2007-10-12 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

The DOE's Inexplicable Reaction To One Of The Worst Schools (And Principals) In The City
Commentary By Howard Schwach

It is hard to reconcile what I know about Middle School 53 and its principal, Claude Monereau, with the Department of Education's reaction to his role.

Last week in this space I recalled how Monereau was unceremoniously booted from Beach Channel High School, how his desire to become principal of that school led to picketing, fires inside and a minor riot outside the building.

I was incredulous when Monereau was named the principal of the troubled school and I asked the then Region Five Superintendent, Kathleen Cashin, how she could put a man who many considered a racial arsonist into an already troubled school.

At the time, she told me that the appointment was a temporary one, in place only until the region could go through the process of vetting a new principal to replace the retiring Ken Graham.

That was three years ago. Not only did the region allow him to remain in the school, but the Department of Education granted him "Empowerment" status, making him one of the few principals with complete autonomy over his school, including budget, hiring, firing and curriculum.

How has he done?

Just last week, the school was named as one of the worst 51 schools in the city, a failing school that needed more funds to try and remediate its vast problems.

And, at the same time, the DOE gave Monereau a "Satisfactory" rating and allowed him to continue in his empowerment cohort.

The results of the standardized tests show the problem clearly.

In the 2006 English Language Arts test, nearly 70 percent of the students in the school were reading below grade level. In 2007, that increased to 75.4 percent. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the school's leader.

In the eighth grade, 81.4 percent of the students are reading below grade level.

The Math scores are almost as bad, with the percentage of students below grade level hovering between 70 and 75 percent. In the eighth grade, fully 80 percent of the students are below grade level.

Despite those dismal statistics and the fact that Monereau runs roughshod over his staff and student body, a Quality Review Report, prepared in May of this year by Department of Education reviewer Peter Williman, says that Monereau is a great principal and the students are doing very well under his leadership.

I have to wonder what world Williman is living in.

"The principal is highly committed to the welfare and achievement of his students and works very hard to raise expectations and to drive school improvement," the report says. "Students enjoy school and are effectively engaged in their lessons because of some good quality of instruction and the curriculum offered in the class and in the school. The school is a caring community, which is valued by students and parents."

In the "Overall Evaluation" section, he writes, "The Brian Piccolo Middle School has been transformed under the determined leadership of the principal to be a well-ordered, functional school committed to providing the best opportunities for its students."

Meanwhile, the failure on standardized scores aside, the school's report card, posted on the DOE Website, shows more than 30 criminal and noncriminal (fights, etc.) incidents reported in the past year, as against less than nine for other typical schools in the city. Anybody who regularly monitors the police radio as I do, knows that police are called to that school on a regular basis, probably two or three times a week for fights, disturbed children, problems with parents, etc.

Before you tell me that the problem is not with the principal or with the kids, but with the new teachers, let me tell you that nearly 60 percent of the teachers have been at that school for more than two years and 70 percent have been teaching in New York City for more than five years.

They are not new and they are not inexperienced.

The DOE recently did a "Learning Environment Survey" in all of its schools, asking teachers, students and parents to return survey documents detailing how they felt about their school.

Twelve percent of the parents returned their surveys (as opposed to 22 percent citywide), 19 percent of the teachers (as opposed to 42 percent citywide) and 84 percent of the students (as opposed to 72 percent citywide). The low response rate of parents and teachers indicates a morale problem that Monereau must address. Is there a reason why the response rates for parents and teachers at The Scholars' Academy (47 percent and 100 percent, respectively) cannot be duplicated at MS 53?

Further, the ratings of those who did bother to respond from MS 53's survey group were below average. On a scale of 0 to 10, MS 53's scores for the various general categories were 5.3 in the "Safety and Respect" category (citywide was 6.6). 6.1 on the "Academic Expectations" category (6.9), 5.3 in the "Engagement" category (6.1) and 5.3 in the "Communication" category (6.2).

It is instructive to take a look at some of the specific questions and the response to those questions.

For example, how do we reconcile the fact that the report above says that the principal works well with his teachers, when the teachers respond to the survey statement, "School leaders encourage open and honest communication on important school issues," with an overwhelming condemnation of the principal. Twenty-two of the respondents said that they either strongly agree or agree with the statement, leaving 79 who say that it just ain't so.

On the question of whether or not the principal is an effective manager, 37 teachers say "yes," while 65 say that he is not.

It goes on and on.

If you want to see the entire survey, go the www.nyc.gov and then click on the Department of Education link.

It is an eye-opener and gives a view into the men and women who are made "empowerment" principals and have the final say about everything that goes on in their schools, with very little oversight on the part of the DOE.

If you want to delve even further into understanding the issues at Monereau's school, read the profile at www.insideschools.org. Inside Schools describes the improvements Monereau has made to the school, including trying to "limit student and teacher truancy." Asampling of comments from students, parents and teachers at the end of the profile shows the complexity of the issues Monereau must address.

One of the most telling is from a MS 53 teacher, who said that in 2003, only eight out of 32 parents of her students had come to parentteacher conferences, and that parent involvement needed to improve at MS 53. Her comment points out a flaw in the "empowerment" model and the "No Child Left Behind" mantra that the DOE will not address- that there will be inevitable conflicts among stakeholders in the process. Children may be "left behind" if their parents do not become involved in their education. How will Monereau address that?

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