2007-02-09 / Columnists

School Scope

Deconstructing The School System, School By School
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman ScottNorman Scott A couple of years ago I spoke at one of Joel Klein's public meetings and said the school systems of Baghdad and Kabul would recover sooner than the NYC schools from the cataclysm Klein and his hench-boss Mayor Bloomberg, have wrought. Nothing has happened in the intervening years to change my mind. In fact, I believe this more firmly than ever.

The policy of forced closings of large high schools and a policy of shoving competing schools into the same space is insane. One of my contacts at Walton HS in the Bronx works at one of the six small schools competing with the remnant of what was the old Walton in its dying days. He reports that all the schools are fighting with each other over space, which kids in the neighborhood will go to each school, and just about every other thing one can think of to fight about. Just think about it: seven principals and staffs. Also, think: what does it all cost?

Each small school starts off with a 9th grade and grows by a grade each year. Just imagine the scene year after year. A teacher from John F. Kennedy HS in the Bronx recently said that not only do all six schools in her school hate each other but the kids from the small schools look down at the kids from the big school, as do the staffs of the small schools, leading to battles between kids and staffs at all levels.

The new small schools are often accused of cherry-picking the most proficient kids, trying to get as many of the higher performing Level Threes and Fours into their schools and avoiding the lower performing Level ones. In actuality, many schools do take Level Ones and Twos but use a more subtle form of creaming. Students must sign up for these schools at recruiting fairs and there is not doubt that parents who are aware of these events, no matter what the level of their students, will also be more supportive. In addition, new small schools are exempt for two years from taking in special needs and language deficient kids, often immigrants who speak no English. These are the most difficult to teach and schools that have an overwhelming number of them have their resources so overtaxed that they become known as failing schools and become targets for closure.

Now follow the bouncing ball on how Tweedles operate. You secretly - no consultation with parents, teachers, school administration, community and especially, local politicians - decide to close down a school a year or more before making a public announcement. You deliberately withhold resources form the school and steer kids to other schools in order to claim "no one wants to go to your school."

At the same time, you overload the school with the very special needs and language deficient students who have been left homeless from the closing of other large schools. Then you claim this school is truly failing and it is an outrage to keep it open and say, "Look at all the small schools and their much higher graduation rates." Oh, make sure to emphasize the school's failures by pointing to its low graduation rate (often in the mid-30% range compared to the rest of the city, which you claim is 58% (by including GED and excluding special ed) while state figures put it at 43%. Call it the flimflam of the century. So far. I'm sure BloomKlein are still capable of coming up with better ones.

All these factors came into play recently when the closing of three large south Brooklyn schools - Lafayette, Tilden and South Shore - was announced in December. The DOE has already decided to place two small schools into Tilden next year, while Tilden will no longer be accepting 9th graders. Where will those 9th graders go to school next year, especially with the neighboring South Shore also closing? Let me hazard a guess. The "better" students might get into one of the small schools or one of the higher ranked high schools like Midwood, Murrow, or Goldstein. The rest will end up at one of the nearest large neighborhood schools remaining in south Brooklyn - Canarsie and Sheepshead, the next targets on the DOE hit list. What about Midwood and Murrow and Madison? They are too "successful" to be closed. For now. But just let someone step on some political toes at the DOE and it will be very easy to use the flimflam trick to turn them into failing schools. That is why so many politicians are held hostage by BloomKlein. Unfettered power in their hands is a nightmare for all. Do you wonder why there is such fear and loathing of BloomKlein amongst just about everyone having anything to do with education?

Tilden has put up the biggest battle to stay open, forming an organization called "SOS Tilden." I went to a remarkable meeting/rally at Tilden HS in East Flatbush this past Tuesday night that included all of the elements needed to put up a fight to stay open: parents, community, teachers, students, alumni, politicians and the UFT, led by Randi Weingarten, who put her full support behind the effort. As a frequent critic of Weingarten, I often say watch what she does, not what she says. But in this case, by all reports, she and the UFT are doing the right thing and she made an excellent presentation. A long line of speakers, especially the students and alumni, made a strong case for saving Tilden.

All these forces have united behind principal Diane Varano, one of the few Leadership Academy graduates who have received raves. She was sent into the school, ostensibly to turn it around. Just as the Tweedles pulled the rug out, reports surfaced that yet another high priced consulting firm (from Britain, no less) gave Tilden a good proficiency rating and noted how Varano was succeeding. They had spent weeks in the school making their judgment, only to be ignored. Varano was herself flimflammed by Tweed, actually hearing about the closing from the UFT chapter leader. Her response: "No way!" It turns out that no one in Region six was consulted either. The fact that Varano was at this rally and not stepping all over "SOS Tilden," which meets in the building every Saturday morning, is a tribute to her integrity and lack of fear of Tweedledom retaliation.

My ICE colleague John Lawhead, who went through a school closing at Bushwick HS, teaches ESL at Tilden and did a presentation at the rally showing how Tilden falls in the mid-range on graduation rates (37%) out of a whole slew of large schools that remain open. While nothing to brag about, it is not far under the real 43% city grad rate. (See my Jan. 12 School Scope column, "Tilden, Lafayette and South Shore: Don't Close Schools, Fix Them" for more of the fabulous work John has done on this issue.")

The arrogance shown toward local politicians by BloomKlein, who stonewalled all requests for information, is one issue that may come back to bite them. City Councilman Lou Fidler, a Tilden grad who represents parts of the Tilden constituency along with that of South Shore, made a very strong statement. State Senator Kevin Parker, who was not at this rally, has supposedly been so miffed by being ignored, he is making it a priority to put serious crimps in the renewal of mayoral control when it comes up in 2009. This is the biggest threat of all to the BloomKlein plans to have their crumbling empire outlive them. And they are now responding by trying to massage the politicians. Sadly, this tactic often works.

In the works by "SOS Tilden" ( http:// www.allout4tilden.com/ ) is a plan for a big demonstration on the steps of Tweed. Every teacher, parent and student at any large high school left in the city should be there. Think of the joy of all the Tweedles looking out from their fancy offices at thousands of people calling for them to reverse the decision on Tilden and maybe other schools. We know their arrogance won't allow them to admit they are wrong (SEE: BUS FIASCO). But maybe they'll be driven crazy by the noise of their buzzing Blackberries.

Did I say BUS FIASCO?

What else can I say? Finally, the mainstream press has just about said it all. Of course Klein defends the fiasco by saying the high priced consulting firm A&M (which we are proud to have written about in The Wave back in September) which came up with the plan to save a few million on the backs of 5 year-olds standing outside in freezing weather, has saved a total of $50 million by cutting custodial services and other goodies that just make schools run. Klein claims this money - "FIVE O" he said as he held up his hand "will be put into the classroom to reduce class size and purchase supplies." HA! And he has a nice bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Show us the money, Joel. Exactly where is this $50 million? How fast can you say "more high priced consultants and corporate-level salaries for his staff?" And a few more Blackberries.

Bloomberg Builds Stadiums, not Classrooms

Check out my blog http://ednotesonline.blogspot.com/ for some remarkable charts compiled by Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters showing how the projective seats for stadiums in NYC is double that of classroom seats. Sometimes the flim even outdoes the flam.

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