2004-11-26 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

This time last year, in the November 21, 2002 edition of The Wave, I wrote a lead story that was headlined, “Big Changes Coming For Middle Schools.”

Little did I know just how much the entire school district was about to change.

The district has been turned on its head by Region Five Superintendent Kathleen Cashin, which should be a good thing, but, as the song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

First of all, it remains to be seen whether K-8 education is truly all that it is cracked up to be. I can understand why parents who are comfortable with their child’s elementary school and wary of the local middle schools would want a K-8 organization. Experts should know better.

I think we can look at the experience at the schools that have been K-8 for the past few years – PS 43, PS 27, PS 107 and see that the experiment has had mixed results at best and have been a failure at worst.

None of the schools that are now becoming K-8 have the facilities to house the bigger kids – lunch rooms, gyms, computer labs, etc. They don’t have the wherewithal to provide the expertise and curriculum that the kids who are prepping for high school need. In my mind, K-8 is a bad idea, even if you leave out the factor of housing 5 year olds and fifteen year olds in the same building.

Take, for example, PS 114 in Belle Harbor. Next year, all of its gifted students will be leaving the building for MS 180, taking principal Brian O’Connell with them. That leaves the “non-gifted” sixth and seventh graders in an overcrowded building with a tiny gym and a very small lunchroom.

Who will become the principal at PS 114 when O’Connell moves to MS 180 to run the district’s gifted program? The region laughs at the question, saying that no decisions have yet been made on only administrative moves. My insiders tell me, however, that, at least until this week, John Comer, the new principal of MS 180 – who has one year total experience as a supervisor – was set to move to Belle Harbor. The region disputed that earlier, but the people there, when they talk to the press, spin every situation.

Now that Comer has been accused of manhandling a teacher and doing various other things that don’t add up to being a good supervisor (like putting out a memo that forbid staff from calling 911 without his permission) it is doubtful that the Belle Harbor school community would welcome Comer with open arms.

I do like the idea of a gifted program and I am glad to see that lots of students who previously fled to District 21 have come back to Rockaway. I am not sure, however, that Chancellor Klein and his “progressive” minions are enamored with gifted education, however, and the program might well be short-lived.

Then, there are the high schools.

I have heard that far fewer students were assigned to our two local high schools, both of which are now housing smaller alternative schools.

Experts tell me that the smaller enrollments have occurred previously in schools that were being phased out in both name and reality to house the new, smaller schools. Campus Magnet, for example, was once Andrew Jackson. Jackson no longer exists, except in the memory of its alumni.

That is going to happen to Far Rockaway High School, which now houses the Frederick Douglass Academy and may soon house another smaller, independent school.

I don’t know how you fell about putting Far Rockaway High School into the dustbin of history, but I don’t like it. My mother, father, wife and son all graduated from the school, as did I. Why wipe out a valued member of the community simply to make it look as if you have something brand new and therefore valuable?

The word is that the same thing will happen to Beach Channel High School, which now houses the grades 6-12 Channel View Academy for Research – talk about pretentious.

If what I hear is true, then, within the next five years, there will be no more FRHS, no more BCHS. That would be troubling, just as I am sure the demise of Andrew Jackson was troubling to those who graduated from the school.

And, if I question the validity of K-8 schools, how can I not question a 6-12 program that puts eleven years olds in with eighteen and nineteen year olds?

Long-time Community School Board President Steve Greenberg, in a recent letter to The Wave, marveled at the fact that Cashin managed to do in one year what the school board had wanted to do and could not because the bureaucracy would not allow them.

There were once lots of checks and balances on individual power. The school board, for better or worse, would recommend supervisors to the district superintendent. Zoning had to be done with the advice and consent of the impacted communities.

Nor of those checks and balances exist any longer. Cashin now makes all of those decisions without the advice and consent of anybody save her conscience and her close associates.

That this does not always work out for the best can be seen in her choices for principal and assistant principal. If you thought that cronyism was rampant during the old school board days, it is much worse today.

Nobody has any experience. Older teachers and secretaries who have given decades of service are being singled out for “U” ratings all over the district. New teachers are being beaten down by supervisors (literally as well as figureatively, if you can believe the stories coming from too many of the local schools that the stories are easy to believe) who have a quota that demands that they give those unsatisfactory ratings to a certain percentage of teachers and staff.

It is truly a Brave New World for our educational family.

Whether that is good or bad remains to be seen, but there are already some disquieting scenes appearing, and there seems to be nobody in a position to say “no.”

Perhaps we should think about the old say, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Perhaps the bad old days of the local school boards were no so bad after all.

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