2005-01-28 / Columnists

School Scope

A Charter School for the UFT
By Norman Scott

Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away (maybe 7 or 8 years ago), I made a proposal in Education Notes (the alternate UFT newspaper I put out) based on the following premises: 1) Too many schools are controlled by principals who make questionable decisions based on power, ego trips and “how things look,” rather than educational factors. 2) A high degree of teacher input and involvement in basic educational decision-making leads to a more rational system based on reality. 3) Given premise number one, most principals would never allow premise number two. 4) There are few, if any, schools run by teachers anywhere in New York City. 5) The best opportunity for teachers to run schools would be to make use of the charter school movement to establish schools managed by teachers. 6) The United Federation of Teachers, with all of its resources, could be the instrument to put some schools into the hands of teachers by providing assistance.

Education Notes urged the UFT to set up an office to support teachers who are interested in setting up charter schools. The goal was not necessarily to have the UFT run these schools – I was wary about the same top-down control from the UFT that we saw at the BOE. I was not against the union running a school, but was more interested in the union providing support for teachers who wanted to get out from “under” and start their own schools.

Despite being derided by Tom Pappas, UFT second in command at the time, who said, “You are going to lose half your support because you are in favor of charter schools” (I didn’t even know I had any support and half of nothing is nothing), Education Notes continued to push the idea in handouts at UFT Delegate Assemblies.

I never formally made a resolution because UFT President Randi Weingarten asked me not to, promising that the issue would be dealt with when she was ready. In the hope that the idea would get her support, I acceded. A year later I was invited to join a semi-secret UFT charter school committee which, fearing a backlash from within since teacher unions had historically opposed the charter school movement as a threat to public education, was not publicized. At the first meeting many of the top UFT officials were present. (When most of them didn’t return for subsequent meetings I should have known this idea was going nowhere.)

We met a few times around the idea of setting up a charter school with City College as a partner, not exactly the idea I was pushing, as this seemed another top down idea where teacher input would be marginalized. (Did I say the UFT is a top –down bureaucratic organization?) The entire project died when the CCNY partnership fell through and the committee was disbanded.

In the past year, in response to the Department of Education initiatives to open fifty charter schools, Weingarten renovated the idea and a new committee was formed, supposedly to study the issue. But the committee went way beyond studying and has actually begun the process of starting a charter school with space already procured in a school in East New York in Region 5. The committee has been making presentations to groups in the union in preparation for a vote at the Delegate Assembly on February 9.

I find myself no longer supporting the concept because in today’s climate of mayoral/corporate management of the school system, there is less opportunity for teachers to have much control over their teaching environments than perhaps at any time in history, even with a school sponsored by a teacher union.

There has been precious little discussion about such an important initiative in the UFT. (Did I say the UFT is a top-down bureaucratic organization?) This was affirmed at the UFT Executive Board meeting on January 24th when a motion to go ahead with the charter school was passed without debate. Not that there wasn’t an attempt when high school Executive Board representative Jeff Kaufman from ICE, an opposition caucus, attempted to speak against the proposal but was refused the opportunity because “the question had been called.”

With tactics like this used to stifle debate inside the union, we can expect there will be as little input from teachers as there is at the DOE. At one of the presentations, I raised the question of the curriculum – would there be an attempt to experiment with new ideas that might actually make education work? The answer was that naturally the school would have to follow all the standards to succeed – read that as lots of test prep. I raised the question of what definition of “success” we were going to use – the one being imposed on us by bureaucrats and corporate entities or the one that teachers know and understand. Guess the answer? (By the way, did I tell you the UFT is a top-down bureaucratic organization?)

Robotic event coming up

Since I retired two and a half years ago I have been working as a volunteer with NYCFIRST, an organization that organizes robotic events. Schools, community organizations and parent groups all over the world take part in these events. Many high schools in the NYC area are busy working away for their big event at the end of March.

My efforts have been focused on the event for children aged 9-14, which includes teams from elementary, middle and 9th graders from high schools. Teams build and program a robot using LEGO blocks. Each year there is a different theme. Last year the Mars Rover was the focus. This year’s theme is called “No Limits” based on the idea of building a robot that will assist people who are physically challenged. Thus, some of the tasks include serving food, feeding pets, picking up fallen eyeglasses, etc. They have two and half minutes to complete as many tasks as possible, earning points along the way. One of the components is a 4-5 minute research project presentation in front of judges. Another is a technical presentation in which students explain the functioning of their robot and the programming behind it.

These tournaments will take place on Saturday Feb. 5th and Sunday Feb. 6th at Riverbank State Park (don’t worry, it’s indoors) at 145th St. and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. This is a volunteer-driven event and we need volunteers very badly to make it all work. You will find college and high school students, corporate executives and DOE officials working side-by-side to make it all happen.

So this is an appeal to all those who want to spend an amazing and wonderful day helping make it all possible. Get a free tee-shirt (and there’s food for volunteers.) But more importantly, see kids and teachers doing things that affirm (or reaffirm) your faith in teaching and learning and how this all can happen under the right conditions.

If you are interested in helping out, contact me at norscott@aol.com.

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