2009-03-06 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Some Random Thoughts On School Issues
Commentary By Howard Schwach

So the liberal politicians and media do not like the fact that elementary school students must sometimes be handcuffed to protect themselves and those around them. Those who believe that have apparently never worked with emotionally handicapped (we once called them crazy) kids. There have been many cases over the years that I taught where I recommended to the principal that we "EDP" a student; that is, declare him or her an emotionally disturbed person so that the student could be saved from harming him- or herself and others. In one case, a student was banging his head against the wall so hard that he was cracking his skull open. He would not stop and could not be restrained by the adults in the room.

The other students cowered in the corner, worried that he was going to go after them next. We called 911 and asked for an ambulance. The boy clearly had to be restrained and he was handcuffed until the ambulance arrived and he could safely be taken from the building. Anybody who saw that incident, and dozens like it, would understand why handcuffs are sometimes necessary. Now, the police are experimenting in Brooklyn schools with Velcro cuffs that would restrain without pain. That sounds like a good idea, but to say that restraints should never be used on elementary school students shows the ignorance of the person saying it.

Two years ago, the Secretary of Education, reacting to the fact that the No Child Left Behind act was being excoriated everywhere, joked that perhaps the government should change the name of the law when it was recertified. After she said that, the new names came flooding into the federal bureaucracy. Some of the new names have a nice ring and more closely describe what the law has become. One blogger wanted to change the name to "The Mental Asset Recovery Plan." Another wrote that the name should be changed to "Act To Help Children Read Gooder." A third wanted "You Go Ahead, We're Fine" as the new name. Some got even angrier. There was the "No Child Left Untested" suggestion and "No Child's Behind Left, No School Board Left Standing" suggestion. Perhaps the best were: "The Teach To The Test Law," and "The Rearranging The Deck Chairs Act."

Mayor Bloomberg and his school chancellor have ballyhooed the success of their cash-for-kids plan that provides monetary incentives for school kids to take and pass high-stakes tests such as the advanced placement exams. A look at the statistics for the past two years, shows something very different, however. In 2007, for example, 4,275 students took the tests. Of those, 1,481 passed, a rate of about 35 percent. In 2008, 4,620 students took the test and 1,476 passed, a rate of 32 percent. So, tell me, was it worth a few million dollars to have more kids take the test and fewer kids pass? This is what Bloomberg calls a big success.

Deputy School Chancellor Christopher Serf, who was brought on board to enhance the city's charter school movement, is in hot water. It seems that he solicited a $60,000 charitable donation from executives of the Edison Schools, the charter school firm for whom he worked when he was recruited by Bloomberg. The money went to a non-profit wilderness program. Cerf sits on the board of that program. That's the way business people and government do business, and you can see where it got us. Records show that Cerf relinquished 6,000 shares of Edison Schools stock only hours before he was to be questioned by the special investigator for the school system. While Cerf should have been fired, the chancellor tried to cover the whole incident up to keep the media from finding out about the scandal, something he obviously could not do.

Dr. Beverly Hall, of the Atlanta (Georgia) public schools, has been named the National Superintendent of the Year by the National Association of School Superintendents. Those of you who have been around for a while will remember that Hall did a rather short stint as the Superintendent of Community School District 27 (which includes Rockaway) about 15 years ago. To her credit, she was the person who began the Middle School Redesign Process in tandem with the Carnegie Foundation and Bank Street College. When she left, the program was continued by Superintendent Brenda Isaacs. It was a good program that was thrown out with the dishwater when the mayor took control of the schools eight years ago.

Kindergarten registrations are ballooning. More people want Pre-K education and fewer public schools are offering that program. The building boom in Rockaway is still drawing hundreds, perhaps thousands of new kids to the peninsula. In the face of those facts, the Department of Education says that our schools have excess seats and refuses to build even one new school when three new schools are probably needed. And, the city and the mayor continue the fight against smaller class size, saying that there is no empirical evidence that class size matters. Ask any teacher, however, and you will find that it does matter and that class size is one of the critical aspects when it comes to teaching a class, especially a class of disadvantaged students who have had little success with education in the past. Bloomberg recently called class size "an interesting number," and said that "it's the teacher looking a child in the eye, and teachers can look lots of children in the eye. If you're going to spend an extra dollar, personally, I would always rather spend it on the people that deliver the service." Perhaps he should visit some real schools sometime to see that his philosophy on class size is way off base.

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