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How Will Power Shift To The Principals?

The idea behind Chancellor Joel Klein's latest reorganization of schools is this: Principals -- not superintendents -- should run schools and control the lion's share of the budget. It is a simple idea, but carrying it out is going to be tricky.

The Department of Education has named 331 schools, including 10 charter schools, as empowerment schools. Starting this fall, these schools will not be part of any district or region and will not be supervised by a superintendent, but will operate autonomously. Their principals will be responsible for many functions that had previously been carried out by the districts, such as training teachers, designing special education programs and classes for English language learners, and offering sex and health education. In exchange for assuming this responsibility, the principals will get extra money in their school budgets, perhaps $150,000 a year. Principals will form "networks" of about 20 schools and hire their own "network teams" to provide services now offered by the regional offices. However, the regions will remain responsible for student placement, including middle school choice and gifted and talented programs, even as their budgets are cut.

The empowerment schools represent a wide range of schools. Some -- like Brooklyn Tech, PS 321 in Park Slope, PS 199 on the Upper West Side and PS 183 on the Upper East Side -- are well-established, well-regarded schools with seasoned teachers and administrators and high-achieving children. But others face problems of uneven discipline and low levels of attendance or serve a challenging student body. Some of the principals are inexperienced, and some of the empowerment schools haven't even opened yet. "I think a lot of schools are going to fail miserably," said one regional official who asked not to be identified. "The principals don't know what they don't know."

But Kristen Kane, Klein's chief of staff, is optimistic that the inexperienced principals will get the guidance they need from the new CEO for the empowerment schools, Eric Nadelstern, and from their colleagues. "Eric will be supporting principals and helping them solve problems," Kane said. She cited the success of the “autonomy zone”, the pilot project for the latest initiative, in which several dozen principals were given substantial autonomy. "Some of the less experienced principals have sought out the opportunity to network with more experienced principals," Kane said.

Parents and Principals

There are a lot of unanswered questions about how the new initiative will work. In the past, parents who had difficulties with their principal could call the regional office and speak to the principal's supervisor, the local instructional superintendent. Now, parents of children in the empowerment schools won't have that option -- because the regions will no longer supervise the schools. "Parents call all the time when they have a conflict with the principal over a suspension, or discipline, or safety," said a regional official who asked not to be identified. "Parents will still come to the district or region and say, 'What do you mean you are not in charge of my school?'"

A Queens mother, speaking on WNYC radio's Brian Lehrer Show July 17, said she was concerned that she would "voice a complaint and it would go nowhere" and that principals in the empowerment schools will "have the opportunity to be autocratic." Responding to the caller, Klein said, "Good principals know how to work well with parents. That will be true regardless" of the organizational structure.

At the July meeting of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, Nadelstern invited parents to call or e-mail him directly with their concerns. “I take calls from parents and I respond,” he said.

Cutting Jobs and Budgets

To pay for this initiative, the education department is cutting $80 million from the budgets of the central education department and its 10 regional offices. Many staffers in the regional offices are wary -- partly because they fear they will lose their jobs and partly because they worry that their responsibilities will remain even as their budgets are slashed. All of the staff members of the regional offices of Student Placement, Youth and Family Support Services -- who handle attendance, drug abuse prevention, homeless family services, suspensions, gifted and talented programs and middle school choice -- have been told they will lose their jobs when those offices close August 18. Many of these employees will be rehired by five new borough offices called the Office of Youth Development, designed to handle guidance services. Others may be rehired by other divisions of the education department, including a new office of student placement that will handle all admissions, from kindergarten through high school.

Department of Education officials acknowledge that many unanswered questions remain but express confidence that they will be resolved by September. “It’s July. We’ll have much more clarity before school starts,” said Liz Sciabarra, chief executive of the Office of Student Enrollment Planning and Operations.

Clara Hemphill, is project director of InsideSchools.org project director and author of “New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools: a Parents' Guide,” “Public Middle Schools: New York City's Best,” and “New York City's Best Public High Schools.” This topic page has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.

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