2007-05-11 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

School Governance, One More Time (For Now)
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Commentary By Howard Schwach

Ok, here's the deal. Under the mayor's new governance plan, all schools will be involved with one of three options:

The first option, Empowerment Schools, should be called the "don't call us, we'll call you option," because it allows principals a very large amount of autonomy in return for an agreement to reach specified performance goals. Of course, the "Empowerment Principals" have three years to reach those goals at which time he or she will simply retire or move on to another option, so it doesn't matter very much if the goals are reached or not. These schools are organized into loose affiliations or 20 other empowerment schools so that principals have somebody with which to network and commiserate.

The second option, the Purchasing of Services option, allows schools to purchase a package of services from one of four Learning Support Organizations, built around specific themes and run by present-day superintendents such as our own Kathleen Cashin. My feeling is that the majority of school principals will buy into this option because it is more familiar and less threatening than any of the others.

Those Support Organizations include the Integrated Curriculum and Instruction Group that will assist schools in developing an integrated curriculum.

The Community Group will focus on partnerships with community organizations and parent groups.

The Knowledge Group, led by Cashin, will help schools "implement a content-rich curriculum focusing on CORE facts."

The Leadership Group will focus on strengthening the leadership skills of principals and their leadership staff.

The third option is Purchasing of Services from Private, Profit, Providers. There are nine private providers willing to provide services to individual schools as well as networks of schools. They include: Success For All, which is widely used in New York City at the present time; New Visions; Replications, Inc. and the Center For Educational Innovation, all of which have been players in the city game for many years.

Under the rules of engagement, principals must consult with their leadership teams and make a decision by May 15. That's next Tuesday for those who have lost their calendars and don't know how to read the clock on their cell phones. The program they chose will begin in September and I have been told that decisions are not reversible until they have run for at least a year.

Chancellor Joel Klein, the mayor's favorite puppet, characterized the new structure as a reversal of the old Board of Education policies that had the Board on top of the pyramid and the schools at the bottom. Now, he says, the schools are at the pinnacle of the pyramid. "We are transforming a school system based on compliance and top-down decision making to one that empowers principals to make key decisions on what's best for students and their school communities," he said.

Each school will get an additional allocation of about $170,000 with which to purchase their option choice.

Then, the brave new world of New York City public school education begins - again.

Which, on the surface, sounds great. Motherhood and apple pie. Good old American Democracy at work. No Child Left Behind, and all that.

I have always been in favor of more empowerment for the school principal. I have been writing about it for years, and even recommended in this space about ten years ago a program that looks much like this one even though I was working for the District 27 office as a staff developer at the time.

The Mayor's program looks good, that is, until you look at the principals that have to make it work.

Fifteen years ago, even with a corrupt school board system, most of the schools had experienced principals who had to take a series of grueling tests to be eligible for their positions.

Candidates for principal had to have years as a teacher and then at least a few as a successful assistant principal and a master's degree in school supervision before they were even able to take the test for principal. That, of course, did not guarantee that all of the principals knew what they were doing.

Take a look at some of the principals I have worked for along memory lane in a 33-year-career, most of it local.

My first principal when I came out of the Navy and into the public school system at JHS 198 was Louis Bach, a Belle Harbor man who had been running the Board of Education department that purchased furniture for the schools. Close to retirement, he asked for a local school and "got" JHS 198, then a great school, as a reward. He had no idea of what he was doing and he was lucky that he had a good staff and good assistants.

At the end of that February semester, I decided that I did not want to teach so close to home and opted for a transfer to JHS 296K in the Bushwick Section of Brooklyn.

You have to remember that these were the days of the three-month school strike later declared to be the "School Wars" years. At that school, I met Joe Gordon, the best principal I ever worked for and a staff of experienced, dedicated assistant principals. They taught me a lot about school, teaching, programming and life.

After several years there, I moved on to Connecticut, where I edited one of the weekly school magazines for the company that put out Weekly Reader and Current Events.

When I came back to the city in the late 1970's things had changed in the schools. I got a job teaching Emotionally Handicapped kids in Coney Island.

I can't remember the name of the principal, but he once sent a parent up to my room to see me even though the parent held a knife in his hand.

Then came Vito Martino at IS 53 for nearly 25 years - a principal who was so bad at his job that the district broke the school into three grades and named an assistant principal to run each grade. Martino, who locked himself into his office for more than an hour each day so that he could have an undisturbed lunch, became a figurehead in his own building.

Most of those people should never have been principals in the first place, but others that I worked for were very good.

Some were "people-persons," others stayed close to their computers. Some schools ran much better than others.

My feeling has always been, "you've got to know the territory."

If you don't, you're in the wrong business. Many principals are simply in the wrong business and making them empowerment principals or taking away the needed guidance and supervisionthey're given by more experienced hands is simply a mistake.

More on this next week.

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