2007-12-28 / Columnists

School Scope

More Holiday Cheer - from Tweed
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott "How a Middle School Can Be 'Dangerous' and Still Get an A" was the title of Sam Freedman's Wednesday education column (a must read) in the NY Times (Dec. 19).

It seems like Freedman is doing a series on the educational idiocy of the BloomKlein era.

He describes a middle school (South Bronx Academy for Applied Media) that is one of 52 on the state's "persistently dangerous" list but received an Aon the school report card due mostly to decent test scores that improved in part because the principal removed the most disruptive students from classes during the months of test prep. Guess what? They were baaaack right after the test.

Freedman writes:

The A grade, though, may also have something to do with the fact that the progress reports weigh all safety factors as only 2.5 percent of a school's total grade, said James S. Liebman, the Education Department's chief accountability officer. He has said the department decided not to give safety more consideration because statistics on school violence rely on self-reporting and tend to be deceptive. "This is a school that's doing remarkably well on the progress side, and 'remarkably' isn't a word I use lightly," said Mr. Liebman.

Thirteen of the 16 teachers were in their first year in the 2006-7 school year. Not surprising. Anyone involved in schools for 10 minutes knows that in schools like this teaching and learning is extremely difficult. A blogger commented, "[Freedman] not only rips the awful report cards, but shows what a hypocrite and truth twister Tweed's Chief Accountability Officer James Liebman is."

When asked about this high rate of teacher turnover:

"Mr. Liebman said many teachers flee schools that are in the midst of reform and instilling a "culture of accountability." He did not address the roles of theft, violence and insults in persuading teachers to leave.

The usual Tweed mantra of blaming the teachers. Of course, Liebman did his own fleeing from the "culture of accountability" when parents tried to give him a petition signed by 7000 people after a recent City Council hearing.

The entire "reform" movement in education is based on bringing business models to the schools where accountability is the key - let's blame someone, anyone - mostly teachers and school administrators (but never anyone above that level)- instead of finding the resources to fix what's wrong. Thus, we get the closing of schools as a "solution."

Jennifer Medina in the Dec. 24 edition of the NY Times focused on Canarsie HS (Far Rockaway was also mentioned), another school that will be closing. I wonder where all of those who can't get into the "small schools" that will take Canarsie's place will end up. Some choice quotes from Medina's article, with my emphasis added:

"At the meeting of the Parents Association this month, the parents hectored and questioned school officials for two and a half hours. "You are not closing the white schools," one agitated parent flatly complained." …to many parents and students, the shutdowns are just another grievance, another sign that they have been ignored for years. Even if parents and students can list a litany of problems with a school, they can also find things that it does right. And loyalty runs deep in a place like Canarsie, where graduates often return to help students at their alma mater.

"It hurts - it's a slap in the face, for sure," said Erica Blom, who graduated from Canarsie in 1999 and now coaches soccer and teaches health there. "Every student here knows how upset I am. It's losing something I've been a part of and proud of for a long time."

Erica Laing, a Canarsie senior, said, "I've gotten attached to this place." She added: "It's the kind of school that could be great if they just gave us a chance. My whole thing is: Why are they giving up on us?"

Teachers said that as other large high schools in southeast Brooklyn closed, Canarsie became a kind of a dumping ground for struggling students. Administrators said the school became overcrowded, with not enough resources.

Teri Perine, the attendance coordinator, said enrollment reached its peak in 2005, with 3,000 students, up from 2,500 in 2002. Even more distressing, she said, the attendance rate fell to 66 percent, from nearly 85 percent, in the same period, as the number of students who were considered "long-term absences" ballooned to more than 500, up from fewer than 100 in 2002.

"The bad stuff they say about this school isn't always true," said Lexus Brown, a 14-year-old freshman. "Everybody who is saying that should come and spend a day here, and then figure out what to do."

Spend a day indeed. Sorry Lexus, the Tweedles at the Department of Education are all about blame and casting off responsibility, not figuring out what to do.

I'm sure we can get the same quotes out of people at Far Rockaway HS.

Who is really to blame in this endless spiral of closing and opening schools? Why not bring in extra staff to address issues like the high truancy rate, which is clearly related to the impact of other closed schools and the movement of kids from those schools? Why not lower class sizes to give students more individual attention? Why not bring in teams of social workers and tutors instead of creating new small schools in the same space, with the cost of principals and support staff for each?

We know that these new small schools will suddenly have grad rates that will double that of Canarsie. We also know they will not be the same number of students who are struggling. Sometimes the difference in the climate of a school can be as few as 20 students. Maybe the Tweed strategy is to close off every possible place these students will drift too until they just give up and spend their time hanging out on the corner. Then they are no longer Tweed's problem.

Dr. Strangelove Tweed style, run amuck!

Happy holidays.

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