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The Mayor's Plan For The Schools

by Gail Robinson, Jan 20, 2003
 

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Thirty years ago, having teetered on the brink of a civil war over schools, New York emerged with a new system of community school districts. In a speech last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the end of that system. What had been "decentralized" is now going to be centralized once again.

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That alone would have been revolutionary enough. But the mayor's plan is far more sweeping, presenting "clearly the biggest changes in 30 years, arguably in 100," says Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children. It would:

  • set up a standardized curriculum for the vast majority of schools
  • eliminate community school district offices
  • establish a parental liaison person in every school
  • replace community school boards
Issue At A Glance
Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed the most sweeping changes in education in at least 30 years.

• Uniform curriculum

• End of community school districts

• A more centralized structure

• Parent Engagement Boards, not school boards

• Increased parental involvement

• Emphasis on reading, writing and math

• Phonics for young students

Questions Remaining
The plan resembles an outline with the details yet to be filled in.

• What will the uniform curriculum actually be?

• How will the plan meet the needs of special education students and youngsters who do not speak English?

• Who will lose their jobs?

• Will such a centralized system be able to respond to parents and students?

• Which students will be able to attend what schools where?

• What, if any role, will the community have in education?

• Will the state legislature, and U.S. Dept. of Justice, approve "the Parent Engagement Boards"?

What will be put in place of community school boards, though, remains unclear. The mayor's plan thus does little to quell the concern over getting parents involved in their children's education. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott set out City Hall's idea to accomplish this, which involves the creation of something called "Parent Engagement Boards, " while the City Council came up with its own recommendation. But in "Making Parents Partners," former Bronx borough president and mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer writes: "No mere change in structure will repair the problem that parents feel that schools are not open to." He presents his own ideas for getting parents more involved in the schools.

As ambitious as Bloomberg's plan is, it has not sparked the vitriol and turmoil that greeted the changes of 30 years ago -- at least not yet. The real difficulties may still lie ahead. The mayor's plan leaves out many specifics. At a public hearing the day after the mayor's speech, Walcott and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein repeatedly answered questions about the plan by saying only that details still had to be worked out.

There are many such details to be worked out before the plan goes into effect by September. While the plan calls for a standardized curriculum, it does not say what that curriculum will include. Special education and bilingual education remain huge question marks. "The implementation of this is going to be very hard and bumpy and very rough," said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

The changes will have to be made at a time when the city and the state, which provides much of the school system budget, face huge financial problems. Bloomberg believes many reforms can be accomplished without spending more money, that savings will offset additional expenses. In his speech, the mayor "barely referred . .. to the gloomy fiscal outlook that has clouded his mayoralty" wrote Jennifer Steinhauser in the New York Times. "He sent the message that tough times would not prevent him from seeking and expecting big improvements in the system."

But many believe a shortage of funds lies at the root of the system's problems.

UNIFORM CURRICULUM

Bloomberg wants 1,000 of the 1,200 schools in the system to adopt a uniform curriculum. There are lots of curriculums from which the schools can select, or it can write a new one. The system reportedly now uses 75 different math curriculums and 35 for reading and writing (dubbed literacy)

One key issue will be just how rigid the curriculum should be. Some programs dictate that on a certain day all students in a given grade read the same book; others merely say students should read a book in a certain genre.

Advocates of a uniform curriculum say that this would be an advantage for poor children who tend to change schools more frequently than their more affluent counterparts. If the curriculum were the same from school to school, it would be easier for them to perform well when they change schools.

Critics say more rigid curriculums remove the creativity from teaching and ignore the differences between children. "A uniform curriculum is not a script which says, 'Today, you say hello, children,'" says Weingarten. "It creates the same general scopes and sequences."

But former schools chancellor Rudy Crew opposes the whole idea. "Not all New York City schools and not all urban schools and not all children need the same prescription," he told the New York Times. "I think it is extremely dangerous."

Whatever the curriculum, about 200 successful schools will not have to use it. "Because they're doing it right, they will enjoy discretion in choosing their curricula, training their teachers, and setting their budgets," Bloomberg said. "These principals, assistant principals and teachers have shown they know what their mission is and how to accomplish it. Stay the course--and God bless."

But the hands off approach may create problems too. Although the 200 schools have not been announced, nor have the criteria for selecting them, everyone expects they will be disproportionately white and affluent. In fact, the success of at least some of them may spring more from their having educated, involved parents than from any pedagogical brilliance. Observers worry that having 1,000 standardized and 200 exempt schools could create a new kind of educational caste system where only middle class schools have educational independence.

READING AND WRITING, PHONICS, SMALLER CLASSES

Bloomberg proposed other changes in the classroom.

Students in grades kindergarten through five would have at least 90 minutes of reading and writing instruction every day. Those in kindergarten through third would get an additional 45 minutes of phonics instruction, in which students learn what sounds letters make and combine those sounds to make words. Educators have long debated the comparative merits of a phonics approach to learning to read and the so-called whole language approach, where students learn to grasp the meaning of whole words and which relies on good stories to pique student interest. Currently phonics has gained an edge, since it has wide support in the Bush administration.

The mayor also said he would require an hour of math a day in grades kindergarten through three and more as the student gets older; cut the size of middle school English classes from their current 33 students to 28; and called for more classroom libraries

CENTRALIZED AUTHORITY

The community school district system was always a bit of a hodgepodge. The local districts controlled elementary and middle schools but high schools were centrally controlled, with an office for each borough. Some of the 32 community districts worked well, while others were racked by corruption or simply not responsive to parents and students. And each had its own staff complete with bureaucrats.

Calling the community district offices "bureaucratic dinosaurs," Bloomberg said he would replace the community districts with 10 Learning Support Centers throughout the city. Each would have a regional superintendent, who would focus only on teaching and educational issues. Those 10 educators, who would work with Klein in the Department of Education headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse, would each supervise 10 "instructional supervisors" who would oversee about 12 elementary, middle and high schools in a specific neighborhood or area.

Six operations centers in the city would take on the nitty-gritty work of budgeting, purchasing, personnel and the like. Employees at these centers would replace "thousands of people in duplicative and unnecessary administrative jobs," Bloomberg said, creating "a significant reduction in non-pedagogical staff." Such a cut in the bureaucracy would free up money and, Bloomberg said, an enormous amount of space for classrooms, "the equivalent of a dozen new schools."

"It is a form of recentralization. No question about it," said Joseph Viteritti, director of the Program on Education and Civil Society at New York University. "That is not necessarily bad and not necessarily good."

Of all the mayor's ideas, the elimination of the district offices probably creates the most questions and concerns among administrators and school system employees as well as parents and students. For better or worse, the community districts have formed the basis of school life in New York for 30 years, making it hard to envision life without them.

For example, Chaifetz said, districts now handle the transfer of students from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school. Who will do that now? Most students attend elementary and middle schools in their districts, but not necessarily in their immediate neighborhoods. Will they be limited to the 10 to 12 schools in their immediate vicinity? To the schools in their region? Or will they be able to go anywhere in the city? And so on.

In at least some neighborhoods, parents went to district offices when they had a problem with their child's school. The 10 regional centers, said Councilmember Bill de Blasio "are just too big" to accommodate that

The repercussions extend beyond education to another New York obsession: real estate. Apartment and house prices have depended to some extent on what community school district the home is in. If community school districts largely cease to exist, what will that do to the real estate market?

But those with the most immediate concerns are district employees. Of the 40 district superintendents, at most 10 will become regional superintendents. Others may run the smaller clusters of schools. One official, who was not named, predicted most other superintendents would get positions of some responsibility. Many other district employees will not be so lucky.

But will the community school districts really die? Perhaps not.

At the hearing in Brooklyn Thursday, Klein said he would keep District 75, which oversees some special education programs. He said that some programs currently run by district, an after-school program, say, could remain district programs. And the new Parent Engagement Boards, which the administration wants to replace the Community Schools Boards (see "Replacing Community Schools Board" below), would represent parents in the 32 existing community school districts.

This may be a political maneuver. Eliminating the community school districts entirely would require approval from Albany, and the administration probably does not want its plans to become enmeshed in the state capital gridlock. But Steven Sanders, chair of the Assembly education committee, says this gambit might not work: "Certain things fall under the purview of the legislature," he said.

PROMOTING PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT

Virtually everyone involved in education at least gives lip service to the importance of involving parents in their children's education. "It's like a three-legged stool," Bloomberg said in an interview with the Times, the three legs being curriculum, structural change, and parental involvement. "If you don't have one, the whole thing falls over."

But despite all the rhetoric, and hard evidence, about the importance of parents, many New York City parents find dealing with the school system frustrating. "Educational professionals have never learned how to consider parents as their full partners in education," writes former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. (See "Making Parents Partners".) Written communications can be difficult to understand, phone calls go unanswered and, in meetings, administrators often appear to dodge key questions.

"If there is one thing that has come across in the thousands of parents that I have met, it is that we need to do a much better job of providing parents with multiple opportunities to communicate their views to decision makers in our schools," Klein said.

And so, the mayor called for a parent liaison in each school and for each of the regional offices to have a parent support office with full time, trained staff. The office would remain open some evenings and on weekends. Further, the city would open an academy for parents that would offer workshops on such issues as curriculum, strengthening the connection between home and schools, and improving parent associations. "The parent academy will be a full service resource center," Klein told the hearing Thursday.

But some observers question how sincere Bloomberg, Klein and Walcott are about the parental involvement "leg" of their plan.

Klein himself prompted some of these concerns. At the same hearing in which he set out the ideas, Klein complained about the shortcomings of parent involvement. "For every issue in which you think there is parent agreement, there are wide ranges of different views," he said. "One of the most entertaining evenings I have had is talking to a group of parents about whether to have school uniforms at their school. If I left that decision to parents, they would all have to quit work, and they would still be meeting to try to resolve that."

Responding to, de Blasio, a former community school board member said that the school administration too often confuses "conflict with paralysis."

The first five months of the Klein chancellorship does not bode well for parental involvement, said City Council Education Committee chair Eva Moskowitz. "There has been a tremendous amount of secrecy," she complained. "If we as elected officials have this problem, how is an ordinary parent who wants to know what happened to an after-school reading program in their district going to get that information?"

Parental cynicism was starkly in evidence at the Brooklyn hearing, particularly when Klein said principals would name the parent liaison at their schools. A member of the task force, Robin Brown, asked Klein whether this would be a conflict of interest. Klein disagreed, and some in the audience booed.

"Their mentality is, 'We, the mayor and the chancellor, will take care of you, don't worry,'" Cecilia Blewer, an Upper West Side parent said later. "This is daddy knows best, and it is a deep distrust of democracy."

REPLACING COMMUNITY SCHOOL BOARDS

When the state government handed control of the school system to Mayor Bloomberg last year, it left one big piece of business unfinished: The law calls for community school boards to go out of existence in June but does not say what will replace them. Today, that issue remains unresolved.

Whatever their problems, the community schools board presented the only opportunity for general democratic involvement in the city schools. The central Board of Education and its successor, the Panel for Educational Policy, have been appointed bodies.

But citizens and parents, whether they were citizens or not, could vote for members of community schools boards. Few New Yorkers, though, took advantage of this opportunity, and interest declined even further after 1996 when the state legislature took away much of the boards' responsibilities.

Now general elections for school offices could be eliminated entirely. On Thursday, the administration, in the person of Walcott and Klein, proposed replacing the boards with "Parent Engagement Boards." "Community school boards that were conceived with the intent to give a voice to the underrepresented have failed to give the voice to those with the most at stake," Walcott told a task force considering alternatives to the boards. (See "Parent Engagement Boards: Five Principles". The boards that would replace them, Walcott said, would consist entirely of parents and be chosen by parents. This would, he told the panel, "allow parents to have a more meaningful role in their children's education."

The idea met with questions and even opposition. The name Parent Engagement Boards struck de Blasio as "very 1984. It sounds like where you go to get sanitized." The City Council Education Committee has presented its own plan. It calls for Parent and Community School Councils in each district that would be appointed by council members and borough presidents. (See "The Council's Plan")

Some wondered what power the boards would have. "Who has the juice?" demanded task force member Robert deLeon. Another task force member, Gerald Levin, a former chairman of Time Warner, asked why the administration's proposed boards do not provide a role for community members who are not parents, such as businesspeople.

And while a proposal from City Hall certainly carries weight, the administration does not have the authority to dictate a plan to replace community school boards. That responsibility lies with the state legislature and governor. Final say rests with the U.S. Department of Justice which, under the federal Voting Right Act, must approve any change affecting voting in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, jurisdictions deemed to have had a history of voting discrimination.

The school governance bill passed last year called for the leadership of the state legislature to appoint a task force to hold hearings on the issue and make a recommendation to the state government. And so, for several weeks ending Thursday, the task force, chaired by Assemblymember Sanders, held hearings in all five boroughs that attracted many witnesses with a wide array of ideas.

Some witnesses wanted to preserve the current structure. "To eliminate boards is to eliminate checks and balances," said Ellen Caldwell, a Washington Heights parent. Others worried about whether the state government would really heed parental and community concerns. "I found a lot of cynicism about this process, that three men in a room are going to cede all control to the mayor," Larry Wood of Goddard Riverside Community Center said.

Many witnesses proposed their own ideas. Anne McKinnon, a member of Community School District 22 in Brooklyn, said the district boards should be modeled on the school leadership teams created by the legislature in 1996. Like those groups, which exist in each school, the panels would operate in public, have a comprehensive educational plan and include parents, faculty and administrators.

Advocates for Public Representation in Education position calls for whatever replaces the community school boards to be elected by the public and to have meaningful responsibilities, such as helping to set policy.

The big fear among parents and other concerned people in the community is that they will lose the little influence they had. After hearing the mayor's plan, Cecelia Blewer, an Upper West Side parent, said, "Their mentality is, 'We, the mayor and the chancellor, will take care of you don't worry.' But of course, we're going to worry.


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