2007-03-16 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

Closing Middle Schools, Part I: A Political Rather Than An Educational Decision
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Commentary By Howard Schwach

Don't let anybody tell you that closing middle school programs by turning our elementary schools into K-8 organizations was a decision made for the kids, that educational imperatives prodded the decision in Region Five and in the city.

That is far from true. The decision, which I believe to be inimical to all of our students (of both elementary and middle school age) was made for political reasons that came down mostly to safety. In fact, Rockaway is the perfect venue for studying middle schools. At one time, we had three of them. Now, we have one that is so truncated and in such dishevel that it hardly counts.

Before the court ruling in the early 1980's that mandated that all children had to be taught in their "least restrictive environment)" the three Rockaway middle schools varied widely in terms of education and safety.

Junior High School 180 in Rockaway Park was called "The School of Champions," and at that time, it earned that sobriquet. Most of the kids in the school were doing well in terms of education and the building was relatively safe.

Intermediate School 53 in Far Rockaway was a mixed bag. The kids who came from Bayswater made up the "elite" of the school and most of them found themselves in the two-year SP program that moved them through the grades 6-8 program in two years rather than three.

From there, the educational ability and desire of the students dropped rapidly. The majority of the students in the school was low performing and therefore, there were lots of problems. I know that you're going to say that low performing kids are not necessarily problems and at-risk, but if you do tell me that, you're talking to the wrong person.

The SP students and the rest of the school were kept reasonably separated and things seemed to be going well and the parents of the high-functioning kids were satisfied with the program.

Junior High School 198 in Arverne was another story altogether.

There was a strange zoning decision that was made by the local school board that allowed all of the high-performing students in the JHS 198 zone to attend PS 183 for the ASTRE Program (a gifted elementary school program at the time) and then to JHS 180 for grades 7-9 rather than to JHS 198. That left the latter school denuded of almost anybody who was reading on grade level and guaranteed the downfall of the school.

As a disclaimer, I have to tell you that my first full-time teaching job was at JHS 198 when I came out of the Navy in 1965 and that I taught at IS 53 from 1982 until the late 1990's.

In any case, when Public Law 94-142 came along as the precursor to the No Children Left Behind Act, things were relatively stable at all three schools.

Then came the PL 94-142 decision that all students had to be taught in the least restrictive environment.

As they say, "That changed everything."

Why?

Because special education students, often emotional basket cases, had to be placed in physical education classes, auditorium programs and lunchrooms alongside mainstream students. That was akin to mandating that the foxes had to be housed alongside the hens.

I was the programmer and a special education teacher at MS 53 at the time. I taught MIS II teenagers - kids who had been found to be "emotionally handicapped," a nice way of saying that they were uncontrollable in the traditional classroom setting and so emotionally liable that they were dangerous. Largely due to that fact, there were 12 kids to a class, a teacher and at least one paraprofessional. That was often not enough.

On one occasion, I was being observed in a self-contained situation by my assistant principal, who was sitting in the back of the room. One student didn't like the answer that another gave to a social studies question and he got up and punched the other student in the nose without a word and then went and sat back down as if nothing had happened as the first student laid on the floor, bleeding profusely. Such was the demeanor of those students.

For that reason, we kept them largely separated from the other students. They had their own gymnasium periods that were covered by a gym teacher and their regular adult supervisors. Even alone in the gym, there were problems. It was a little like one of today's NBA get-togethers. Lots of pushing and shoving, cursing and fighting.

The students were walked to and from the bathroom by their paraprofessional or as a class by their teachers. They ate in the classroom as a group and the period was used to teach "socialization," something sorely lacking among that population.

Then came PL94-142. The orders came from headquarters. Put the kids into mainstream gym classes. Let them have lunch with the rest of the kids in their grade. Let them mix with the mainstream of students.

Bad error in judgment!

I remember the time that MS 53 felt its first tremor as a result of the change. It was shortly after the order came down from the Board of Education to put the special ed kids in with the mainstream. My room was right across the hall from the entrance to the cafeteria and my class was having lunch inside.

I wasn't with them because lunch for the kids was no longer a teaching period for me. They were on their own, although I believe that the paraprofessional was in the cafeteria as well.

There was a large commotion. It seems that three students from my class decided that it was time to collect wristwatches from the mainstream kids. Their plan was deceptively simple. They went from student to student, demanding their watches under the threat of death.

After several successful forays, they found a student who refused. They were jumping up and down on his head when the action attracted the attention of the teachers and dean who were monitoring the lunchroom. The student who was trounced and wound up in the hospital turned out to be a two-year SP student from Bayswater.

That afternoon, I stood outside PS 104 in Bayswater, awaiting my daughter's dismissal. All of the parents were talking about the assault at MS 53. By the end of the week, seventeen of the two-year SP students had transferred to private schools. That was the beginning and it happened at JHS 180 as well, where a Belle Harbor kid was attacked by a special education student during a gym class.

Soon, the great majority of high exponent kids had transferred to Brooklyn magnet programs and MS 180 was no longer the "School of Champions." Parents demanded that kids be allowed to remain in their elementary schools so that they did not have to go to the "dangerous middle schools." That was the beginning.

Next week: The middle school redesign process and why young teens need a middle school experience.

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