One principal saves five hours each week because he no
longer has to attend regional meetings. A second says
onerous paperwork on student transfers has all but
disappeared. And a third revels in the freedom to take
students on field trips on short notice -- without
getting approval from the superintendent's office.
They are among the 29 New York City principals
participating in the "Autonomy Zone," a one-year pilot
project created by Chancellor Joel Klein last fall.
The program is designed to test whether schools with
greater autonomy can help schools be more successful.
Schools in the Autonomy Zone (mostly new small high
schools) must follow all laws, as well as federal,
state, and union regulations. However, they no longer
work under a local instructional superintendent, and
they have more control over their school budgets.
Some administrators and advocates worry that
inexperienced principals in the program may not be
getting the supervision they need, but the principals
in the program are mostly enthusiastic. "The Autonomy
Zone is the best thing that has happened for our
school in a long,
long, time," said Robert Lubetsky, principal of
City-as-School in Manhattan, one of the schools in the
The idea is that schools can be better held
accountable for their performance if they are given
more autonomy. "Put control in the schools [and]
remove any excuses for why the school is failing,"
Eric Nadelstern, the chancellor's chief academic
officer for new schools, said at a panel discussion in
The Autonomy Zone schools must meet higher standards
than the average New York City schools. In five years,
for example, average daily attendance must be 90
percent and 80 percent of students must graduate. If
the school fails, it is closed.
But principals aren't worried about the higher
standards. "The threat of the schools closing in five
years is the least of my concerns," said David Banks,
principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the
Bronx. "In my opinion these are minimal standards."
Autonomy Zone principals praise the time saved by not
communicating extensively with regional officials.
Aaron Listhaus, principal of Middle College High
School in Queens, said regional officials â€šĂ„Ăşwould show
up without making an appointment, and so we would not
be prepared to deal with them," he said. Before the
Autonomy Zone, Listhaus said he spent 30 percent of
his time spent dealing with regional officials; now it
is 10 percent.
Leonard Trerotola, principal of International Arts and
Business High School, said he uses the five hours a
week he no longer spends attending regional meetings
to teach one period a day and hold two advisory
session per week. He also wrote two grant proposals
for the school library.
Autonomy Zone schools also see a reduction in
paperwork. Nancy Gannon, principal of School for
Democracy and Leadership in Brooklyn, recalls the days
when it took 17 papers and a police report to transfer
a child to another school. "In the Autonomy Zone, I
only needed 20 minutes and it was done," she said.
Instead of working under a regional superintendent,
principals in the Autonomy Zone support each other in
"networks" of five to six schools that have similar
issues or philosophies. The networks meet once per
Lubetsky is helping his network schools develop an
internship program similar to that at City-as-School.
Another network focuses on improving instruction for
classes that mix children of different abilities.
Listhaus said the network gatherings are more
productive and beneficial than the numerous regional
meetings he attended. "We can decide on the topics
that suit our needs and not have to participate in the
one-size-fits-all agenda from the region."
Autonomy zone principals also have greater freedom to
assign staff and to design a schedule and a curriculum
than their counterparts in regular schools. "At the
school level, if you want to have three
vice-principals, or you determine that you want a
second parent coordinator, you can do it," said Banks
of the Eagle Academy for Young Men.
Pace High School Principal Yvette Sy decided to have
eight 54-minute periods instead of the nine 40-minute
periods in most of the other schools in the region.
She also hired an additional English teacher, dropping
the class size to 13 students. "Every year there will
a different program to meet the needs of the kids,"
said Sy. "We will change the curriculum depending on
But despite the principals' cheers, veteran principals
believe that the Autonomy Zone has too many schools
with first-year principals, who need the support and
guidance that a good regional office would offer. Some
of these tasks fall to the experienced principals who
act as mentors.
But the role of a veteran principal and a regional
superintendent are not the same, says Jill Chaifetz,
director of Advocates for Children (the parent
organization of Insideschools.org). "[The mentoring]
helps a lot, but I don't think it's a substitute," she
Despite, the new principals' dedication, intelligence
and hard work, they still lack work experience and
professional contacts. "When you're a first year
principal you don't even know enough about the system
to ask the right questions," said Banks, who has been
a principal for more than a decade.
The chancellor is to decide the future of the Autonomy
Zone program this spring.
Poll on City Schools
A new opinion poll (in pdf
format) shows that nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers
surveyed think the city's public schools are headed in
the wrong direction. At the same time, more than 40
percent of New Yorkers surveyed said they think the
schools in their own neighborhood are "good" or
The poll, conducted by eTownPanel.com, a survey research unit at
Baruch College, suggests New Yorkers have
contradictory opinions about their schools. More than
60 percent of those surveyed said the local government
should spend more on schools and nearly 80 percent
said the state should spend more on schools. But fewer
than half said they would be "veryâ€š" or "somewhat
willing" to pay higher taxes for schools.
The results could spell trouble for Mayor Mike
Bloomberg this election year. He has staked his
mayoralty on improving the city's schools, and the
fact that the majority of those surveyed think the
schools are getting worse is bad news for him. Also
bad news for the mayor are survey results showing a
very low level of trust in local government to spend
money for schools wisely.
At the same time, there are bits of good news for the
mayor. While New Yorkers may be gloomy about the state
of schools citywide, fewer than one in four ranked
their own neighborhood school as poor. And more
respondents blamed the state for inadequate funding
than the city.
The online survey, conducted from Dec. 13 though Dec.
31, 2004, included responses from 1,340 panelists in
the United States, 169 of whom live in New York City.
Although the panelists do not represent a random
sample, the results are adjusted by gender, race, and
geography to more closely reflect the general
demographic profile of the city and the nation. Baruch
College conducted the survey at the request of Inside
The survey also compares New York City to the nation.
New Yorkers are more likely to give their schools a
negative rating than most Americans. More than 70
percent of New Yorkers surveyed said the city's
schools are "fair" or "poor." Nationally, more than
half of all respondents rate both their cityâ€šĂ„Ă´s schools
and their neighborhood schools as "good" or
New Yorkers surveyed are less likely to trust their
local school system to spend money wisely than those
surveyed nationally. At the same time, they are
somewhat more willing to pay higher taxes for schools
than those surveyed nationally.
This topic page has been adapted from articles that
originally appeared on Insideschools.org,
an independent guide to New
York City public schools sponsored by Advocates
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