2006-09-29 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

As those who read this column on a regular basis know by now, I have very strong opinions about what is happening to the public school system now that the system has been under the control of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein for two years.

I would guess that I have more experience than most with the issue both because I have seen it from the inside as a teacher for 33 years and from the outside as a parent and grandparent whose two kids went through the system and whose grandchildren presently attend local public schools.

I worked in elementary school as a fourth grade special education teacher. In middle school, I worked as a social studies teacher, an MIS II Special Ed teacher, a middle school facilitator, a school programmer, a staff developer for the district and a journalism teacher. I taught for several years in a high school career education program and have taught adult education as well. For several years, I was the only editor for the city's Special Education Curriculum Development Division and wrote or edited all of the teacher's handbooks and students curriculum books that came from the division. I taught school programming for Bank Street College of Education and ran several special education conferences for the city as Long Island University.

I provide all those boring details of an exciting career so that you will know that I have some interest and expertise in education and am not a dilettante who simply wants to knock the powers-that-be in the diatribe that follows.

For years I argued that the entire structure of education was flawed, with all the decisions, rules and regulations coming from the top and often from people who had no idea of what they were talking about.

One of my jobs while working as the editor for the special ed division was to get together with Board of Education "experts" and state ed officials to work on bringing state mandates to the city. Not one of those BOE people at the meeting had ever served in a classroom position. In fact, of the eight who were present at one meeting, six had doctorates from Ohio State University and had never been in a New York City school in their lives. The state officials had the same problem. Often, I was the only person in the room with classroom experience.

I finally had to run screaming from these educational experts who knew nothing about education.

Now, Bloomberg and Klein have taken that flaw (that could only happen in the educational community) and exalted it as a major improvement in the present system.

They want to take all the layers of bureaucracy from the system and vest all the power in the hands of the principal. There are presently 331 school principals with that kind of power, which is not a bad idea is you have principals who are seasoned professionals who have the knowledge and the expertise to do the job.

The only problem is you don't have that kind of person in the majority of local schools.

I don't know all of the 331 principals who are 'empowered" to take charge of their own destiny.

I do know that many of them came from the mayor's "Principals Academy" at Tweed Courthouse. The great majority of those who graduate from that program have never been teachers, never been assistant principals. That's the business model that says if a person can manage one thing, he or she can manage anything.

I don't believe that for a minute. I believe the Music Man's contention that "you've got to know the territory."

I'll say it more succinctly. You have to have lots of experience as a teacher and assistant principal before you can be a principal.

When the Department of Education told me that the principal of the new KAPPA VI School at Far Rockaway High School spent his entire career as a helicopter pilot before graduating from the principal's academy, it was expected that I would take that as a positive development. I like helicopter pilots as well as the next person, but how that makes one an "excellent choice for school principal" I still can't fathom.

In addition, when you give principals total control over their own schools, you have to consider the question of how reliable and how ethical they are. Not every principal has the best interests of the school and its students at heart. Many of them have agendas that have nothing to do with education.

Over my years in the system, I worked for one principal who gave all of the out-of-classroom jobs to the teachers who joined with him in a stock investment club.

I worked for another principal who locked his door for two hours every afternoon so that he could have an uninterrupted lunch. Even when there was a fire in the school or other crisis, his orders were that he was not to be disturbed.

Then, there was the principal who for twelve years refused to put a woman in a dean's job because he believed they were too weak and unreliable to do the job. How about the principal that refused to hire minority teachers and did so only when forced to by the district. Almost all of those he did hire under protest got unsatisfactory ratings at the beginning of their second year and were shipped elsewhere.

I could go on and on. Would you like to give complete control to any of those principals? I certainly would not.

Then, there is Claude Monereau.

He is actually one of the principals who was granted "empowerment" under the mayor's plan.

The name probably sounds familiar because he has often been in the news as well as in this column.

You'll remember him because he was the genesis of the NAACP protests at Beach Channel High School when he was an assistant principal there. He wanted to be principal of that school so badly that he undermined the authority of two other principals - one white, one black and then, when he didn't get the job on the third-go-around, he sparked a racial divide that nearly split the school in two.

So, of course, Region Five Superintendent Kathy Cashin punished him for his racial arson by making him principal of MS 53 and then by approving the school's appointment as an "Empowerment School."

When Monereau was first appointed to the school, I called Cashin (she was still speaking to me then) and told her that he had come to my office, asking me to mount an editorial campaign to make him principal of BCHS. I pointed out all of the trouble that he and his right-hand woman Regine LeFranc (then an AP in languages at the school) caused for the school and the community. She assured me that it was only an interim appointment until somebody else could be found. That was year's ago.

He has replaced all of those positions he could get his hands on with minority aides, teachers, paras and assistant principals. LeFranc is now an AP at the school, after being thrown out of BCHS.

What a world. Give this man the ultimate power over a school? He is a living proof that the mayor is wrong.

More on that next week.


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