2007-01-12 / Columnists

School Scope

Tilden, Lafayette And South Shore: Don't Close Those Schools, Fix Them!
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman ScottNorman Scott Fear and loathing among teachers and parent groups continues to grow as details emerge over the DOE's decision to close more large high schools, three of them in south Brooklyn. While initial attention was focused on Lafayette HS because of the controversial principal Jolanta Rohloff, recently Tilden HS has come up for more scrutiny. South Shore is also on the list and can Canarsie HS, the school slated to get many of the students from these schools that no one wants, be far behind?

A stir was caused when it was revealed that a Quality Review by another high-priced consultant group (from Britain) Klein has hired to make 3-day visits to most schools had given Tilden fairly high marks. Why would you expect the DOE's right hand to know what its left hand is doing when both hands are busy picking your pockets?

John Lawhead, an ESL teacher at Tilden who had gone through the trials of the closing of his previous school, Bushwick HS, has a unique perspective on school closings and has been an outspoken critic of the decision of the DOE and its often partner in crime, the UFT. Tilden's principal found out the school was being closed from the school's chapter leader who was informed by the union hierarchy. "No way," was her response. Sorry, "Way."

Principal Diane Varano, a graduate of Joel Klein's horrendous Leadership Academy, has developed a good reputation with the entire Tilden educational community as someone who is willing to listen to people's input, a "No-No" in the lexicon of Jack Welchian trained graduates.

Lawhead, a colleague of mine in the Independent Community of Educators (ICE), a group critical of the UFT leadership (and in the interests of full disclosure, will be running against Weingarten's Unity political caucus in the UFT elections currently taking place) loves teaching at Tilden and has written a wonderful analysis of how the DOE can manipulate a school's closing. (And by the way, I can't say enough about John's guts and smarts and leadership on this issue, considering the dogs of war at the DOE and the fact that he will most likely be thrown into the cauldron of the Open Market System trying to find a job.) I'll include some excerpts here. You can read the full piece on my blog, ednotesonline. blog spot.com.

"There were rumors and some ominous signs at the start of the school year, but the announcement of our closing still came as a big surprise. It's now clear at least to me that Tilden was selected as a "target" school for phase-out months before the actual announcement. There was a sudden drop in enrollment and that led to a budget reduction of several hundred thousand dollars. There were many cuts, including most of the after-school programs and the school is bracing for deep excessing of teachers in February.

"A major factor in the decline in enrollment was the loss of new 9th graders. List notice transfers from the feeder schools fell by half. The principal explained to the UFT consultation committee in mid-October that she believed ninth graders had been steered away from the school. She said she had heard reports of students applying to Tilden as their first choice and being assigned elsewhere. I later confirmed this for myself by asking my students if they knew of anything similar. For instance, a girl in one of my classes mentioned to me that a cousin of hers had put Tilden as first choice but was sent to John Dewey. They both live on East 32 Street in East Flatbush.

"It also seemed apparent to the principal that the high school enrollment office was deliberately sending kids who were long-term absent or could not be tracked down. In October there were nearly 400 out of the building not accounted for. To make matters worse, in September all the families of Tilden's students were sent a letter declaring the school to be 'persistently dangerous' and giving them the opportunity to transfer their children. Of the responses sent back about 140 were granted. Families that were not happy with their transfer were told they had to wait until February to return to Tilden.

"One doesn't have to dig very far to see that the decision to close Tilden is not well grounded in publicly available data. Results from New York State's 2001 cohort analysis showed Tilden to be in the middle of a pack of other schools with regard to graduation and dropout rates [by the time they were due to graduate in 2005.] Almost everything said by the DOE and Region 6 administrators about Tilden could also be said about a dozen or so and in some aspects several dozen city high schools. The closings create drama but what escapes notice by the major media is the stark similarity of a vast number of schools with similar demographic profiles.

"The explanations from Region 6 were very vague. According to Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard in a letter to parents of December 12 the major problem was that Tilden was "not on track" to meet the city's goal of "raising the city-wide 4-year graduation rate to 70% and the 6-year graduation rate to 80%." As you know, the claim that New York City is actual anywhere near these levels for graduation is far fetched. The city's graduation figures have been heavily padded (by counting GEDs and not counting an enormous contingent of mysterious transfers) and are way off from what the state's statistics show.

"During the faculty meeting of December 11 where the closing was announced I was amazed at the detachment they expressed. Jean-Claude Brizard declared that he wouldn't want to have his daughter attending Tilden. We were supposed to think he would favor a school only because of its data and ignore that it was 96 percent black and 20 minutes from any subway line. I asked Brizard to name a school in NYC with a demographic similar to Tilden that was doing significantly better. He named Transit Tech as a positive comparison. I asked if he could name a school more similar to us than that one and he declined. "According to the schools' report cards (showing figures for 2004-05), at Transit Tech 15.5 percent of incoming 9th and 10th graders were over aged. For Tilden it was 50.5 percent. Three percent of Transit Tech's students were classified as recent immigrants compared with 22.9 for Tilden.

In other words, the demographic similarities are rather elusive, aside from the bare fact that most of the students are minority. (And one should add it's not likely that Superintendent Brizard's daughter will be going to Transit Tech either.)

"The detachment from our reality is no surprise. The attitude from the top administrators is one of blanket condemnation. Mayor Bloomberg has suggested large schools are inherently unmanageable. There's such an indifference toward the specific challenges that schools face and it amounts to disownership. Yet, this stands in sharp contrast to the close scrutiny, the walkthroughs and reviews which schools must devote extensive time to preparing for.

The Quality School Review which required three days of visits created the illusion that the evaluation would mean something.

"I think it's significant that the data was ignored but I wouldn't suggest that schools with worse evaluations should be closed instead of Tilden. Nothing good and a whole lot of damage have come from this targeting and condemnation of high schools. After the publicity of Tilden's positive rating on the School Quality Review, the UFT leadership appears to be coming around to a position that Tilden looks better on paper than they thought.

If they decide to defend us that's fine but I'm afraid they will continue to take a 'devil take the hindmost' perspective without questioning why the wholesale closings are taking place and what the impact is."

Way to go John. Next: Randi visits Tilden - for a 15-minute photo op. Or, how the UFT gets crotch rot from trying to straddle the fence.

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