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With IBM's Help, New School Hopes to Groom Students for Tech Jobs

As the Department of Education "phases out" Paul Robeson High School, a new technology school, created in collaboration with IBM and CUNY, will open in the building next fall.

(This is the second of two articles on science teaching in New York City public schools. To read the previous article on city students falling short in science, go here.)

This September, if all goes according to plan, the New York City Department of Education, the City University of New York and IBM will unveil an entirely new kind of high school in Brooklyn.

Eventually the school will have about 600 students in grades 9 through 14. Those who successfully complete the six-year program will receive an associate degree in a computer science-related field – and, in theory, first dibs on a job at IBM.

In some ways, the plan fits into the prevailing narrative of the Bloomberg administration's approach to education: trying to fix what ails public education by looking for expertise in the private sector.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announcing the project last fall, trumpeted the school as a way of "taking an education system that has fallen far behind the times, and moving it into the 21st century." He presented it as part of a broad initiative to modernize the city's schools, which includes increased funding for innovative new school models and linking teacher tenure and pay to merit.

While there is little if any opposition to the concept of the school, some question whether it will be able to deliver on its ambitious goals.

Breaking the Mold

The IBM school, called Pathways and Technology Early College High School, or P-Tech, will not be a charter school but a regular public school working in partnership with IBM. The school is also the first grade 9 through 14 school in the country (someone dubbed it a hollege) where students can leave with an associate's degree in information technology -- though students may end up leaving after grade 12 and attending a CUNY school for grades 13 and 14, according to IBM. In either case, CUNY staff would be involved in teaching the technical side of the school's curriculum.

The school's staff will be drawn from a pool of New York teachers and administrators experienced in math and science education. Rashid Davis, currently principal of Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, has been chosen as its principal. IBM's role will be primarily to provide financial support and administer mentor and internship programs.

IBM, for its part, conceives of the new school partly as a way to test a new model of education. The company has said that it sees public education partly as a kind of long-term investment -- a way of ensuring that the pool of trained technology workers stays strong.

"It's looking at having a more vocational focus on a specific topic area where there's a need and a desire for those skills in the future," said IBM spokesperson Lisa Lanspery. Starting vocational training in grade nine, instead of waiting until a student community college, could be a "huge advantage," she said. She said students also would benefit from the mentor, internship, training and career placement programs IBM planned to offer at the school.

"You think of a current high school today, they're not going to get access to mentors," Lanspery said.

Ultimately, Lanspery said, the company might try to replicate the model elsewhere in New York and other cities – though for now, she said, the company is taking it "step by step."

Initial Support

In December 2010, IBM hosted a reception for New York public school and CUNY administrators to share their thoughts on the project and on challenges it might face. That reception was attended by principals of various New York public schools, especially those focused on science and technology, including Aviation High School, George Westinghouse High School and Midwood High School. Stanley Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate affairs and chairman of its foundation, represented the company. 
Chiara Coletti, a spokesperson for the administrators' union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said she has received "100 percent positive feedback" from members of her union and praised IBM's involvement. "They're really taking the initiative," Coletti said. "This is like a little laboratory of learning for doing this kind of thing."

While enthusiastic about the idea, the administrators cautioned IBM that the school would face unique challenges. Foremost among them is that, unlike existing technology-focused schools like Brooklyn Tech, the planned IBM school will not choose its students through a competitive application process. September's incoming class -- about 100 ninth graders -- will be selected by lottery, with some preference given to students who attend an information session. As a result, those attending the school will likely have a wide range of abilities and aptitudes.

On its web site, the school says it expects students to be wiling to put in extra hours, to be interested in computers, math and science and to be "curious, dedicated learners."

The school already has encountered opposition, largely because the city plans to put it in the Crown Heights building that now houses Paul Robeson High School, which it is starting to close. Robeson, which itself was created as a technical high school in 1985, has had a particularly challenging student body. About one eighth of the students, according to a report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, is homeless or living in temporary housing, its graduation rate had dipped to 40 percent, and many of the students are overage, often indicating they had fallen behind in high school or been forced to repeat a grade earlier in their school careers. The school had launched efforts designed specifically to help struggling students, such as a program for students who had children of their own.

To critics of the IBM school, P-Tech looks like another flashy "innovation school" pushing out a struggling, but viable, traditional school. City Councilmember Al Vann, who represents Paul Robeson High School's district, told New York 1 that, while he supported the idea of the IBM school, closing Robeson is not fair to its students.

In addition, having a corporate sponsor does not guarantee success. While some of the Department of Education's public-private partnerships -- used most notably in publicly funded, privately run charter schools -- have done well, other have faltered. The city founded Metropolitan Corporate Academy in downtown Brooklyn with the help of Goldman Sachs, which provided mentors and internships. But this year, the city decided to shut the school, which had a crumbling facility in downtown Brooklyn and suffered from poor attendance.

IBM's Pledge

For all its commitment to the school, IBM's long-term role remains unclear. An important unanswered question is how strongly IBM has committed to hiring graduates of the school. When Bloomberg announced the school, he said in a televised address on NBC that that its graduates would be "guaranteed" jobs at IBM.

In fact, IBM has said no such thing. What it is promising, according to Lanspery, is that graduates of the school will be "first in line" for any jobs at IBM for which they are qualified -- that is, that they will be considered for these jobs before other applicants.

"It has to be an appropriate job with the appropriate credentials," Lanspery said -- and many jobs at IBM aren't appropriate for someone with only an associate degree in computer science.

"If we're looking for someone with a business or graduate degree, probably someone graduating from a 9-14 school would not be the most qualified applicant," Lanspery said. More appropriate jobs, she said, might include "lower-level" programming and software development.

Moreover, Lanspery said, given the rapid evolution of the technology sector, IBM's job openings might look very different by the time the school's first class graduates.

 “It's tough for us to say what those jobs are going to look like six years from now," she said. "Six years from now, the tech world is going to look totally different." 

Nonetheless, Lanspery stressed that graduates who don't get hired at IBM will hardly be adrift. Nearly every sector is creating more and more tech jobs, from telecommunications to energy, and graduates of the IBM school will have an excellent shot at those jobs, she said.

To help make that happen, IBM plans to appoint a committee to develop a "core set of minimum requirements for entry-level IT jobs that will serve as benchmarks and targets" for the school. At this point, it is too early to say what those benchmarks might look like, or how they will be met.

Department of Education spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said that the actual curriculum for the school, which will include both traditional instruction and vocational training during all six years, is still in the early planning stages. He said the department should be able to announce more details this spring.

City Students Fall Short in Science

science education
Photo by Art Jessen
As the city attempts to lure high-tech jobs, city students, by several measures, seem to lack basic science skills.

With Google having purchased property in Chelsea for almost $2 billion and Internet Week New York looking to its fourth year, city officials hope the technology and bioscience industries will continue to expand here, bringing new job opportunities with them. But will graduates of the city’s public schools have the skills to get those jobs?

Results of a new national science test released late last month, along with a steep decline in the number of students qualifying for a prestigious science award and testimony from teachers indicates that even if new, high-tech jobs come to New York City, the positions may not go to people who attended the city's schools.

Earlier this month Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president's appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, asked schools Chancellor Cathie Black about what Sullivan described as " the continued decline in science education under the mayor's watch." According to Sullivan, Black said she would look into the issue.

The Test Scores

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, recently released results for the fourth and eighth grade students from 17 urban districts, including New York City who took a national science test in 2009. Also referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, NAEP, a product of the National Center for Education Statistics, serves as a barometer for national student performance. Fourth graders in 14 of the 17 city districts and eighth graders in all but one of the districts scored lower than the national average of 149 on a scale of 0 to 300. New York City's fourth and eighth grade students scored below the national average, at 135 and 129, respectively. That puts the city's fourth graders in the middle of the urban districts; the eight graders lagged behind those in many other city schools systems.

In all types of districts across the country, a large percentage of the nation’s fourth, eighth and twelfth graders did not reach the level of proficient on the NAEP tests. The 2009 results for the 17 urban districts "are worse, not better," said Alan Friedman, former director of the New York Hall of Science who explained the results in a National Center for Education Statistics webcast.

"Urban districts in general performed less well in math and reading compared to the nation as a whole, while performing even further below in science," Friedman said.

New York's Department of Education has said not all cities considered "urban districts" face the same challenges that New York does. "While our kids have a long way to go, right now we're outperforming districts with much lower levels of poverty," said the department's chief academic officer, Shael Polokow-Suransky, in a statement.

And the department has noted that New York fourth graders eligible for free or reduced-price lunch -- a poverty indicator --outperformed similar students in other large cities, and that New York fared better than other cities with similar poverty rates, such as Chicago and Los Angeles.

The department, though, also has expressed some dismay about the scores. "The gap between how our students perform in elementary and middle school is a real concern," Polokow-Suransky said.

A Lack of Talent?

While the students taking the NAEP represent a sample of city students, some observers also see a falloff in achievement among the city's best science students. This year, for the first time in recent memory, no city school student, public or private, reached the final round of the prestigious national Intel Science Talent Search. Only 14 students were among the 200 semifinalists, according to Steve Koss, who has written extensively on the issue.

For decades, city school students dominated the competition, but Koss writes, "Since 2002-2003 ... NYC schools' participation in STS has dropped by nearly half, and the level of semifinalist winners by nearly three fourths."

In his post on NYC Public School Parents, Koss links the decline to the advent of mayoral control of schools. He offers a number of possible explanations, including that the emphasis on math and reading tests have minimized or "dumbed down" science instruction.

Science Requirements

The city science curriculum, according to the Department of Education website begins with a hands-on approach for elementary school students. At the high school level, students are required to complete three years of life or physical science, as well as 1,200 minutes of lab time to qualify for a Regents diploma.

Overall, the department says, "The city's approach allows students to practice problem-solving skills, develop positive science attitudes, learn new science content, and increase their scientific literacy."

Based on discussions with several New York City teachers that may not be working. (The teachers asked to remain anonymous.)

One teacher in a public high school with a business focus who has taught biology for 10 years said that the majority of students entering her classroom have not been "well prepped" for high school science. More importantly, the students lack basic skills, she said. For example, students had difficulty answering review questions because they didn’t understand words such as "predict" or "sequence." To address this, the teacher has enrolled in a class to help her teach reading to her students.

Another teacher said her students have difficulty using a ruler because they’re not familiar with the measurements.

Other educators echo such concerns. A professor at LaGuardia Community College recently told the New York Times that his students -- people who have graduated from high school -- "have serious challenges remembering the basic rules of arithmetic.”

To try to bolster science education, the city has begun introducing state standards, called Common Core. Among other things, these would have students analyze academic, non-fiction texts, including science texts, similar to those they might encounter in college.

The NAEP scores, Polokow-Suransky said in his statement, point up the importance of "working toward the tougher Common Core Standards as quickly as possible." The standards, he continued, will "build literacy skills in science ... and prepare our kids for the critical thinking and problem solving they begin to face in middle school."

In the Lab

The high school teachers also expressed frustration over the lack of lab time. Student are supposed to have 44 minutes of lab a week "but they aren't experimenting the whole time because time has to be allotted for setup, explaining the lab instructions because students have difficulty comprehending them, and then clean-up,” said one of the teachers.

She thinks students would need a minimum of 90 minutes per week to see the results of and have the opportunity to change their experiments.

The education department says it is in the midst of what it describes as "a multi-million dollar effort ... to improve the quality and quantity of science laboratory facilities." But while many schools have added new science labs, a recent report on NY1 found that they don’t have teachers for them, making it hard to boost time spent on hands-on experiments.

The department admits that it has had shortages of science teachers but says it has tried to fill science-teaching positions and, in the last three years, hired more than 500 new middle school science teachers. Impending teacher layoffs, though, could bring a halt to those gains and even erase some of them.

Extra Help

Whatever the school day may lack in science education, some city students try to make up for it after hours. The Department of Youth and Community Development's Beacon Program offers an opportunity for several hundred students to build and program robots. Enthusiastic science graduate and post-doctoral students teach the elementary and high school students, according to Darryl Rattray, the Beacon Program’s assistant commissioner.

This program, though, could also be vulnerable to budget cuts. In testimony before the state legislature, city youth commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav said that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2011-2012 budget proposal could result "in the loss of 4,800 afterschool slots" out of an afterschool population of approximately 80,000 students.

As exciting as building a robot is, the afterschool program does not guarantee that students will learn the essential concepts required to excel in physical, life and earth and space sciences or boost their test scores. Meghan Groome, the director of K-12 science education for the New York Academy of Sciences who is responsible for recruiting graduate students to teach in afterschool programs, said the "program's mission is to engage and interest students in the sciences, not to ready them for test taking."

Ms. Black Goes to Albany

Cathie Black
Photo by Edward Reed
Schools Chancellor Cathie Black on a recent visit to P.S. 262

"Is Cathleen Black here?" The pointed, almost scolding voice of Sen. John DeFrancisco rang out across the hearing room in the legislative office building in Albany on Tuesday. DeFrancisco, who was overseeing the joint budget hearing on education for the senate majority, was looking for a copy of the schools chancellor's testimony.

Black made her presence known. "You weren't going to keep it for yourself were you?" DeFrancisco chuckled as she handed in her testimony.

With only two months on the job, Black has weathered a storm of controversy after being appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Formerly a publishing executive, Black had no experience in education and has made only limited and carefully controlled appearances since taking office at the beginning of January.

Black, who also has little to no experience dealing with organized labor, took her new job as the city's dealings with the teacher's union turned notably contentious. In his State of the City address, Bloomberg pushed for new control over pension negotiations and the elimination of state mandates such as the first-in, last-out rule that means newer teachers must be laid off before teachers with seniority. United Federation of Teachers’ head Michael Mulgrew has taken the mayor's push as an attack on seniority and a move designed to cut costs by getting rid of more highly paid teachers.

The Exmining Board

Black's testimony on Tuesday before a joint hearing of the notoriously cantankerous legislature was supposed to be her biggest test to date. Instead Black delivered her written testimony and had a basically cordial question and answer session with legislators. But it wasn't all smooth sailing.

As Black took her seat in front of a microphone and a large panel of legislators, the chanting began. At first it was muffled, but the noise of human voices protesting in unison was unmistakable. Most of the audience looked at one another nervously, assuming the protest was directed at Black.

"Wanna take a break?" one legislator asked. "Can we have some order please!" shouted DeFrancisco. The protesters got louder, closer to the floor and to Black. "Gov. Cuomo, don't kill the CFE!" they chanted, demanding the state honor a settlement in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that requires it to provide more aid to under-funded school districts. "You have the wrong room. Gov. Cuomo is on the second floor of the capitol," DeFrancisco said. When the protesters exited the room, Assemblymember Herman "Denny" Farrell told a staffer, "Lock the doors when they leave." But the protest brought a round of applause from legislators and audience members alike.

With that, Black began her testimony. "Thank you for that warm welcome," she said, smiling. Legislators laughed. Black was accompanied by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and the Department of Education's chief financial officer, Veronica Conforme.

Black read from her testimony, thanking the legislators, especially the "New York City delegation."

Pleading the City Case

"Let me say from the outset that we recognize the state's precarious financial condition. As Mayor Bloomberg said, ‘What we are urging you to do is provide our students with their fair share of state aid and our city with the tools and reform needed to end unnecessary mandates and crippling policy that otherwise will accelerate an already daunting situation,'" she said.

Sen. Martin Golden agreed with Black that Cuomo's budget calls for New York City to bear an unfair share of the cuts in state education aid. He asked Black what legislation City Hall plans to put forward to deal with the state mandates the Bloomberg administration says are so burdensome. Black replied that a bill dealing with last in, first out was forthcoming.

She was asked what criteria, other than seniority, could be used for evaluating teachers. "We have a number of plans to have a more formulaic evaluation of teachers," she said. "The current system is only two letters: satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Ninety percent get satisfactory. That number by any stretch of the imagination doesn't fly. At the moment we can't move forward on teacher evaluations in any significant way because that is a contract we have to work out with the union."

Dodging Controversy

Assemblymember Nick Perry had sharper questions.

"What is your own vision?" he asked Black. "The reason I'm asking the question is, it seems to me you got on the train and just took the driver's seat, and my observation is the train has been going down the wrong track for long time, and my perception is that you have been driving the train in the same direction as your predecessor."

Black's response did not include any criticism of her predecessor and avoided any hot topics.

"I have a very clear vision that our children deserve the best schools that they possibly can have for all of the years they are in school -- to prepare them for a world they are going into, which is more complex than it has been in the past," she added, "I want to do much better job of reaching out to the community in tandem to work together to assure our children a better future."

Perry pressed on. "Do you believe that the policy of routinely closing schools after what seems in a lot of cases deliberate policy by the department to let these schools deteriorate until they are not worth keeping open, do you think that is policy that should be part of your vision?" Perry asked.

"We do not have policy for closing schools," Black promptly responded.

"Excuse me! Did you just say you don't have a policy for closing schools?" Perry asked in disbelief.

"We have a very strong belief we should phase out failing schools," Black continued. Perry tried to interject but Black continued. "We visit schools not once, but multiple times," she said, explaining how students, principals and teachers were evaluated in failing schools." Walcott then added to what Black said, insisting that the city works in tandem with the state to identify poorly performing schools.

Cutting Costs or Keeping Teachers

Perhaps the most pointed questions came from Sen. Andrew Lanza on the topic of last in, first out.

"What is the anticipated cost savings if we were to move away from the LIFO system or process?" asked Lanza.

"I don’t have an exact number on that but with this kind of budget shortfall it’s going to be a significant number," said Black.

Walcott quickly interjected, "We don’t view this as a cost saving measure. We view this as an issue of how to provide the best teachers for schools during a very difficult time around layoffs."

"Well, this is a budget hearing," said Lanza, "and the issue of changing LIFO has been advanced in the context of saving the city a lot of money. So I am trying to get an accurate picture as to what the expectation is. Why is it the city's expectation that so many experienced teachers would be let go?"

Black seemingly missed the point of the question -- whether intentionally or not . Black said that she expected teacher layoffs in general would be necessary because of Cuomo's proposed budget cuts.

Visibly frustrated, Lanza responded: "I’ll tell you my concern is that this is being driven by cost savings, because this is being advanced as a cost savings measure for the city. Would you agree all else being equal experience matters?"

Black told the story of meeting a "fantastic teacher" and finding out that she only had a year of experience.

Lanza still didn't have the answer he was looking for. "We can agree to disagree," he said.

But he had one more question -- this time about pensions. Lanza noted the teacher had agreed to a new -- and lower -- tier for new teachers in 2009. "Are we saying that we need to move beyond that? That that's not going to work?" he asked the chancellor.

"The deputy mayor may want to add to that," Black responded, quickly handing the question off to Walcott.

More questions came and went, about building funds, closing the achievement gap, class size, using e-readers in the classroom. Some legislators were anxious to talk about their experiences as a teachers. Others seemed pleasantly surprised that Black was talking about the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and reducing state cuts to city education aid.

Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell seemed almost incensed when he asked Black if she agreed with a recent "tabloid editorial" that said this was the wrong time to make good on the CFE lawsuit. He appeared relieved when Black said she did not agree with the editorial and thought an injustice was being done by not funding it.

Report Card

So what did legislators think of Black's performance?

"She's only been in for less than a month. I think she did a good job. I would give her a B pus," said Sen. Ruben Diaz. But Diaz added he wasn't particularly concerned with who serves as chancellor. "It is the mayor's way. It is his agenda. No one else matters. This is the same administration-- it has nothing to do with the chancellor.

Sen. Liz Krueger said she thinks that the teachers union, Black and Bloomberg all agree that the city is bearing an unfair share of education cuts -- whether the union and the administraiton are getting along or not. She said she has disagreed with past legislation that would do away with protections for senior teachers, but thinks there may be some sort of formula that takes more than just seniority into account. That said, she added, "I don't think it is an appropriate budget discussion," because it should not be about cost savings

As for Black's performance, Krueger thought she did well but that she wasn't facing much of a firing squad this time. "She gave her answers, and sometimes referred to the deputy mayor. When she didn't have the answer she was reasonable and said she would get back to us on that. It was a civil Q and A. I don't think it could have been harder than having 3,000 angry people screaming at you," Krueger said.

Later Black told the press she prepared for weeks for the testimony.

Seniority Fight Highlights Rift Between City, Teachers

Office of the Mayor
Last month teachers union president Michael Mulgrew stood with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Cathleen Black to announce a program to help struggling students. But Mulgrew and the administration have agreed on little else in the past several weeks.

The content of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's State of the City address last month wasn't exactly a surprise. He had made many of the points before. Nevertheless, his pointed call for sweeping labor concessions left many union leaders with jaws agape.

According to some reports, no one was more surprised than United Federation of Teachers" president Michael Mulgrew, who learned of Bloomberg's demands only moments before the speech. Mulgrew and Bloomberg were previously on good terms, but after the address Mulgrew acted like a man betrayed. Bloomberg not only wants the state to give the city the right to negotiate pensions, but he has made doing away with the first-in, last-out law on laying off teachers a centerpiece of his agenda. Looming over this is the question of teacher layoffs. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget will cut $518 million in school aid to the city and $1.5 billion statewide.

Bloomberg projected that with the current funding cuts and with the last-hired, first-fired provision still in place he will have to lay off nearly 8,000 teachers – all of whom will be recent hires.

Cuomo and his budget director Robert Megna have said that the cuts are not as bad as Bloomberg claims and that the city could use its rainy day fund to patch the budget.

Teachers say they feel as though they are under siege. Last year the union accepted a new pension tier that would give new teachers lower benefits than their predecessors and found themselves with wage freeze that prevented lay offs. They see little end to what Bloomberg and Cuomo say is "shared sacrifice."

Many teachers see the effort to weaken seniority as still another indication that the mayor and his administration have little respect for career educators. A large number of parents and teachers saw the appointment of Cathleen Black, a publishing executive with no education experience, as a slap in the face, saying she lacked the credentials to teach in the system, let alone run it.

Some complain about the paucity of long-time educators in the education department bureaucracy and about the city's hiring people with scant classroom experience -- but a stint at management training course -- as school principals. They have noted the education department no longer even has an office devoted to "Teaching and Learning."

"I just came from a meeting of thousands of teachers and they have lost all respect for the mayor," said Mulgrew, "This is what they are telling me: ‘He is fighting for how to do layoffs instead of fighting against them.’"

Much Ado About LIFO

For now, seniority rules are the main point of contention between the administration and the union.

Bloomberg and his Albany office worked feverishly to persuade Cuomo to add language to his budget bills that would allow the Department of Education more flexibility when it comes to layoffs, so that not only new teachers lose their positions. Cuomo didn't do that, but said he would consider legislation altering the agreement, along with other changes to pension mandates, after the budget is passed.

Cuomo told reportersrecently that negotiations are ongoing.

Bloomberg started pushing for changes to last in-first out last year, but dropped the issue after the salary freeze averted teacher layoffs. Before Cuomo released his budget, though, Bloomberg returned to the idea -- more forcefully than ever before -- threatening as many as 21,000 teacher layoffs. Under existing rules, he said, every teacher hired since 2006 could lose his or her job. He soon retreated from that but has held fast to his position that last in, first out must change.

"State law includes a 'last in, first out' provision, which would force us to lay off some of our very best teachers, while keeping some of our worst. Those layoffs would be felt heavily in the city's poorest neighborhoods, where schools tend to have the newest teachers," Bloomberg testified at a state budget hearing this week.

Mulgrew said he believes that Bloomberg is "playing chicken little" -- exaggerating the severity of the financial situation to get changes to pension law and alter seniority rules. "Just like everything else he [Bloomberg] has done, he says the sky is falling," Mulgrew said. "In his speech he said he wants principals to decide who is laid off, and he said how much money they make should be a factor, so those with seniority will be at greater risk. We have a 50 percent attrition rate in our profession, and it is as if the mayor is saying, ‘We don't want you.’ More people are going to be scared away from this profession."

A number of education advocates see Bloomberg's State of the City speech and his position on this issue as his way of turning a bad situation to his favor. Bloomberg knew full well Cuomo would make cuts this year, they say. By making teacher seniority an issue the mayor would be able to control which teachers get to teach and rid himself of senior teachers who are due raltively high salaries and expensive benefits.

By repeatedly saying the seniority rules would force the Department of Education to fire many outstanding teachers, some teachers and education advocates think the mayor is implying that senior teachers are inferior to newcomers.

"Look at it this way," said Carl Korn of New York State United Teachers. "If you brought your car to a mechanic, would you want someone straight out of vocational school or someone with 20 years of experience working on cars? We are lucky enough in this state to have some great first- and second-year teachers, but we are also lucky to have some very experienced teachers with 15 or 20 years behind them."

"The mayor is saying that only the new teachers are making a difference in these poor neighborhoods, and I think that isn't right," said Sen. Bill Perkins, who was elected with strong support from the UFT. " It is bad for public education to even make that characterization. There are rotten apples and they should be gotten rid of, but is he saying that all teachers with seniority are bad? That is a very deep prejudice."

Perkins said he thinks Bloomberg's position could be related to his support for charter schools, few of which are unionized. "It may have to do with all these young teachers working for charter schools. He is saying, ‘Come in and work for less.’

The split between the Bloomberg administration and the union has grown increasingly rancorous and public. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mulgrew has become so irate about Bloomberg and Black's statements about eliminating seniority privileges that he withdrew his name from an agreement he and Black signed saying they would work collaboratively on hiring, evaluation and retention issues. Mulgrew's action meant he won’t be able to attend an upcoming national conference in Denver -- and that Black won't be able to go either.

"If we sign a pledge and before we even get to Denver they've broken their pledge, why am I going? Makes no sense," Mulgrew told the Journal.

Who Goes, Who Stays?

Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, who last year proposed a bill to do away with last in, first out, says he has no exact details on the new criteria that could be used to decide which educators are laid off -- only that Bloomberg and Cuomo are negotiating some sort of legislation. He says he expects it would not undermine seniority.

Corn says he is concerned the real reason for laying off more senior teachers may be to decrease costs. Last in, first out "was put in place to stop patronage and nepotism," he said. "If we do away with it, management could basically decide who gets to teach, and there will be questions about why those decisions were made."

But opponents of the practice say there must be a better way than years served to determine who gets to keep their jobs."As it is now we can't get rid of teachers who perform unsatisfactorily after giving them due process," said Bing. "I think there is a better system out there than the one we have now. I am not trying to bust any union."

Getting Control

Bloomberg also wants Albany to allow him to negotiate pension deals in the city. Pension costs have grown in the last few years as the economy has faltered. As a result, Cuomo, Bloomberg and business groups say, that pension costs are killing the state and local governments.

In his State of the City speech Bloomberg said pension costs for all city employees -- not just teachers -- have increased 360 percent since he became mayor in 2002 and calculated that if the subway fare had increased a similar amount, it would now cost straphangers $7.05 -- each way -- to go to work.

"New Yorkers can't afford those subway fares, and we certainly can't afford pension costs on that level either,' Bloomberg said

Corn points out that school districts did not always have to pay so much to cover pension costs. From the late 1990s to the early aughts school districts were putting in less than one percent of teachers’ salaries, while teachers contributed around 3 percent because the economy was doing well. When the economy went bad, governments had to make up some of the difference. Mulgrew said he thinks the economy is rebounding and pension costs will soon decrease.

What's at Stake?

Most unionized public employees have protections similar to the teachers' last in first out. Mulgrew said that “first in last out” is a general principle of civic code.”

Perkins fears the effort to do away with it for teachers -- and the fiscal crisis -- could lead to a general undermining of labor law "It would be a sea change for labor if they totally repealed LIFO [last in, first out]," he said.

Bing said he has no interest in undermining labor, but believes the law as it applies to teachers is unique. "I don't think any other profession is affected geographically the way education is. I don't think any other profession is affected geographically the way education is," her said.

Bing said he got involved in the issue during last year's budget process when his community school district seemed about to lose 19 percent of its teachers because of layoffs. "Under the proposed cuts we would have lost four times the number of teachers as any other part of the city," said Bing.

Billy Easton of Alliance for Quality Education said he thinks teachers are being used as scapegoats. "Anytime politicians want to make unpopular cuts they need a straw man to knock down, and teachers are that straw man," said Easton.

Fighting the Change

As the Times reported on Wednesday, teachers unions along with other labor groups are not, as they did in previous years, launching major attack campaigns on the governor for his proposed cuts to education and other programs. Instead, they are trying to take advantage of what they perceive to be good will toward them to create grassroots campaigns to lobby the legislature to stop education cuts and keep the so-called millionaires tax. Korn points to a December Siena University poll that shows that 74 percent surveyed opposed Cuomo's proposed cuts to education, while 73 percent supported continuing the millionaires tax. Cuomo has vowed not to increase taxes and to roll back the current tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

"We can't just cut our way out of this budget crisis," said Easton of Advocates for Quality Education. "Seventy to eighty percent of New Yorkers oppose ending the tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers, but so far Albany isn’t listening."

As for city teachers, what are the chances that Bloomberg gets what he wants with respect to both the last in, first out rule and control over pension negotiations?

Most legislators have expressed little interest in getting involved in the debate, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a longtime ally of the union, has remains publicly noncommittal.

Meanwhile, Mulgrew hopes time is on his side.

"The important thing for us is to get through the next 18 months," he said. "We should look at it fairly--not as the mayor does like Chicken Little trying to cause panic to push his agenda through. It looks like we have an upturn in the economy. It looks like we are getting out of this so we need to talk about not just shared sacrifice but shared prosperity."

Council Approves Bill to Require School Safety Reports

Photo (cc) defak

The handcuffs on school safety data have come off, officials said Monday.

For the first time, the Police Department and Department of Education will have to report to the New York City Council on school safety under (Intro 442) legislation approved Monday.

The bill, approved by a vote of 47 to 0, will detail suspensions and arrests by both school safety officers and by police officers. The data will be broken down by race, gender, age and ethnicity and reveal whether the student is an English language learner.

The Department of Education currently reports on school safety to the state, but is not required to detail incidents to the City Council.

"You can go and find a lunch menu," said Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., a primary sponsor of the bill. "But you can't get a crime report."

The mayor is expected to sign the bill.

School Safety

Supporters of the legislation said the data would be used to shape school safety policy and determine where disciplinary problems emerge.

"Enforcement of these stipulations may reveal whether patterns are developing that require special intervention or demonstrate clear successes which then could be replicated throughout the system," said Sterling Roberson, vice president of the United Federation of Teachers, in testimony before the City Council last week. "And frankly, more transparency keeps everyone honest on safety and discipline, because we know that often there’s a tendency for emotions and preconceived assumptions to run rampant in place of the facts."

Under the legislation, called the "School Safety Act," data on school suspensions will be broken down by school and reported biannually. The Police Department will report data on arrests, summonses or noncriminal incidents on school grounds quarterly. The crime data will be broken down by the city's eight patrol boroughs. Police will have to detail the nature of the incident, including whether it was a felony, according to the legislation.

School safety agents arrested more than 1,100 students last year, according to New York Civil Liberties Union, and the number of school safety agents has increased by 46 percent under the Bloomberg administration -- from 3,600 to 5,200.

In the 2008/2009 school year, one out of every 14 children was suspended, according to the NYCLU.

The Department of Education, which supports the legislation, touts its school safety record. A spokesperson said it is more than willing to share it.

"We support the bill and have worked closely with the City Council and the NYPD to draft it," said a Department of Education spokesperson Marge Feinberg on the bill's passage. "We are proud of our record in making our schools safer. Since the 2000/2001 school year, violent crime in schools decreased by 39 percent."

The legislation's approval comes just one week after a teacher miscarried in the Bronx after trying to break up a school fight.

A plethora of school safety advocates support the legislation, including Advocates for Children, Class Size Matters and Teachers Unite.

While acknowledging the bill is a good first step, Roberson said in prepared testimony the city should strengthen its prevention and intervention programs to solve school violence before it starts.

Advocates, like the New York Civil Liberties Union, have also called for more rigorous training programs for school safety agents. Agents receive 17 weeks of training.

Riverside Center

Also on Monday, the council approved a 3.1 million square foot development project, Riverside Center, on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The development will include 2,500 units of housing, 20 percent of which will be affordable, 1,500 units of parking, nearly 120,000 square feet of retail space and more than 100,000 square feet of office space.

As part of a compromise on the project, which community members and the area council member see as too big, the developer, Extell Development, will provide funding for the West 59th Street Recreation Center and Riverside Park South. Extell will also build a school in the neighborhood.

"We tried to do all that we could," said Ethel Sheffer, chair of the Riverside Center Working Group in Community Board 7. "It’s a very large development, but we certainly improved it enormously… in terms of bringing it into the community instead of a private enclave."

According to the council, the development is expected to increase the area population by 3 percent.

Parents, Officials Seek to Rid Schools of Toxic PCBs -- Now

Photo New York City Department of Education
P.S. 199 on Manhattan's Upper West Side is one of three schools where the city has tested techniques for identifying and geting rid of toxic PCBs.

A little over two years ago, a construction project at P.S. 53 in Staten Island resulted in so much dust that a fresh layer would have to be wiped away each morning. That dust contained toxic PCBs. The chemical was discovered only because the mother of an asthmatic boy attending the school had it privately tested. The city says it also tested there but only found PCBs in the soil outside.

The city has known for over two years that the hazardous chemicals were present in dozens of schools. Hundreds more are thought likely to be contaminated. Now, as the city wraps up preliminary testing and remediation of PCBs in three schools, advocates, parents and elected officials have launched a campaign to put some fire under the heels of an administration that they see as slow to act.

Those concerned want the department to immediately begin studying the problem citywide and speed up the removal of chemicals in schools known to be affected. With the city reportedly estimating cleanup could cost $1 billion, the education department says that it still does not understand the problem fully. It contends that addressing the issue on a citywide level before the pilot program is finished next year would be inefficient and unnecessarily disruptive to students. But some charge that the city really is concerned about the money.

A Common Hazard

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were widely used in construction for decades because of their non-flammability and their insulating properties. But due to health concerns, the federal government banned manufacture of products containing PCBs in 1979, and their use was stopped over the next few years.

Although there is no immediate short-term risk, long-term exposure has been observed to cause cardiovascular, immune and cognitive damage. In children it has been linked with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased aggression and other problems.

Despite the ban, PCBs still exist in numerous buildings throughout the city, particularly those built or renovated between the early 1950s and late 1970s. PCBs are frequently found in the caulking and lighting fixtures of these structures, where they can enter the air through leaking and aging. Over 700 schools fall into that category and could possibly be contaminated. But a survey conducted by the city's School Construction Authority and obtained by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest identified 85 schools with PCB caulk. Although there is an acceptable threshold for the presence of PCBs, the schools where the chemical was found often exceeds that limit by vast amounts.

The issue effectively grabbed the spotlight in 2008 when a Daily News investigation found the toxins in six schools. This prompted the city to admit it knew of their presence in 19 other schools. Soon, under the cloud of a lawsuit, the city entered into a consent agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to find and remove the PCBs.

This plan calls for a pilot program -- the first of its kind in the nation - at five public schools. That project would determine the most effective strategies for reducing potential exposure to PCBs, as well as to weigh possible health risks, disruption to school programs and overall costs.

Three of the five schools had testing and remediation performed over the summer. Those schools were P.S. 199 in Manhattan, P.S. 309 in Brooklyn, and P.S. 178 in the Bronx But the city says it does not want to expand the programs to dozens, if not hundreds, of other schools until it completes work on the additional two schools next summer, P.S. 3 in Staten Island and P.S. 183 in Queens.

Waiting Game

Natalie Ravitz, the Department of Education press secretary, says that the department needs more information before it can act appropriately and effectively, and that the summer's efforts proved that.

"While we are gaining valuable information, we don't yet have final results of the testing and remediation work done in the three schools this summer," she said. "During the pilot project -- which was originally focused on building caulk -- we discovered that old lighting ballasts were an additional source of PCBs," she said. "While most PCB levels came down, some rooms actually had higher PCB levels after we replaced the ballasts. So we don't have all of the answers yet."

PCBs also were discovered in broken ventilation systems.

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal counters that the city has delayed for too long: "We know where PCBs are coming from. Parents and elected officials at P.S, 199 asked for comprehensive testing years ago and the city didn't act. Had the testing been done back then, we wouldn't still be playing catch up," she said.

The fact that the pilot programs have found high levels of PCBs is reason enough to move faster, many believe. "The first thing we need to do is assess the problem citywide," said Valerie Watnick, a mother of a fifth-grader at P.S. 199 and an environmental law professor who has written about PCBs in schools. "There is absolutely no reason to wait."

The Cost of Cleanup

Replacing the lighting fixtures at two of these schools cost the city $3 million, and the Education Department recently estimated it would cost $1 billion to replace all the fixtures citywide. Rep Jerrold Nadler has said the cost may be behind the city's delay.

The city "has no sense of urgency and all they seem to be doing is avoiding spending the money,'' he has said.

The Environmental Protection Agency thinks the city could recoup its money through the increased efficiency of the new lighting. The agency is looking into getting federal funds to help replace the fixtures.

"New York City should develop a citywide plan to address the lighting ballast problem," the agency said in a recent statement. "In addition to the public health benefits, a citywide approach -- which could be phased in over a period of time -- would yield significant savings through the installation of more energy efficient lighting fixtures."

The city says it needs to wait until next summer to start work on the second two schools in the pilot program. The scope of the work, a spokesperson maintains, demands that it be done when students are out of school. Previous studies at both schools has found significant PCB levels in the caulk sampled, as revealed in the city's work plan.

Rosenthal has introduced legislation to force the city to complete testing on caulk in a year's time in all city schools. The bill has 19 co-sponsors, but "it's a heavy lift," she conceded. The assembly member plans to reintroduce it next year and include lighting fixtures and other materials known to include PCBs. "To not heed the clear evidence in front of us is a problem," she said.

If they can't get the city to act, many of those concerned would settle for having the federal government take over. "We are calling on the EPA to step in immediately and conduct thorough and careful testing and, if necessary, intensive remediation of all affected facilities," Nadler said in a press release speaking for a coalition of elected officials and unions. "With federal intervention now, we hope to avert what could become a serious public health issue for New York."

But the federal agency currently is considering weakening regulations on PCBs in caulk because of the burden its removal imposes on schools. Not surprisingly, this doesn't sit well with advocates. "There's no basis whatsoever for the EPA to even consider loosening regulations," said Miranda Massie, an attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. "All the science points in the opposite direction. What we need from the EPA is more aggressive action on a more urgent timetable."

Assignments for the New Chancellor

Cathie Black meets the press after being appointed schools chancellor last week.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg shocked most of the city last week by appointing publishing executive Cathleen Black schools chancellor, there has been no shortage of reaction.

Critics have assailed Bloomberg's secretive anointing of a woman with no education experience or firsthand knowledge of the city's public schools, but who travels in the same social circles as him and his companion, Diana Taylor. In response Bloomberg has defended his choice -- calling Black a world class manager.

As the week wore on, critics stepped up their efforts to convince State Education Commissioner David Steiner to deny Black the waiver she needs (because she lacks experience in education) to head up the nation's largest schools system.

Regardless of who the next chancellor is, she or he will come to Tweed courthouse at a critical time for city schools. Budgets have been cut back -- and almost certainly will need to be chopped further. The contract between the city and the teacher's union has expired -- while an increasingly restive union leadership challenges some of the city's education policies in court. Up to 47 schools face closing -- a move sure to produce rancor and controversy. Tougher high school graduation requirements threaten to create a huge obstacle for many city students. At the same time, critics claim the city's test score surge has been increasingly indicative of dumber tests and lenient scoring than of better educated students.

As the new chancellor confronts these tasks, Bloomberg will undoubtedly continue to be the real educational power in the city. In light of that fact, few expect policies to change very much. "I doubt that she will take any initiative that will really revolutionize or change. She doesn't have the freedom to do that," said the Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern. "Bloomberg didn't put her in there to conclude that something that happened on his watch was wrong."

Nonetheless, the departure of Joel Klein after eight years -- the most served by a New York City schools chancellor in more than 50 years -- presents a good opportunity for New York's top education experts and advocates to propose what Cathleen Black should do.

What would you like the new chancellor to do in her first days on the job? Please send us your ideas to grobinson@gothamgazette.com or use the comment space below.

The "assignments" follow.

Diane Ravitch, New York University
Kim Sweet, Advocates for Children
David Bloomfield, Department of Education, College of Staten Island
Billie Easton, Alliance for Quality Education
Sol Stern, The Manhattan Institute
James Merriman, New York City Charter School Center
Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters
Mona Davids, New York Charter Parents Association
Helen Doran, Campaign for Fiscal Equity
Javier H. Valdes, Make the Road New York
Jane Hirschmann, Time Out from Testing
Richard Kessler and Doug Israel, Center for Arts Education
Members of the Urban Youth Collaborative

Show Some Respect

I would love to see Cathie Black take on four assignments, all within the realm of the possible:

First, to reach out to parent groups and really listen to them, acknowledging that every parent or guardian cares more about their own child than any public official, and show them the respect they deserve.

Second, to give teachers the recognition they richly deserve for their daily work in our city's classrooms.

Third, to lead a campaign to expand the arts into every grade in every school in the city, so that every child has full opportunity to participate in music, arts, visual arts, and other art forms.

Fourth, to stop the school closings and to apply her best efforts to helping and supporting the schools that need help so as to better serve their students.

--Diane Ravitch, research professor of education, New York University and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Getting Up to Standards

I would like the new chancellor to explain to all the parents whose children are not yet meeting state standards what she will do to ensure that every child gets the extra help he or she needs.

--Kim Sweet, executive director, Advocates for Children

Closing the Achievement Chasm

Educational attainment of black and Latino males should be a priority for the new administration. The 2010 Schott Foundation 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males found that New York City is among the 10 worst large districts for black males when measured by graduation rates.

Some 28 percent of black males in New York graduate on time with Regents diplomas, compared to 50 percent for white males, resulting in a 22 percent achievement gap. The graduation rates are probably inflated since they are based on students starting ninth grade, when an untold number have already dropped out. The state Education Department reports that the Latino male graduation rate -- including students who receive either a Regents or less demanding Local diploma -- in New York City is 50 percent (including August grads). Even if not inflated, this is a devastating picture of educational inequity and systemic failure. It implicates not only graduation rates but over-referrals to special education, empty efforts at credit accumulation and other perversions of real educational attainment.

My fear is that the new chancellor will fit the problem into the former administration's formula of school closures, small schools, charters and extra points in progress reports. But eight years of such "solutions" have resulted in the data above. I am not against such strategies when rationally targeted but they are clearly not enough.

An unfulfilled promise of mayoral control of schools, hardly mentioned anymore, was that we could undertake a concerted citywide effort to deal with educational problems beyond the scope of the Department of Education. Early intervention; provision of a range of social services including housing, health and employment assistance; diversions from punitive criminal justice strategies; after-school, GED and adult education programs; and other inter-agency contributions to student and family well-being are necessary ingredients to combating this scourge. If the new chancellor is serious about eliminating the achievement gap, she will undertake creative, constructive, comprehensive efforts to address this issue rather than revert to current nostrums.

--David Bloomfield, chair, Education Department, College of Staten Island, CUNY

Reaching Out in a Crisis

1. In order to build public trust, explain to the public how it is that you are prepared to lead the nation's largest school district despite having no professional background in education.

2. Conduct meetings across the city with parents, and youth and community organizations. As a result of these meetings identify four priorities to make the Department of Education more responsive to parents, students and communities.

3. Acknowledge that the racial achievement gap in New York City schools remains a chasm.

4. Declare a state of emergency due to the fact that new state standards revealed that in one out of every four schools two thirds of students are reading below grade level. Form an Emergency Task Force chaired by yourself and comprised of parents, teachers, school leaders, academics and business leaders to come up with a comprehensive plan to address this educational crisis.

--Billy Easton, executive director, Alliance for Quality Education

Talking to Teachers

If there is a suspicion she was brought in because she will present a more human face [than Joel Klein did] … she should go out and talk with rank and file teachers to ask them, "what are your complaints?" She could go and sit in classrooms -- talk to the veteran teachers, those 25-year teachers, some of who are great teachers. She would have to find teachers who are really independent and in a position to speak honestly." Ask them, 'What do you need? What do you think?"

--Sol Stern,senior fellow, The Manhattan Institute

Making Accountability Make Sense

If there is one thing thicker than the September issue, it is the portfolio of advice that Cathie Black will get. Here’s my addition to the pile.

In terms of charter schools, Chancellor Joel Klein recognized their potential and championed charters both inside and outside the system. I expect that Black will advocate just as vigorously for high-quality charter schools. That means giving the great ones space to open and grow and showing a willingness to fight locally and in Albany for equitable funding. You can't support charters on the one hand and starve them on the other. At the same time, she has to adopt a zero tolerance policy for those charters that are under performing. If charters are to be a model for accountability-based results, then Tweed has to be tougher about closing charters that aren’t raising achievement. These aren't easy decisions, but they are necessary.

On a larger scale, I'd like to see a continued commitment to results-based accountability across the system. But Black should explore refining the measures. For instance, instead of issuing single letter grades to schools, she should look at the Colorado model, which separately measures absolute performance and progress (without trying to meld them together). This system, while not perfect, is one that parents understand and that corresponds to the day-to-day reality of the schools their children attend. At the same time it preserves an important aspect of the present system, namely demonstrating to all that even good schools can get much better.

By making accountability more intuitive, more parents will embrace it as a valuable tool. This in turn will strengthen the ability of the Department of Education to make high-stakes decisions around school closure and turnaround -- and draw support for those decisions.

Finally, Black should work hard to articulate where the reforms are taking us and why -- and listen carefully to those who are affected by those reforms. For parents, some account of history must be taken; the simple fact is that parents in poor parts of this city have seen reforms come and go along with the people who instituted them. They have good reason to be profoundly suspicious. The department owes it to them to spend time quietly talking with (and listening to) them to win their trust and faith -- and equally, to be brutally candid with parents when things the department tries don't work. And of course she should spend time speaking and listening to teachers and leaders who must excel if we are to see improved results for students.

Being chancellor of the school system, former Chancellor Frank Macchiarola once said, was like listening to Frank Sinatra: incredibly enjoyable, the best. The catch was, however, you had to listen to him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The fact is that the job is an excruciatingly tough one. I wish her the very best.

--James Merriman, chief executive officer, New York City Charter School Center

Take 16 Steps, then Relax

What the next chancellor should do:

1. Obey the law, follow the research, listen to parents, and start reducing class size immediately. It is a scandal and a crime that city students are still suffering with the largest classes in the state, and with class sizes still increasing, despite the state law passed in 2007 and a written agreement of the chancellor to reduce them in exchange for more than $2 billion in additional state funds.

Start by assigning the thousand or more teachers on Absent Teacher Reserve to regular classes, especially in the highest-need schools. For example, start with the schools that the education department says it wants to close. At Jamaica High School, whose budget has been slashed to the bone, there were over 80 classes this fall that exceeded the contractual limits of 34 students per class, and yet the department "quality reviewers" had the nerve to blame this on the school!

As a second step, start redeploying some of the 10,000 out-of-classroom positions that have been created since 2002 -- while the system has lost more than 1, 600 classroom teachers.

2. Call an immediate moratorium to any more school closings or co-locations, which merely make the overcrowding problem worse, lead to higher class sizes and concentrate high needs students elsewhere. Put together a taskforce of parents, teachers, administrators and educational experts to come with a real plan to improve the schools that are currently threatened with closure. Enough of the top-down and useless education department proposals of more "merit pay," more testing, more "coaches" and more "data analysis."

3. Assemble another taskforce of stakeholders to redesign the school utilization formula and the "instructional footprint," which seems to see space in schools where there is none, forces students into rooms that violate the building code, and leads to special education students receiving their services in hallways and closets.

4. Put a halt to the creation of more new, small schools, which have multiplied throughout the system like rabbits, with little or no quality control, and which are very space-intensive and expensive to fund. Instead invest maximum resources and energy in improving the 1,500 schools that we already have.

5. Restore the district structure, offices and supervisory functions, which allow parents to have a place to go with their concerns by eliminating the sprawling "Children First" networks that have mushroomed to almost a thousand people, without any geographical base or reason, and whose members waste much of their time traveling from one end of the city to another.

6.Put a stop to all no-bid contracts and expensive consultants; and cancel the hugely expensive contract for "interim assessments," which most teachers find useless and a waste of time.

7. Revamp the school progress reports, which are unreliable and confusing to parents; and instead, in consultation with parents and other stakeholders, devise a new system that provides several grades for every school based on various attributes and more holistic factors. Put more attention into the results of the parent, student and teacher surveys, so that any school that receives poor survey results for more than one year would receive immediate intervention from the district to see if the principal needs to be removed or given more training or help.

8. Deep-six the unreliable and unfair teacher data reports, and convene a working group composed of parents and other stakeholders, which will design a more accurate evaluation system, in which peer, student and parent views are taken into account with test scores only one factor.

9. Tell charter schools in Department of Education buildings that are run by the scions of billionaires or who have deep-pocketed hedge-fund supporters to find leased space elsewhere -- as soon as possible -- because district students should not be squeezed out of their own school buildings.

10. Ask for the city comptroller to perform a top to bottom performance audit of every discretionary expense, consultant, contract and spending item, and release the results to the public.

11. Inform high schools that they must end the scandalous practice of substandard, online credit recovery programs immediately, and put in place strong oversight mechanisms to make sure that these abuses end.

12.Restore Project Arts, which existed for years before Joel Klein canceled it, and provided dedicated funding for arts programs in our schools, to better ensure that our children receive a well-rounded education.

13.Commission an independent assessment of Collaborative Team Teaching classes (special education inclusion classes) and online learning programs, which have expanded rapidly over the last few years, to see if they are working and whether they need to be rethought or reformed, before expanding these programs any more.

14.Re-establish a true Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, in which parent leaders from throughout the city actually advise the chancellor, without just having to listen to the chancellor or one of his minions tell them what they intend to do. Involve the members of Community Education Councils as well, and embark on a new era of mutual respect and collaboration with parents, sadly missing over the last nine years of this administration.

15. Release transparent enrollment projections based on numerous sources of data, including birth rates, census data regarding family in-migration and out-migration rates, day care and pre-k enrollments, building starts, and analyze and report on this data on the school zone, district, and citywide levels. In short, start being honest with parents and other New Yorkers about the real need for more seats throughout the city to relieve the overcrowding crisis, before it gets even worse.

16. Build more schools, and take advantage of the many parochial schools that are closing throughout the city by leasing them. Re-allocate nearly $1 billion toward this critical goal, by canceling the expansion and construction of new jails in Brooklyn and the Bronx that community members don’t want and the city doesn’t need. While our jail population has been falling, our student population is rapidly expanding; and if these funds were invested in schools, they would yield $2 billion , because the state puts up matching funds for school construction.

And then, take a day off!

--Leonie Haimson, executive director, Class Size Matters

Tough Support for Charters

The new chancellor needs to show some tough love to charter schools authorized by the Department of Education. When they receive complaints from parents, they need to step in. They should not wait five years for a charter school to fail [before revoking the authorization]. I think they know that after two years. The charter school office needs to be more receptive to the concerns of parents and to communicate with parents. She needs to do a complete overhaul of the charter school office. I hope she won't wait like she did with shutting down Talk magazine.

--Mona Davids, president, New York Charter Parents Association

Figuring Out What Works

Campaign for Fiscal Equity recently published a study on Regents diplomas. In grouping schools together, we tried to find out whether there schools who have students who are highly challenged and are helping them to get Regents diplomas. It should be a priority to find out why this list of schools is succeeding -- why this list of schools is getting it done.

This is going to be one of the most wretched budget years for schools in 20 years. We always care about the students who are not receiving their constitutionally required sound basic education, and we would want to make sure that those students are a priority.

For schools, there's no accountability other than the letter grade to help them get better. Schools need to have strong support and accountability -- not just a letter grade but someone who has resources to help them change.

We lure good teachers with higher salaries, but we continue to lose them. Why are we not retaining these people so we can get the kind of quality schools we want?

--Helaine Doran, deputy director, Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Working Together to Help Students

Chancellor Joel Klein had some accomplishments running our schools but he is also leaving behind 239,000 students who are not reading or doing math on grade level. After the recent test score debacle, 27 percent more of the city's students were not reading on grade level than they were in 2008, and 28 percent more of our students weren’t doing math on grade level. For immigrant students, the trauma of the department's failure is devastating: 14 percent of English Language Learners are on grade level for English language arts, compared to 35 percent in 2008.

Cathie Black is stepping into an incredibly hard role. Parents and students with our organization and others throughout the city have been working for years to secure the resources and support that our schools need. We look forward to building a strong relationship with the new chancellor, but one that is based on mutual respect. It is essential that Black immediately begin meeting with organizations like ours in order to establish a respectful and productive working relationship. She will not be able to do a good job without parents and students at her side.

For those students who did not fare well on their recent tests, Black needs to provide Academic Intervention Services. We need all of our students reading on grade levels.

She needs to work with communities to ensure that any reforms that the department puts into place, such as restructuring or closing schools, will be likely to work. Our communities are tired of seeing schools closed and re-opened, our students shuffled around, or shoved out of school into the streets, with no clear accountability for making sure these reforms really work. We need schools that provide all of our students a path to college and careers. We also need to make sure that students with limited proficiency in English are not forgotten off but real support is provided to them and their families for them to strive.

-- Javier H. Valdes, deputy director, Make the Road New York

What Your Children Learned

I would like to see the new chancellor put an end to excessive and high stakes tests. In other words, I think that she should think about enriching the curriculum with the kinds of subjects her children had in private boarding school. Replacing test prep with real learning and allowing teachers to teach would be a welcome beginning, as would putting the word public back into public education. This means giving parents a major voice in their child's education and investing in the existing public schools rather than putting our much-needed resources into charter schools.

--Jane Hirschmann, Time Out From Testing

Preparing Students for Life

For school districts across the nation, including New York City's, there is a watershed moment rapidly emerging as federal funding that has kept education jobs afloat will be coming to an end next year. This is further compounded by cuts in state funding for education, and a growing appetite to cut government spending.

Cathie Black will be at the helm of a system that will face this profound financial reality. Should this reset moment combine with what has been an over-reliance on test scores in English language arts and math, we will witness a reshaping of public K-12 education in the narrowest form imaginable, one that establishes a meager education devoid of the rich and well-rounded instruction and experiences our students ultimately need to be college and career ready, and perhaps most important, to be prepared to be active members of our democratic society.

Black can choose the road of more of the same, one that narrows the curriculum even further, or another path, that will seek a balance even during severe financial constraints. We hope that she will seek real solutions for how a well-rounded education can be ensured, so that all of our students will be prepared to be successful in life and work.

--Richard Kessler. executive director, and Doug Israel, director of research and policy, Center for Arts Education

Listen to Students

As chancellors and mayors come and go, it is students and parents -- the communities of people who live in New York City and attend its public schools -- who remain. That is why all stakeholders -- students especially -- need to be consulted on education policy and involved in decisions about how to improve schools.

The Urban Youth Collaborative, a coalition of high school students of color from some of New York's poorest neighborhoods, has a broad vision for fixing our city's schools: engaging, rigorous and well-rounded curriculum; a respectful and supportive school culture that treats us like the students we are, instead of criminals; counseling and academic support that puts us on the path to college; real student and parent voice and role in decision-making; and equitable funding.

The collaborative hopes to work with the new chancellor on implementing some of our ideas to fix schools, like offering more AP classes at low-income schools; giving more high school students the opportunity to take college classes while in high school; and implementing creative and positive approaches to school safety instead of continuing the de facto zero tolerance safety policies that exist now.

We hope that instead of closing schools without first trying to fix them, or without a clear plan about how what comes next will offer students a different and better education, Chancellor Cathleen Black will take the important step of meeting with students and parents to listen to our experiences, the challenges we face and our ideas for improving -- not abandoning -- public schools.

Chancellor Black, will you meet with the Urban Youth Collaborative?

--Members of the Urban Youth Collaborative

City Schools Gamble on Going Digital

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Photos by Andrea Gabor
The iSchool, a selective high school in Manhattan, is experimenting with new methods of teaching and of challenging its students.

At City Polytechnic High School in Brooklyn some students take courses on engineering and architecture taught by college professors; they also can accumulate enough credits to graduate in just three years or earn an associate's degree in five years. The students can do all this because City Poly has divided the school year into trimesters, packing core requirements into a shorter time frame, allowing them to use the third trimester for less traditional classes.

Across the city in Harlem, every student at Global Technology Preparatory, a middle school, receives a laptop at the start of the school year. They use them to develop Power Points for social-studies presentations, take online language classes, play math games and build a digital portfolio that the students will use in their high-school applications. This year, the school day also has been extended to 6 p.m.

These new schools are part of the New York City Department of Education's innovation zone, a high-stakes gamble to reinvent New York City public schools. Launched two years ago as part of what has become the iZone, it originally included 10 schools and now has ballooned to 81. So far, the schools have shown promise by many measures, including attendance, student and parent satisfaction, and student progress toward graduation. The city now hopes to expand the iZone to 300 schools within the next few years.

Some question, though, whether the Department of Education has the money to continue and expand the initiative. A dearth of research on kindergarten through 12 online education means that much of what the iZone is doing is highly experimental. And now, at the start of its third year, the iZone is undergoing a raft of changes that could unsettle the experiment -- and even help determine whether it succeeds or fails.

Harnessing Technology

The iZone is rooted in using digital technology to better serve and educate New York's 1 million public school students. "In any field but education, if you fell asleep 100 years ago and woke up today you wouldn't have a clue what was going on," Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said at a gathering of iZone principals, teachers and vendors Thursday night. "The notion of the teacher behind closed doors delivering instruction has to change."

The disconnect between students' wired lives and the typical chalk-and-blackboard classroom makes kids today less receptive to traditional modes of education than previous generations, argues a 2008 white paper by Cisco, the high-tech company that has been the iZone's "thought partner."

"How can traditional modes of classroom instruction engage and inspire students when life outside the classroom has changed so dramatically?" asks the paper, "Equipping Every Learner for the 21st Century." The paper also argues that a changing and global workforce has put a premium on cross-cultural knowledge, multilingualism and collaboration, including problem-solving, decision-making, and creative and critical thinking, as well as written and oral communication.

What is at stake is the ability to teach young people -- many who are poor and have limited access to computers and the internet -- the skills they need to function in a global, digital world. The scope of that challenge was highlighted by a 2010 report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which found that only 28 percent of black males in New York City received Regents high school diplomas, compared to 50 percent for white males and well below the national high school graduation average of 48 percent for black males.

Two key features characterize the iZone's middle- and high-schools: First, fully half are "virtual schools," many of them developing a so-called blended model that combines in-class teaching with a range of digital technologies. Second, the schools offer new approaches to scheduling that include City Poly's trimester system and extended-day programs.

Virtual Classes

The push to go digital, though, represents the greatest change for the schools and, arguably, the biggest challenge for the education department.

In seeking to offer more education online, the department is tackling three hurdles at once. One is money: Online instruction requires a huge upfront investment in technology and infrastructure. Second, introducing online education requires a drastic rethinking of education -- nothing less in the words of one iZone participant, than turning traditional notions of schooling "upside down." For one thing, a wired school can redefine the role of a teacher from being the primary conduit of knowledge to more of a facilitator.

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Students at the iSchool use a variety of digital technologies to help develop collaborative projects.

Finally, the iZone is entirely experimental, and while many experts laud the education department’s efforts toward going digital, scant research exists on which specific strategies are effective for grades kindergarten through 12, and which are not. If it wants to learn from its experiment and expand on it, the education department, which has become notorious for seasonal changes in everything from organization to curricula to personnel, will need to stick with the iZone long enough -- and monitor it closely enough -- to figure out what works, what doesn't work and how it will know.

A number of changes in the program as the school year began also raised concerns among iZone participants. Julian Cohen, who served as executive director of school innovation and was well respected in the schools and a welcome buffer from department politics, has moved to a different job in the department.

Cisco, which has been providing technical and financial support on a philanthropic basis has taken a step back. Gene Longo a manager with Cisco's Networking Academy, one of the company's corporate responsibility programs, who oversaw Cisco's non-profit initiatives with the education department, has transferred to a new job and has not been replaced.

Cisco had promised the department free access to a much anticipated prototype portal the company was developing for commercial use. According to iZone insiders, when work on the portal fell behind schedule this summer, the education department pieced together an in-house version and took over the professional training that Cisco had been conducting. Cisco is expected to be a leading candidate for developing an ambitious expanded portal -- or "virtual learning environment" -- for which the department requested bids this summer.

"Cisco continues to support the New York City DOE," including "investment in the New York City DOE iZone innovation initiative," Robyn Jenkins-Blum, a public relations manager for Cisco, wrote in an email message. Cisco refused requests for an interview.

In August, after teachers cut short vacations to attend a Cisco training session, only to find out it was being taught by the education department, one iZone insider wondered, "How many changes can the iZone sustain before it loses its credibility?"

Arthur Vanderveen, chief of innovation research and development at the education department, denied the iZone project has hit stumbling blocks. "At the school level, we're fully meeting our commitments," he said, adding that the department has "many partners" and is providing an "online environment to access courses in a seamless, integrated way."

The Cost of Innovation

The education department is expanding the iZone at a time when its budget is strapped. While the department won't provide estimates, wiring New York City's aging school buildings is an enormous challenge, as will be the expanded "virtual learning environment" that the department expects to have in operation by 2011-2012 school year and that one software vendor described as "unprecedented."

Although the department intends to allow every school to tailor its portal to its own needs, it aims to offer schools a range of options, including "anytime/anywhere access" to a catalog of online courses and the ability to customize and share courses and professional development online with other schools. It expects students to use the portal to access schoolwork anytime, communicate with teachers and collaborate with classmates. The portal also will offer teachers an easy management system for both face-to-face and online courses, and the ability to communicate online with students and parents and to share information about student work and progress with other teachers.

Even without the portal, schools face huge start-up costs for technology, including laptops, teleconferencing systems, and white boards as well as professional development. Teachers, especially the less tech-savvy, will need training along with help developing entirely new approaches to instruction.

At a single school like Global Tech, which is more than doubling its size to about 130 students, the official budget for the 2010-2011 school year is just under $1.2 million dollars, about 10 percent higher than it was last year. An additional $100,000, which comes from the iZone, helped pay for laptops for the incoming class; $25,000 from Cisco completed the purchase. Last year, Global Tech benefited from donations worth tens of thousands of dollars. (For our story on Global Tech's first year and its plans for the future, go here.)

So far, much of the technology funding for iZone schools has come from private donations. The iSchool alone has received at least $2 million in cash and in-kind grants, most of it from Cisco and Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of U.S. News & World Report and The Daily News. City Poly also has received generous private-sector donations.

Rethinking the Classroom

"There’s a whole new world out there and new learning platforms that can empower teachers" to offer differentiated instruction to kids who struggle with material, as well as those who are more advanced, Klein said at the iZone celebration in the rotunda of Tweed Courthouse, the education department headquarters. Klein reminisced about his own physics classes, and said, while his teachers were excellent, none of them influenced him more than hearing the lectures of the late Nobel Prize-winning scientistRichard Feynman. Digital technology, he added, could bring Feynman’s lectures into the classroom, and augment the curriculum.

The iSchool in Manhattan's District 2, a new selective high school, has taken that message to heart. Last year, it hired a teacher from a Bronx school to teach a virtual geometry course, via teleconferencing, to a handful of freshman who had mastered algebra. Without the technology, paying a part-time teacher would have been prohibitively expensive.

Students at the school take about seven hours of classes online each week, including one of several languages, an example of how technology allows schools to offer more options with limited resources. Under state regulations, a teacher must be present for online classes; but, eventually, the iSchool envisions students taking the courses on their own time, freeing up the school day for other work.

When done well, the key advantage of being wired is that it leads the schools to "rethink every element, including instructional design, assessment, teacher-student interaction," said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Council for Online Learning. She notes that because technology places extraordinary new demands on teachers, wired schools have the added benefit of attracting “motivated and student-centered teachers."

Perhaps nowhere is the rethinking and the connection to strong teaching more evident than at the iSchool.

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The iSchool's green roof project crossed disciplines, including the study of botany and government regulations.

Its challenge-based modules—nine-week collaborative projects -- cross disciplines. A green roof project, for example, includes the study of botany and government regulations. The projects also promote collaboration among students who work in teams as well as with outsiders. To develop an exhibition for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero students collaborated with museum officials and, via videoconference, interviewed young people around the world about their views of the terrorist attacks.

Of course, iSchool students must still meet New York State standards and pass Regents exams. At the iSchool, Regents courses are conducted online, allowing students to work at their own pace; 44 percent of last year’s 10th graders passed their Regents exams, and most of the rest are expected to do so by this coming January.

But the online courses get some low grades from students milling in the hallways. "We hate the online component,” said Ruby Craker, a ninth grader who studied American history part of last year via Compass software and partly in a traditional class. Ruby said she learned "everything" during the nine weeks when she was in a traditional class. "Sometimes the technology doesn’t work," she said. "The software doesn't explain everything. You can't ask it a question. I can't stand it. I hate it."

When interviewed in June, Ruby said she also was behind in online English Language Arts and needed a teacher to keep her on task. "I feel like a guinea pig," she added.

Her friend Morgane Stuart has a somewhat different view. Describing herself as a poor foreign language student, she said that online instruction helped her progress at her own pace and avoid the embarrassment of having to speak up in class.

Ask the students what they like best about the iSchool, though, and almost all say they "love" the teachers "I always hated math, dreaded it," says Morgane. "Now I love math, love my teacher. She's got great teaching strategies, it's always fun."

Alisa Berger and Mary Moss, co-principals of the school, argue that some of the unhappiness with online curriculum is to be expected, especially among incoming students who were successful in their previous, traditional schools. Also, they note, the curriculum is a work in progress.

Eli Szenes-Strauss, a history teacher, concedes that some of the online software, such as the Compass history program, didn't work. "It's difficult to navigate," he said. "It's condescending. It doesn't match up to the Regents standards." So, the iSchool bought new software and Szenes-Strauss spent the summer crafting an entirely new online history curriculum.

The reworked curriculum recognizes that a passive online format has limits and will include weekly tutorials to expand on, and answer questions about, the online course. "You don't need a teacher to learn the fact that the Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803," explains Szenes-Strauss. "You need a teacher to discuss the ideas behind manifest destiny."

A more serious problem relates to whether the new approaches -- the projects, the technology, the required internships -- can overcome prodigious gaps in student knowledge. "I never met so many smart kids with awful skills," said Szenes-Strauss who says many incoming freshman were among the smartest kids in their middle schools and got used to coasting.

Reshaping the Day

Beyond the interest in online education, many of the iZone experiments spring from a belief that the traditional school day with its 50-minute periods precludes in-depth multidisciplinary course work. The assumption is that rethinking the traditional schedule can make time for real-world experiences -- not by sacrificing basic knowledge, but by reinforcing it.

"Why do you need the quadratic equation?" asked Chris Aguirre, principal of City Poly. Aguirre then makes the connection between a mathematical abstraction and a tool that jet engine designers use to calculate thrust.

To teach students about both, Aguirre, has tried to eliminate the "padding" from the traditional school day. By squeezing requirements like geometry and algebra into two trimesters per year, he takes the slack out of the system -- students can no longer miss days of school without consequence. The extra trimester is used to give struggling students extra support or to allow more advanced kids to take applied courses on, say, Art and Architecture or Math Problems in Engineering, and to graduate early or to earn college credits at City Tech.

Meanwhile, Global Tech, where last year's digitally enriched curriculum produced off-the-charts student and parent satisfaction as well as high attendance -- is adding 2.5 hours to the schools day. Principal Chrystina Russell expects that by teaming up with Citizen Schools, a not-for-profit that partners with middle schools in poor neighborhoods to offer afternoon programs, she can boost students' academic performance and support her teachers. Over half a dozen staff from Citizen Schools start their day at Global Tech at 10 a.m., assisting in classrooms and providing continuity for the extra work that begins after the end of the traditional school day .

Expanding the Model

The challenge for the education department is how to take what the iZone schools are learning about what succeeds and what does not and adapt the lessons to existing schools that may have principals and teachers who are more resistant to change and lack mentors with deep pockets. More importantly, if the iZone schools are successful, how will the department identify what it is that makes them so: Is it the teachers? The principals? The schedules? The online technology? Or some combination?

Little research exists on the efficacy of K-12 online education. The number of U.S. students enrolled in online courses surged 47 percent in 2008 to just over 1 million, up from 700,000 two years earlier, according to two studies conducted by Anthony G. Picciano and Jeff Seaman. However, in the 2008 study, K-12 Online Learning, the authors note that as of 2007, "no organization-public or private was systematically collecting" data on K-12 online schools.

The education department says it is conducting its own research, collaborating with the Ford Foundation to collect data on iZone schools. In addition, CUNY colleges will provide valuable data on students' college readiness.

Inside the Classroom

If these first iZone schools turn out to be successful in the long run, it may be because they have the single ingredient that research has shown, over and over, to be key to improving education: good teachers. As new schools, they have the luxury of selecting their own staffs; and, as a group, the principals seem to have taken to heart the old adage that hiring is the most important decision a manager makes.

One assumption undergirding the push to go digital is that the sheer volume of new knowledge in many fields, as well as the availability of information over the internet means that teaching kids how to think and find information is more important than learning content for its own sake. Yet, for many teachers, the biggest challenge they face -- technology or not -- is a lack of skills and fundamental knowledge among students.

Last semester, Marc Kantrowitz, the iSchool's cantankerous and well-liked science teacher asked 80 or so students to answer the following question: How does drug trafficking increase the subjugation of women?

"Twelve minutes into the assignment, I realized that they didn't know what 'subjugation' means," says Dr. K, as he is known. "None of them knew. ... Worse, they had been sitting in front of their laptops and no one -- no one -- had looked it up."

Dr. K continues his litany: "So I said, 'what countries are the largest producers of opium?' One kid said Afghanistan."

"'Who is benefitting from the drug trade?' Not one kid out of 80 or 90 kids out of three sections could come up with the Taliban. Opium, drugs, Taliban, bad guys, subjugation of women. … Not one kid.

"I asked, ‘how many of you read The New York Times?' Only one hand went up."

How can you educate kids to be critical thinkers when they have no basic knowledge? That is Dr. K's question. For all the talk about “authentic” real-world experiences, that is a key issue that the iZone project will have to address.

Andrea Gabor is a professor of journalism at Baruch College/CUNY and the author of several books, most recently The Capitalist Philosophers (Three Rivers Press, 2000).

Budget Cuts Reduce English Classes for Immigrants

A rally in City Hall Park in June protested the cuts in English as a Second Language classes and other adult literacy services.

Being a beautician is all Jong Ae Shul knew. She ran a beauty salon in Flushing for 25 years, serving mostly Korean-speaking customers six or seven days a week. She didn't need to speak English, and she had no time to learn it.

"I wanted to learn English so I can go to other places by myself," said Shul. "I was scared. I couldn't even take the subway because I didn't speak English."

Retired four years ago, she is making up for lost time.

Shul now studies English at the Queens Library's Flushing branch. And she loves it. She goes there for about three hours three or four times a week to attend classes, reads the textbooks, listen to CDs and get help from the tutors.

All of these activities are offered at the Adult Learning Center, one of the seven such centers in Queens. And the program, which includes English and civics classes as well as adult basic education, is absolutely free. Places in the program are awarded by lottery, and Shul is one of the few lucky ones who won one of the limited spots.

The free English classes are funded by the city. Traditionally, those free classes provided an opportunity for immigrants who otherwise cannot afford them. But the three primary sources of funding for the program -- Immigrant Opportunities Initiative, Adult Literacy Services Initiative by the City Council, and the Department of Youth and Community Development's adult literacy programs -- have suffered cuts that resulted in loss of 3,500 slots for potential students.

During the city budget negotiations this spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed eliminating the initiative's entire budget of $5 million, which already had been slashed from $11 million in fiscal year 2009-2010, as well as the City Council's $1.5 million. The mayor also wanted to cut $5.18 million in the youth department's adult education programs, which include English classes, civics and adult basic education classes.

After protests by community organizations and elected officials, in late June the City Council restored $1.5 million in funding for adult education programs, but the council's initiative suffered a $500,000 cut while the Department of Youth and Community Development received a $1.6 million cut.

Many viewed restoration as a victory. But the pain of cuts has already been felt.

"Every year we are under the threat," said Susan Dalmas, adult learning program manager at Queens Library.

Fewer Classes, Fewer Teachers

The library in Flushing regularly runs 34 conversational English classes, ranging from beginning to intermediate. In September, the number of classes has been cut to 27, according to Alla Osokina, director of its adult learning center.

"We will have to find other ways to provide services to our students," Osokina said, noting that there are only four full-time administrative staff serving more than 600 students in English, civics and computer classes. With the cut, the center lost a full-time instructor and the other instructor’s workload has been reduced to half.

In the fall, the center will rely heavily on interns and volunteers to teach classes. "The quality of classes would not be the same as there will be fewer classes taught by professionals," said Osokina.

At CAMBA, a nonprofit community-based organization in Flatbush, Brooklyn, 16 of the 92 three-month classes it offered last year were funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development. This year, four of them were eliminated, and half of the remaining classes were reduced from 17.5 hours to 12 per week.

"As of today, we have 1,027 applicants on our waiting lists," said Jude Pierre, a program administrator at CAMBA.

Waiting for Class

Meanwhile, Korean Community Services for Metropolitan New York, which provides community services such as day care, a senior citizen center and public health programs, has also cut the hours of the free English classes. The center, on the north side of Kissena Park, runs four semesters per year and has cut each semester from 10 weeks to seven weeks because it is receiving 30 percent less funding than it did last year.

More than 200 students attend the program and 100 people are on the waiting list, According to Annie Shin, the English as a second language coordinator,. The average wait to get into a class is six months.

"They can go to fee-based programs, but many of the schools, like colleges and institutions, are targeting the students who want to pursue colleges or higher education, not basic literacy levels," said Shin. "So even though our students are willing to pay, they cannot follow the course since it is too difficult for them."

Some places are facing a total loss of city funding. Flushing Jewish Community Center, located on Bowne Street, is one of them. It stopped offering ESL classes in July because its contract with the Department of Youth and Community Development was not renewed.

"The funding is completely gone," said Megha Mehta, a social worker at the cent. "The recession hit us badly."

According to Mehta, the center used to offer four ESL classes, one civics class, and one immigration class. Now there is only one ESL class and one civics class, and volunteers teach both.

"We are still applying to other agencies," Mehta added. "We were hoping that we could offer something in September. That doesn't seem likely the case anymore."

Many immigrant advocates expect the cuts to continue. They note that the restoration by the City Council applied only to this year.

"Let's not go through this budget dance every year," said Anthony Ng, deputy director of the United Neighborhood Houses, an umbrella group of community centers and settlement houses. "We'd like to see the mayor stabilize the funding, make it permanent."

A Zeal for English

On a recent Friday afternoon, Christine Fisher worked with nine students in a basic conversation class in the Flushing library. Seven of her students are from China, one India and one from Colombia. At least two people needed reading glasses. and four had electronic dictionaries. More than half of the students are unemployed or retired.

Zhi KangYao, 66, who retired from a business association in Shanghai six years ago and moved to Flushing, said his goal is to be able to read and communicate with others in English.

"My generation didn't learn English. We learned Russian," said Yao, who said he has no income and cannot afford to pay to go to school. "This is a wonderful opportunity for me to learn English so I can read the documents I receive in the mail."

Ling Chen, a native of Shandong Province, China, said it took her three tries before she won a spot in the class by lottery.

"I just kept trying," said Chen, who was a kindergarten teacher in China and now baby sits for her daughter. "My goal is to be able to talk to Americans."

Yao and Chen would not be able to attend classes if they had to pay.

"This is a segment of the immigrant populations that by and large do not have resources to pay for these kinds of programs," said Fisher. "If we continue to be a country that welcomes immigrants, we have to be able to support them."

After learning basic English, some of the students find jobs or continues their education.

Ray Li, a former English student at the Flushing library, moved on to attend LaGuardia Community College and then City College of New York. He is majoring in electrical engineering.

"I love this program," said Li, 24, who now works part-time at the library’s adult learning center. "I was new in this country and I found a community here. This place is full of information, not just about learning English. The people who have been here longer always share a lot of tips about living in America with the new immigrants."

Students who reach fifth-grade English proficiency can take classes to prepare for the General Equivalency Diploma or GED exam. Wai Bing Chan, 62, is one of the success stories. After finishing the ESL program, she continued with the pre-GED program and got her high school equivalency diploma last year on the first try.

"It was my biggest accomplishment," said Chan, a native of Hong Kong who came to the United States 15 years ago. "We didn’t have opportunity to go to school because the economy in Hong Kong was not very good. Now I have a chance to study and I don’t have to pay."

"At least now we can communicate with Americans. We don't always have to stay in Chinatown," said Chan. "We know more about the culture."

As for Shul, the retired beautician, she is having the time of her life learning English at the library.

"Here, I can’t speak Korean," said Shul, adding that her English is still broken but she is not afraid to speak it. "I speak and speak. I am really happy."

In Student Loan Case, Court Rules Borrowers Have Rights Too

Photo by eric731

When Joshua Fensterstock, a 2003 law school graduate living and working in New York, consolidated his student loans by borrowing from Education Finance Partners, which is serviced by Affiliated Computer Services, Inc., he agreed to the terms of the contract they sent him. In fact, he had no choice.

Loan applicants don't generally read the terms set out in standard mortgages, loans and credit card agreements. They are usually in very small font, in legal language and, in any case, non-negotiable. That is, an applicant for a loan or a credit card, cannot negotiate the interest rates, fees, or any other terms. It's a take-it-or-leave-it document.

Those procedures, though, could change. A three-judge bench of the federal appeals court for the New York region has determined that two significant clauses of Education Finance's agreement with its borrowers are unconscionable and unenforceable under the applicable law. The contract, which requires disputes be resolved by arbitration rather than court action, was stricken in July as being an unbalanced, unfair take-it-or-leave-it document in which consumers had no bargaining power. The court also struck a clause that required borrowers to give up their right to participate in class actions.

The Fine Print

When Fensterstock applied for the loan in 2006, two years after he received his license to practice law, he accepted the terms as offered. But he later realized that his payments were improperly apportioned between interest and principal. He filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the defendants "engaged in fraudulent and deceptive practices in connection with the solicitation, consolidation and servicing of student loan." But the lenders insisted on alternative dispute resolution -- arbitration -- and not court action, because that was part of the loan agreement.

Fensterstock’s agreement, like most transactions with banks and credit card companies, included a binding arbitration clause. Consumers may consider arbitration more informal and cozier than litigation in a courtroom. However, while courts are public and basically free -- aside from the expense of hiring an attorney -- arbitration is costly and far beyond the means of most people with student loans. While the plaintiff and defendant sometimes split the fees, more frequently the loser must pay.

In addition, whether the borrowers or card users have lawyers or represent themselves, the bank will always have a major law firm on its side. Its lawyers, along with the arbitrators, will charge huge hourly rates that the borrower may very well end up having to pay.

In signing the agreement, the borrower gives up the right to sue in Small Claims Court or other civil court, since the bank or credit company would demand arbitration. Not only that, but arbitration involves one claimant at a time, not the entire pool of individuals with similar contracts.

The Education Finance Partners' agreement also included a provision in which the borrower gave up the right to participate in class actions. When many borrowers get together as a class to try to seek redress in the courts, they can be very forceful. Individuals might not realize how their payments are being applied, for example, or take on a battle with the lender.

The Court Case

In ruling on Fensterstock's suit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan, just handed him a major victory. In a decision written by Judge Amalya Kearse, Fensterstock won the right to form a class action with others who entered the same agreement with the defendants. He also won the right to litigate in federal court rather than submit to arbitration.

Shortly after he graduated from Hofstra Law School in Hempstead, N.Y., and become a lawyer, Fensterstock had accepted the defendant's offer to consolidate his student loans into a single loan of $52,915.49 at an annual interest rate of 9.32 percent. At the end of the loan period of 29 years, he would have paid approximately three times the amount with monthly payments being applied "first to charges, costs and fees; next to unpaid interest and then to principal."

Fensterstock's payments were due on the 14th of every month, and he always mailed them in ahead of that date. After seven months, he had paid $7,051.84 but he realized that by far the largest share of his payments was being applied to interest. In other words, his debt was being reduced by only $17 a month.

This, he was told was because payments had to arrive on exactly the 14th -- not sooner, not later. On this basis, he calculated, there would be "an enormous" payment due at the end of the loan period -- not a final payment of $335 as he had been told at the inception.

California Law

Though Fensterstock was in New York the agreement said the "note will be deemed to have been made in California ... and governed by federal laws and the law of the State of California," where defendant was incorporated. (The co-defendant is a Delaware corporation.)

Consumers don't choose creditors on the basis of where they are incorporated, whether it be California, Delaware or North Dakota, for example. The plaintiff being in New York, and the lender being a California company, two different states, explains why the lawsuit was filed in federal court, and why the federal court located in Manhattan applied California law. The loan agreement, as prepared by the lenders' attorneys, could have specified another state, one less friendly to consumers in this type of situation, but they chose California, which takes a dim view of such contracts.

Fensterstock argued that under California law, "when an arbitration clause requires a consumer to waive the right to bring claims on behalf of a class, that waiver is unconscionable if ... it is alleged that the party with the superior bargaining power has carried out a scheme to deliberately cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money. The party with the superior bargaining power drafts the contract and requires the other party to either accept or reject the contract in full. ... Such waivers are 'indisputably one-sided' because they operate to insulate a potential defendant from liability since any one plaintiff's damage will usually be too small to justify bringing an individual claim."

Citing various federal cases, the court said, "Individual actions by each of the defrauded consumers is often impracticable because the amount of individual recovery would be insufficient to justify bringing a separate action; thus an unscrupulous seller retains the benefits of its wrongful conduct. "

On the other hand, it continued, "A class action by consumers produces several salutary by-products. ... A company which wrongfully exacts a dollar from each of millions of customers will reap a handsome profit; the class action is often the only effective way to halt and redress such exploitation."

Because Fensterstock was a lawyer, albeit for only two years, the creditors argued he should have understood what he was signing and so, they said, Fensterstock was bound by the arbitration clause and had given up the right to a group lawsuit.

Kearse disagreed, writing, "Fensterstock was just three years out of law school. And although the expertise he had gained through representing clients in financial transactions may show that he was well aware of the presence of the ... class action and class arbitration waiver clause, we have seen nothing in his education, experience or expertise to suggest that he had any meaningful opportunity to negotiate that clause out of the contract."

Now the two controversial clauses have been ruled unenforceable in all contacts with the company, a class of many thousands will be formed, and litigation will continue in the federal court in New York on the issue of how the payments made by borrowers is applied to their debt.

The implications of the case may be very widespread. However, courts in other federal circuits could reach different conclusions about the laws of various states. In the end, the matter may be resolved not by arbitration or litigation but by the Supreme Court of the United States. But the offending clauses in the California agreement are out and unenforceable.

The plaintiff was represented by Orin Kurtz of Abbey Spanier Rodd & Abrams in New York. The defendant was represented by Edward Lenci of Hinshaw & Culbertson, also of New York.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice

Libraries 'Biggest Loser' in City Budget

new york public library
Photo by wally g
The Poppenhusen branch library in College Point is part of the Queens Public Library, the largest library system in the country in terms of circulation.

Spending an afternoon at the Leonard Branch Library in Brooklyn, the looming threat of steep budget cuts this year appears refreshingly non-existent. For now at least, business is as usual -- people typing away at the public computers, teens chatting over Magic cards and readers lurking in the CD and fiction sections.

The library's information supervisor appears pleasantly surprised to find that all the flyers for the branch's new adult yoga program had already been taken. Though cheery and upbeat, Shelly (who prefers to omit her last name), was one of two employees at the branch to receive a notice of their potential layoff come July. "It's been devastating," she said. "I love my job."

Coined the "biggest loser" in the mayor’s executive budget, the city's three library systems are facing a proposed total of almost $75 million in cuts for fiscal year 2011 -- the most severe library cuts in the city's history. Should the mayor's budget pass, community branches in each system would be forced to curtail their opening hours by as much as half or, worse, close permanently. As many as 1,500 library employees could lose their jobs as a result, and about 650 employees in the Queens and Brooklyn libraries have already received 90-day layoff notices.

The Deepest Yet

In 2008, the City Council managed to increase baseline funding to libraries, allowing branches in all five boroughs to stay open six days a week. In 2009, city library subsidies reached an all-time high, with a total allotment of almost $327 million. Falling to less than $310 million in 2010, the projected budget for subsidies in 2011 hangs at $254 million -- an almost 22 percent reduction over the past two years alone.

The city cut library subsidies by as much as 5.2 percent in 2010, and proposes a daunting 17.9 percent reduction in 2011.

In the early years of the Bloomberg administration, libraries were a frequent target of mayoral cuts. These came to be seen as half-empty threats however, since City Council would manage to restore funding -- either fully or in part -- relieving libraries of any dramatic losses. The back-and-forth between mayoral cuts and libraries became a kind of annual tradition, informally referred to as thebudget dance.

Today, the budget dance is far less predictable. This year, given the severity of the city's fiscal situation, no one is promising that the cuts will be restored.

"Budgeting is determined by bottom lines and figures, and the hoped-for consequence of funding cuts is a reduction in any budget gap,” said Councilmember Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee that oversees libraries. "I believe it's important to put a face to the consequences of reduced funding to libraries: When we take away a resource that has the ability to help everyone, regardless of their race, age, gender or income, we hurt everyone."

Where They Will Hit

All of New York City's three library systems will be affected by the cuts. Brooklyn and Queens have their own systems, while the New York Public Library has branches in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx. Though each of the three is funded differently, all face potential branch closures, layoffs and reductions in hours. Until the passing of the final budget however, none of this is certain.

Queens Library: Measured on the basis of circulation volume, the Queens Library is the largest library system in the country. In 2009, it was named library of the year by Library Journal.

As proposed in the executive budget, Queens faces a $17 million loss. If the budget is passed, 14 branches will close permanently, as 34 others would be open only two or three days a week, a reduction in service by almost half. The budget also calls for a 38 percent reduction in the system's workforce, or a cumulative 44 percent over the past 18 months.

The library's communications director, Joanne King, called the cuts a "grave threat" to service in Queens.

New York Public Library: With 90 community branches in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, the New York Public Library faces a total reduction of $38 million, or 25 percent of its funding from the city. At the budget hearing Friday, President Paul LeClerc estimated the potential layoff of 736 employees, or 40 percent of its total workforce.

Brooklyn Library: In the 2011 preliminary budget, Brooklyn Library faces a $20.6 million reduction. Under the "worst case scenario" 363 employees, or 30 percent of its total workforce, could face layoff.

Now boasting six-day service at all 60 locations, the library will be forced to temporarily close 16 branches in order to stay open a minimum of five days a week. Without shutting branches, the library could only open two or three days as a result of drastic reductions in staff. Executive Director Dionne Mack-Harvin said in her testimony Friday, "I want to be very clear that closing libraries is not a negotiating ploy or scare tactic. We know that shutting doors is a drastic step and not an action we take lightly."

Bad Timing

All this comes at a time when city libraries are experiencing "peak usage," according to Mack-Harvin. At the preliminary budget hearing in March, LeClerc said, "While the impact of the recession continues to take its toll across our city, we have seen no slow-down in the record numbers of people using our services."

As free English for Speakers of Other Languages classes offered by libraries continue to turn hundreds of people away, more and more find themselves taking advantage of free Internet access to search and apply for jobs. In a recent study, one third of all Americans above the age of 14 have used the internet at their libraries last year -- 50,000 of them to "find work, apply for college, get public benefits and look up medical information."

Last year at the New York Public Library, a record 25,000 people attended job-related courses and programs.

At the budget hearing Friday, Mack-Harvin said, "It's inconceivable that when our libraries are busier than ever, when children, families, seniors and other Brooklynites need us the most, the FY 2011 executive budget proposed the deepest funding cuts faced by Brooklyn Public Library in its 113-year history."

Since 2008, or the establishment of universal six-day service, Brooklyn Public Library has grown substantially in circulation and popularity, as it currently holds the highest program attendance in the country, at more than 900,000 people.

Counting the Days

While it remains to be seen exactly which employees will lose jobs, library officials confirmed that layoffs will be made on the basis of seniority, meaning newer employees face the highest risk. For now, though, notifications sent in May are warnings -- until further notice.

Library officials in all three systems claim to have no idea as to which branches could permanently close. Preferring to remain anonymous, a supervisor at Queens Public Library said, “We don’t know names, we just know numbers.” There is also little knowledge as to which programs would be reduced or cut permanently. So far, New York Public Library announced that if it had to absorb the proposed cuts, it would reduce the number of free English as a second language classes from 117 to 48.

According to Dena Libner, director of communications for Gentile, "The speaker's Budget Negotiating Team is involved in the discussion of restorations" -- though it is still unknown what those restorations might be.

At the budget hearing Friday, library officials estimated that shutting just one community branch would cost the city between $48,000 to $50,000 – a "one-time cost of closure” excluding long term security and upkeep costs.

Library Love

From re-enacting Ghostbusters at the reading room of the lavish Fifth Avenue library to protests organized by children in Queens, New Yorkers are showing libraries a little bit of love in a lot of different ways.

With 22 days to go before the budget deadline, some 96,200 letters have been sent so far to City Council members' district offices across the boroughs, nearing the libraries' proposed goal of 100,000. Sponsored by advocacy groups Urban Libraries Unite and the Save NYC Libraries Postcard Campaign, a 24-hour "We Will Not Be Shushed" read-in is scheduled for June 12 at the Central Library in Brooklyn. The event signifies a combined effort by all three systems to rally one large last-hurrah for libraries.

"Today, our goal is to make the potential widespread effects of library cuts clear, and to make clear how crucial libraries are to us," Gentile said at a recent rally at City Hall. "Because everyone can be hurt by these cuts, everyone needs to fight for the protection of libraries."

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