2008-08-29 / Editorial/Opinion

It's My Turn

(The following is the testimony of David Quintana, a parent activist who attended the Contracts for Excellence Hearing in late July.)

My name is David M. Quintana. I'm a parent, the former co-president of the MS 210 Parents Association Council (CPAC), the recording secretary at the High School for Art, Imagination, and Inquiry at the Martin Luther King, Jr. campus in Manhattan, presently a member of Community Board 10 Education Committee, a member of the citywide parent group, Class Size Matters and other city-wide parent advocacy groups.

I am the proud parent of two schoolage daughters and a product of the NYC Public Education system in District 27 - a graduate of PS 60, MS 210 and John Adams High School.

I am here again this evening because I'm still very concerned about the city's lack of commitment to lower class size in all grades. There has been little progress since these requirements were passed by the State Legislature last year.

I agree with Class Size Matters when they give Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein the grade of "F" in terms of their effort to provide our children with the smaller classes that the state's highest court said were necessary for them to receive their constitutional right to an adequate education.

In Queens, we continue to have the largest classes in the early grades of any borough - and much larger than in the rest of the state. It is in these grades where the research is most clear that smaller classes leads to better outcomes and narrows the achievement gap. We also continue to have the most crowded schools, with little hope of improvement, given an inadequate capital plan. For example, Richmond Hill High School and John Adams High School in District 27, have registered 3246 and 3028 students, in buildings designed and built for 1800 students.

According to an independent analysis commissioned by the UFT, in 46 percent of District 27 elementary and middle schools, class sizes actually increased this year.

Class Size Matters has detailed a list of 40 reasons why the State of New York should reject New York City's Contract for Excellence Plan dated July 2008. I would like to reserve the right to email said additional documentation - as my oral testimony will be abbreviated, due to the time constraints this evening.

DOE (Department of Education) has made no significant changes to the preliminary version of its Contract for Excellence proposal submitted in June, despite vociferous criticism from parents, teachers and other stakeholder groups, who pointed out its numerous failings. To this day, despite the state law passed in the spring of 2007 that requires the city to adopt a plan to reduce class size in all grades, the DOE has not adequately responded to the need to address conditions of extreme overcrowding and overly large classes at most of our public schools.

Though the DOE's current proposal retains as its ostensible goals twenty students per class in grades K-3 and 23 in other grades, to be met over four years, it has provided no convincing evidence that its proposal as written is likely to meet these goals, nor even that it is designed to achieve them. Indeed, based on the poor performance of the last year, and the questionable assumptions the proposal is based upon, this extremely unlikely to occur.

The amount allocated toward reducing class size, is minimal: $46.3 million in so-called "discretionary" funds, only 12 percent of the city's Contract for Excellence budget. Not a single cent is specifically targeted toward reducing class size of DOE itself at any specific school, despite the fact the DOE's own parent survey found that smaller classes remains the top priority of parents. Another recent poll of over 1600 parents showed that over 70 percent of parents said that reducing class size would be the best way to improve our schools.

While ostensibly leaving it up to principals to allocate a portion of these fund towards class size reduction if they so wished, the DOE has ignored what principals themselves maintain: that there are serious barriers preventing them from reducing class size to appropriate levels. Rather than "enabling" or encouraging them to reduce class size, the DOE has put up so many roadblocks in their way that it is not surprising we have made so little progress in this direction. In a recent survey that elicited responses from over one third of all NYC principals, 86 percent said that their class sizes were too large to provide a quality education. They also said that the main obstacles preventing them from lowering class size to acceptable levels were the ways in which DOE allocates space, the number of students sent to their schools, and a lack of sufficient funding (in order of importance).

The DOE itself admits this fact, in a memo for principals, saying that "Across the board class size reduction can often be difficult to achieve given limited resources and space, but to the extent that you have the power to do targeted class size reduction, be deliberate about when and how you reduce class size…"

Not surprisingly, given the entirely voluntary nature of the program, the DOE's overtly negative attitude, and the multiple barriers placed in the way of principals, progress towards smaller classes has been nearly imperceptible. After one year of DOE's plan, average class sizes have declined by only one tenth of a student per class in K-3, and six tenths of a student per class in other grades, according to the city's own figures - not appreciably different than enrollment decline would project. At the current snail's pace, it would take ten years to reach the city's adopted goal of twenty students in grades K- 3, and thirty years to reach 23 high school students per class, rather than the four years mandated in state law.

Though the DOE claims it had slightly improved results in terms of smaller classes in high schools by the second reporting period, this is only due to approximately 4,000 students having left the rolls between the beginning of December and late January, as a result of having dropped out or being discharged from school - not an acceptable method of class size reduction.

The DOE's failure to achieve significant improvement in class size results from multiple inherent weaknesses of the city's plan: its purely voluntary nature, the fact that principals have been given no specific class size goals to achieve, the way in which insufficient funds have been targeted to achieve these ends, and the manner in which the DOE undermines the possibility of real progress towards smaller classes through their own policies.

For example, 27 percent of principals said that overcrowding at their schools has been exacerbated by DOE having placed new schools or programs in their buildings. Yet DOE intends to add 70 more small schools or charter schools next year, the vast majority within our existing already overcrowd- ed public school infrastructure. Every new school inserted into an existing school building eats up valuable classroom space that could otherwise be used to reduce class size with new administrative offices and cluster rooms.

A large number of principals also said in response to the survey that every time they tried to reduce class size, DOE's Office of Enrollment Planning and Operations simply sent them more students, undoing all their efforts.

In conclusion: the state needs to hold DOE accountable for allocating these funds appropriately, and for reporting how schools are using funds to hire classroom teachers to reduce class size. The state should also perform the necessary oversight to see that these funds are spent according to the letter and intent of the law, and reject DOE's attempt to finance the Leadership Academy and the teacher performance pay initiative out of C4E funds, since neither is a "new or expanded" program and neither is the sort of proven program that has been shown through research or experience to improve student learning. The state should disallow the city from inserting new schools into the buildings of low-performing schools that have not yet had reduced class size to 20 in K-3 and 23 in other grades - the ostensible goals stated in the city's plan.

Most importantly, the state must require that DOE produce and implement a real class size reduction plan, with annual class size targets, show actual reductions in class size over time in specific schools, that if enacted could be expected to achieve the goals in its plan, along with a capital plan to provide the necessary space.

Without these measures, the C4E program, along with its accountability and class size requirements, as passed into law by the State Legislature, represent a cruel fiction, raising the hopes of New York City parents, teachers, and students, without any hope of seeing them fulfilled.

I call upon the New York State Department of Education to reject the DOE's present feeble plan for class size reduction and to compel DOE to comply with State Law to reduce class size in NYC.

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