear into the hearts of employees.

I urge you to read the NY Times article “Push for Principals Finds Slow Progress” (October 30, 2004) written by education reporter Elissa Gootman. You can find it at http://www.nytimes. com/2004/10/30/nyregion/30principal.html?th.

(If you can’t get the article email me at norscot@aol.com ).

Gootman touches on issues related to the Leadership Academy. “New York City’s ambitious effort to recruit 40 experienced principals from across the country has fallen spectacularly short. The effort, part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s overhaul of the city’s schools, cost nearly $200,000…. But all this yielded a modest number of new principals: One.”

The tale of mismanagement, at the very place where management skills to run schools are supposedly being taught, is almost laughable. Gootman writes, “There were advertisements placed in newspapers and education publications. There were trips to network at conferences in Nevada, Florida and California. There were fees to a search firm that helped compile a database of principals who had led failing schools to glory.” The reason given by Robert E. Knowling Jr., CEO of the Leadership Academy: he started way too late to actually recruit anyone. He goes through a litany of excuses as to why he was so tardy. The same kind of excuses the DOE managers claim they never want to hear from teachers as a reason why their students don’t perform.

“It shows a lack of the ability to strategically plan ahead and it also shows a vast gap in knowledge about how schools operate across the nation as well as here in New York City,” said Jill Levy, the union leader of principals and assistant principals.

Knowling, as CEO of Covad Communications was instrumental in driving the corporation into bankruptcy, is paid $250,000 a year. He managed to salvage something by bringing along many of his failed co-executives to help run the Leadership Academy. According to Gootman, they are among the highest paid employees of the Academy. Just how many employees are there and how much are they paid? This information seems to be a state secret that would take the highest orders of intelligence to find out.

Gootman writes, “In the past year and a half, the academy has spent more than $300,000 on recruitment efforts, including relocation incentives of $20,000 to two local instructional superintendents who were hired this year, $44,000 on marketing, $10,000 on scouting conferences and $137,700 in fees to a boutique search firm.” And don’t forget the rest of the $75 million.

Children First, anyone?

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