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First Amendment Rights and the Classroom

Photo (cc) by Marilyn M

In the final days of the hotly contested and contentious presidential campaign, three New York City public school teachers and their union president commenced a federal lawsuit claiming a violation of their constitutional rights. The question was whether the school chancellor could bar plaintiffs from using union bulletin boards in schools to post political material; whether candidate-based political materials could be placed in mailboxes in Department of Education buildings; and the hot button issue of whether teachers could wear political campaign buttons in school.

The answer from a federal district judge in Manhattan was yes and no. Yes, the Department of Education can ban the wearing of buttons, and no, teachers and their union cannot be banned from displaying or disseminating political material on candidates in school on their bulletin boards in schools or among themselves. The result is that the judge denied in part and granted in part a request for an injunction against the city's enforcement of its regulations.

The school chancellor's regulations state that "while on duty or in contact with students, all school personnel shall maintain a posture of complete neutrality with respect to all candidates." Another section of the regulation says, "No material supporting any candidate ... may be distributed, posted or displayed."

The Legal History

Judge Lewis Kaplan agreed, and the city did not dispute, that an unconstitutional infringement of First Amendments rights would cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs and all teachers. However, citing a series of cases that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the judge concluded that the plaintiffs would be unable to establish that their freedom of speech or expression had been denied if they could not wear buttons on the job.

The judge referred to a case in which Supreme Court held that a public school could restrict a teacher's speech regarding matters of public concern only if the speech would harm the school's ability to operate efficiently or the teacher's ability to perform his or her job. That case involved a teacher who was fired for writing a letter to a newspaper criticizing the school system. The court found that the letter writing, which did not take place in the school, did not interfere with the school's mission.

Kaplan also looked to Tinker v. Des Moines, a famous case in which the issue was whether students, while in class, had the right to wear black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. There, the Supreme Court concluded that the constitutional rights of the students could not be stopped "at the schoolhouse gate," and found in their favor, with the warning that free expression could be limited only if it interfered with school work or with other students. In a third case, which, as Kaplan put it, the plaintiffs invited him to follow, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a high school teacher could not be suspended for wearing a black armband in a similar protest of the Vietnam war, since it did not disrupt the educational mandate.

Kaplan took a different view, relying on another line of cases which concluded that school boards have the right to determine what is inappropriate in their classrooms and that reasonable restrictions could be imposed where they relate to legitimate pedagogical concerns. He emphasized the determination that students should not be exposed to views that they might attribute to the school rather than to an individual teacher.

In his ruling, the judge adopted this more recent reasoning, rather than the cases plaintiffs relied on. The judge borrowed the language of a California case that also involved teachers wearing political buttons during working hours. "Public school authorities may reasonably conclude it is not possible to both permit instructors to engage in classroom political activity and at the same time successfully disassociate the school from such advocacy" without the school board having to establish the disruptive nature of the activity or the wearing of buttons, Kaplan said quoting the California Court of Appeals.

Kaplan also looked favorably to a 2007 case in which another federal court upheld a school board decision not to renew the contract of a probationary elementary school teacher who had taken a political position in class. There, the court reasoned that students are a "captive audience," and said as an aside that a teacher's views could lead to "indoctrination."

Official Position?

In the recent New York case, known as Weingarten v. Board of Education of New York City, the school system feared that some students would misunderstand the personal nature of the buttons, and that the greater goal was to avoid "the entanglement of their public educational mission with partisan politics." The judge found no evidence that political buttons appearing in the classroom would lead students or their parents to the conclusion that they were expressing the views of the school system. Still, the question remained as to what authority the Department of Education has, and the opinion in Weingarten is that the buttons "might reasonably be perceived to bear the school's imprimatur or otherwise interfere with the accomplishment of defendants' public role."

In other words, the prevention of that possible perception would trump the First Amendment argument. This is based on the theory that the department has the expertise to determine the "needs, capabilities and vulnerabilities" of the school population, although the judge cautioned, in a kind of risk benefit analysis, that there was a balance to be achieved, which had to include the "sensitivity of [the department's] judgment to First Amendment values."

As far as the wearing of buttons, Kaplan concluded that the restrictions were reasonable and "reflect a good faith judgment by the defendants in their professional capacities about the impact of teachers' political campaign buttons in the school rather than a covert attempt to favor one viewpoint over another or a willingness to paint with too broad a brush."

Further, the judge decided, that in this instance, the Department of Education deserves the court's deference. To counter that, the teachers and their union would have had to have shown there was a likelihood that they could establish that the ban on the button was unconstitutional. Kaplan decided they had not done that and so he denied the plaintiffs an injunction against the ban.

On the question of disseminating information to teachers in the school building but not in the classroom and not to students, the court reached a different temporary conclusion that will be considered as the litigation continues after Election Day.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 

And the Winner Is ...

Congratulations to Amanda DiLodovico, sophomore at Marymount Manhattan College, whose essay about the importance of funding for special education was selected by our readers as the best of the finalists in Gotham Gazette's first essay contest.

We're grateful to everyone who sent in their essays, and congratulate the five finalists, each of whom took the time to write a thoughtful and compelling story about Tuesday's election: Deborah Soule, Marymount Manhattan College; Michael Cohen, College Of Staten Island; Lindsay Allen; Ewa Bialobrezeski, Brooklyn College.


Educating Children with Special Needs

This year's election is a rather important one for me because it is the first time I will be of voting age in an election year. With pressing issues being discussed daily, such as the rising gas prices, the war in Iraq, overturning Roe v. Wade, and gay marriage, the most prevalent topic to me is much more personal and less popular in the media.

My younger brother suffers from high-functioning autism, known as Aspergers, and has struggled in school because of the government's lack of assistance. The most important thing to me in this election is the changes and improvements that will be made to help the families of children with special needs. Words like autism and Down's syndrome can be frightening to some, but these children have the same rights as anyone else and should not be simply cast aside.

My family's happiness and well-being is an integral part of who I am. Witnessing the trials and tribulations my parents and brother have gone through has made me passionate about political policy and the well-being of special needs children throughout the United States. It is imperative the person elected to the White House put forth new policies that enable the government to fund educational opportunities for children in those families who cannot afford a private school.

With the nation's financial status in disarray, it is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to afford the costs of medications and doctors that are not covered by their healthcare plans. Paying for an education that every other child has the option to have for free is simply unattainable. Special needs programs will not suffice if the teachers and administrators involved are not committed to helping these children succeed in both school and life. Becoming a special education teacher is not a decision that should be made in haste, and stricter restrictions should be put on teachers obtaining a license.

I look forward to a future where children with and without special needs are awarded the same opportunities to succeed in life. If new policies are not put forth, my family and the families of special needs children around the country will suffer. To me this election is more than red state or blue state and the declaration of a political party winner; it is a statement of this country's relationship with middle and lower-class families and their children who need a different approach to education.

It seems that John McCain has overlooked the subject of special education in his plan for this country, even though his running mate, Sarah Palin, recently gave birth to a child with Down's syndrome. Barack Obama 's "Recruit, Prepare and Reward Plan" for America's teachers is a legitimate way to enhance the quality of teachers in this country, particularly those in special needs classrooms. Certainly, all issues being discussed in this election are important, but special education is a personal issue for me because of concern for my brother's well-being and future happiness.


The Three C's: Condos, Classrooms and Crowding

Left photo (cc) Barry Yanowitz; Right photo (cc) madabandon
The rise of condos and young families in DUMBO puts a crunch on neighborhood schools.

The current flurry of new luxury housing construction in New York City has created a number of quandaries for the city's public schools.

The influx of students threatens to undermine the quality of nearby schools --often the very thing that helped attract young families in the first place. To further complicate matters, the high land values that good public schools help create make it increasingly difficult for the city to obtain land on which to build new ones. Developers see the expensive real estate as appropriate for only the most profitable projects, and that does not leave much room for schools.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, whose Upper East Side district includes some of the most severely affected areas, has been urging developers and the Department of Education to find solutions. "Given the value of real estate in New York City," she said, "why should we have any schools, firehouses, or police stations at all?"

The joke is grimly funny because these are essential amenities. But that doesn't make it any easier for the Department of Education to find land for a school in Midtown or Downtown Brooklyn.

The Classroom Crunch

Some of city's most seriously overcrowded schools are in the priciest of Manhattan neighborhoods. Six out of eight elementary schools on Manhattan's West Side are operating at more than 100 percent capacity, according to a letter sent to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein by a number of Manhattan elected officials, and several have had to give up teachers' lounges and art classrooms to make space. PS 116 in Murray Hill recently hit 113 percent of capacity as new housing went up all around it, the area's City Council member, Daniel Garodnick, has said. As a result, some students eat lunch at 10:30 a.m., and the school has dropped pre-kindergarten classes and classes for the gifted, according to the Daily News.

The problem extends beyond Manhattan: A recent report by Comptroller William Thompson identified nine areas where the Department of Education's current five-year plan for new school construction will not meet anticipated population growth. The list includes sought-after districts like DUMBO, Downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City alongside burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods like Flushing and Sunset Park. Some 3,000 new apartments are being planned for an area around one school in DUMBO -- PS 287 -- but the department has no plans for any new schools in the area, according to the comptroller. Similarly 2,300 new homes are currently slated for the Upper East Side -- but just one project that would add school seats, the report said. It also found the average elementary school in the area was operating at a debilitating 129 percent of capacity.

Under city law, developers are not required to mitigate the effects their building would have on schools or infrastructure such as subways and roads. (See related story). Given that, city administrators and elected officials have had to be creative about finding ways to convince builders to help address school overcrowding. The strategies for getting additional classrooms tend to fall into one of two categories depending on whether the land is publicly or privately owned.

When the City Has Land

If the city owns the land for the new school, the building can become a project of the Department of Education's Educational Construction Fund, or ECF, an agency that offers developers the chance to build on public land in exchange for funding schools. The fund does not sell the land it gets from the city. Instead, it issues a request for proposals, picks a developer, then rents the property long-term in exchange for the developer's agreeing to plan and pay for the construction of a school on the site.

There are currently two ECF projects under way. One will provide a new home for East Side Middle School, or MS 114, at the same 91st Street and First Avenue location that PS 151 occupied until 2000. The new school will seat 540 students-190 more than the school's old building at 78th Street and York-in a five-story red-brick structure next to the Azure, a 34-story luxury apartment building slated for construction on the same site. The DeMatteis Organization and The Mattone Group, the project's developers, will pay the entire $45 million cost of building the school.

On May 30, the site came to public attention when a crane collapsed there, killing two people and damaging nearby apartments. When the New York Post learned about the city’s involvement through the construction fund, it blamed the city for the accident. But the incident points to a deeper problem with public/private partnerships. While the director of the Educational Construction Fund, Jamie Smarr, said the developers the fund contracts must follow the same regulations and procedures that the city would when building a school, it’s likely that a developer accustomed to cutting corners will continue the practice when working on a public building.

Staff at East Side Middle school said that they believe the project will proceed in spite of the accident, although work on the site has stopped and they have not been told when the new facility will be completed.

The other project, at 57th street and 2nd avenue, is larger and more complex. The developer, World Wide Holdings, Inc., will replace the High School for Art and Design, rebuild PS 59 with 730 seats rather its original 400 and add an additional school on 63rd Street at a site that students from the other two schools will use as a temporary location during construction.

Not everyone applauds the project, however. Krueger acknowledged that some members of her community "say 'enough is enough' when it comes to new high-rises." But, she argued, at least these buildings offer essential amenities. "The developer is being responsive to the needs of the community," she said.

For their part, company officials described the Educational Construction Fund as a responsive and efficient partner. "The request for proposals process was fair and transparent and took place in an efficient amount of time," Terry Stanley, the co-manager of the 57th Street project, said.

Public School, Private Land

Things can get more contentious when a development is going up on private land. Then, communities must use the various approval procedures to try to get schools included. Requests for rezoning, the city's land use process -- known as ULURP -- and City Council votes all provide some opportunities for neighborhoods to make demands. However, the amount of leverage the community can muster depends more on whether a rezoning is needed than on the urgency of their needs.

Two current cases in this category involve Sheldon Solow and Bruce Ratner, developers not known for harmonious relations with local groups. Solow has proposed converting the former Con Ed site along the East River from 34th Street to 41st Street into a complex of residential and commercial towers. The developer's Environmental Impact Statement estimated that the project would add 417 new students to the already strained local schools, an increase that U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney projected would bring them to 164 percent of capacity by 2014. Originally the developer said the city could bus those students to other areas.

Fortunately for the students, the particularities of the project gave officials plenty of leverage. "Remember," said Garodnick, who was active in the fight to put a school in the project, "they were looking to rezone the site from a manufacturing zone to a zone amenable to both commercial and residential uses. The council could have rejected that rezoning."

Eventually, Solow's firm agreed to include a school in its plan, although the 630 seats slated for the project will do little more than cover the new development's own residents.

Of course, the arm-twisting can go both ways: Bruce Ratner, who agreed to build a school at his Beekman Plaza development in Lower Manhattan, recently threatened to cease construction on it unless he received a 421-a tax abatement valid for 20 years.

Planning for the Future

Pressure tactics aside, will these public-partnerships do enough to abate school overcrowding? Smarr, the Educational Construction Fund's director, thinks they will. He said the city took a step forward when it reactivated the fund after a nearly 30-year hiatus. Additionally, the Department of Education's current five-year plan includes the "record amount" of 63,000 new schools seats.

Yet many elected representatives remain unsatisfied. Gale Brewer, the City Council member from Manhattan's Upper West Side, has been arguing for years that the city must reconsider how it measures overcrowding. Currently, the city looks at an entire community school district, which includes dozens of schools and many neighborhoods. "If you ask the Department of Education if school district three is overcrowded, they'll say no," she said, "because the area north of 96th Street is not."

She blames this system for what she sees as the department's failure to address overcrowding in the southern half of the district and a missed opportunity to build a school in the Riverside South project. There, the developer Extell actually handed the city a site, but the Department of Education has not committed to build a school on it because the district, according to the city's numbers, is not overcrowded.

The department has said it will consider Brewer's suggestion on how to measure overcrowding next year.

Other proposals look beyond the Department of Education to ask deeper questions about the responsibilities of developers in today's New York City. Krueger, for instance, suggested that the zoning laws be changed so that developers be encouraged to focus on essential amenities, such as schools, rather than minor ones like small pocket parks. And Garodnick is working with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson to research a possible bill or charter change that would "more directly tie new developments to new school construction."

Would Garodnick require developers to help build schools for the new residents they bring into neighborhoods? He's not sure yet. "It's a conversation we're having with the Department of Education," he said.

There is, of course, a danger in transferring too much of the responsibility for school construction to developers, who are not elected and don't necessarily act out of public interest. And this is just one idea under consideration. Under the banner of Scott Stringer's recent call for a "war room" of new school planning, elected officials seem to agree that the city must adopt measures to take into account the pressures that new developments put on local schools. What form that might take remains to be seen.

James Trimarco is a journalist and consulting editor at Yes! Magazine.  

At Law School, Middle School Students Get on the Case

students  explore an old Queens desegregation case
Photo by Joseph Huff-Hannon

On a muggy summer afternoon, students in school uniforms huddle around a long conference table at St. John's University School of Law, scribbling on yellow legal pads and reviewing a set of maps dating back to the 19th century.

"You are going to recreate the environment that existed in Jamaica, Queens in the 1890s," says Professor Victoria Brown-Douglas, tall and authoritative, as she counseled her band of apprentices to learn to think like lawyers, judges, witnesses and members of a jury. "At the end of this we're going to courthouses all over the city, and we're going to tell the world what happened during the desegregation school wars of Jamaica, Queens."

"Their child wasn't allowed to go to a good school," says Alex Samaroo, 12, as he excitedly taps his white Air Jordans together. "And the parents didn't want to accept it."

Alex has explained what lies at the heart of a forgotten legal case that these Queens middle school students are forensically excavating this summer. He and his fellow students from the Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica are the unlikely torchbearers of a unique experiment in cross-curricular educational collaboration. They are working with students and staff at nearby St. John's Law School, as well as librarians at the Queens Library, to bring to life a century's old school discrimination case that led to the desegregation of New York State Schools in 1900.

They could be teaching a lesson as well as learning one. With the city middle schools widely agreed to be in crisis with low test scores and low levels of student interest, the city has concentrated on professional development and focused on teaching to the test and stressing basic subjects. The collaboration in Queens, though, could offer a different kind of model, emphasizing creativity and in-depth coverage of subjects beyond basic language arts and math.

Photo by Joseph Huff-Hannon

A School for Jacob Cisco

The case revolves around Jacob Cisco, the son of Samuel and Elizabeth Cisco, two middle-class African American residents of the village of Jamaica. In 1895, they refused to enroll their son in the local "colored" school, arguing that the teaching was inferior to that at the local "white" school, P.S. 49. In a legal battle that lasted for five years, Samuel Cisco, a cooper whose family had lived in Jamaica for 80 years, was arrested twice for protesting his son's exclusion from the school.

Samuel Cisco died in 1897, but his wife Elizabeth continued to push the case. Elizabeth Cisco and her attorney eventually drafted a law to end legalized segregation in New York City public schools. It was brought to newly elected Gov. Theodore Roosevelt. According to research by St. John's librarian William Manz, Roosevelt refused to consider it until it was amended to apply to the entire state. In 1900, he signed it into law Ăł barring racial segregation in New York State public schools more than 50 years before Brown vs. Board of Education did the same nationwide.

Researching the Case

To find out about this obscure but significant episode in their history, the students pored over old issues of The Brooklyn Eagle and used Google Earth to map the location of the now demolished Ă«colored school.' After they discovered it to be the site of the current York College athletic field, the students visited the president of the college and proposed naming the athletic field Cisco Field, in honor of the family whose five-year long struggle has gotten little to no recognition until now.

The students plan to weave the results of their research into a mock trial script that will be performed in public at various venues citywide during Black History Month next year. They have applied for a grant from the History Channel to eventually turn that performance into a documentary film.

"They're really going to be the first ones to get the story out to a larger audience," says Manz, senior research librarian at St. John's Law School and author of the original article in the New York State Bar Association Journal that ignited the student project. "Students these days are getting their history instruction from original documents, but this kind of project takes it even further. I think the hardest part for the kids is going to be getting in to the mindset of the people who lived during that time. Putting together the mock trial is going to require them to come up with arguments against, and for, separate but equal."

"They probably thought black students couldn't think as fast or as well as white students," says Elizabeth Edwards, 14, as she tries to put herself in the shoes of those who defended segregation at the time. "Learning about all of this has made me a lot more interested in law," says Elizabeth, who graduated from Immaculate Conception in the spring but continued to work on the project over the summer.

Carl Ballenas, a social studies teacher at the Immaculate Conception School and moderator of the Aquinas Honor Society, the student group undertaking the project, says that this kind of site-specific study helps students make a connection to local history. In addition, as the students work with a variety of people from nearby educational and community institutions, they learn to collaborate with several, sometimes competing groups and organizations.

"The project is teaching these student to present their ideas in public, to pay attention to details, to take on leadership roles," said Ballenas. "It is also showing a lot of the adults they meet that these kids can teach us a lot if we pay attention. We don't need to wait until they are in high school or college."

This kind of multi-layered collaboration is not uncommon in some of the city's more specialized high schools or nonprofit organizations. Last year students at the Millennium Arts Academy in the Bronx worked with Elders Share the Arts to produce an evening of short plays performed by a group of senior citizens, based on oral histories about their lives. The plays depicted stories of involvement in the civil rights movement, of surviving the German bombing of London in 1941 and of facing housing discrimination in New York.

This summer CityArts, a nonprofit arts organization, has developed a unique collaboration between teens in Bedford-Stuyvesant and world-renowned Brazilian painter and muralist Duda Penteado to create a massive "Global HeART Warming" mural on the side of St. John's recreation center in the neighborhood.

"When I was their age, I definitely wasn't doing anything this ambitious over the summer," says Paul Pagano, 25, a third-year law student at St. John's who is working with the Immaculate Conception students, and explained to them the importance of developing the theory of the case on a recent afternoon. Pagano pointed out that the case had been largely forgotten and urged the students to do their part in expanding recognition for these little known turn-of-the-century equal rights crusaders.

"Today when you google Samuel or Elizabeth Cisco, you only get 3 or 4 hits," says Pagano. "We're going to make sure that what they fought for in New York is something that other students will eventually be learning in history class."

Joseph Huff-Hannon is a writer on culture and politics, based in Brooklyn.  

New Bills: Street Vending to School Parking

Artists in Lower Manhattan fear a so-called totalitarian takeover of their vending privileges. Partygoers in Queens may hail a stricter carbon monoxide detector proposal, and parents might praise a bill that allows them to disregard parking rules while picking up their kids.

All of these bills, and more, have been proposed at the City Council recently -- some may fail, some may flourish. Check out our latest round up.

Gerson Gets Back to Vending

Years ago, Councilmember Alan Gerson of Manhattan took aim at street vendors. From DVD poachers to hand bag hawkers, the councilman looked to limit the amount of merchants so that they would no longer threaten public safety by clogging city streets, he argued.

While he was unsuccessful, Gerson is looking to regulate the industry again. Some of these bills were inspired from meetings with representatives of vending groups in the city, said the councilman's spokesperson, and some are already garnering criticism.

First, Gerson would like to prohibit general vending from vehicles (Intro 767). The legislation would not apply to food vendors, but those that peddle merchandise. The legislation would impact sellers using their car hoods, trunks or roofs.

In addition he is proposing legislation (Intro 766) that would rescind a requirement for a food handler's license if a shop or establishment is only selling packaged food.

Gerson is also attempting (Intro 768) to require vendors take a written exam that tests their knowledge on the city's vending laws. This bill would apply to both general merchandise and food vendors. In attempt to avoid overcrowded sidewalks, Gerson is also proposing to require (Intro 769) vendors be more than two feet from any building or structure, including muni-meters, light posts and trees or plantings. That proposal would also apply to merchandise and food vendors.

What is likely to be his most controversial proposal, Gerson is attempting to redefine what can be classified as merchandise that falls within the first amendment -- sales that cannot be restricted or prohibited. Previously, the council member attempted to limit that to two-dimensional pieces, meaning paintings, pamphlets or leaflets.

That proposal hit significant roadblocks from artists and civil libertarians. Now, the councilman is (Intro 770) attempting to define protected material again. Under the legislation, vendors would not need to apply for a permit if the material was "predominantly expressive in nature and whose utility is of secondary importance, including, but not limited to, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other visual art, whether original or not."

While it is a more expansive take than his previous attempts, some in the vending and art community continue to oppose any restriction.

In The Villager, Kurt Brokaw of the New School wrote: "This new twist is Gerson’s three-dimensional prohibition, just expressed more subtly. Gerson has to be aware that in any court challenge, the concept of 'found art' is well established as a primary expressive medium, and he will lose in a New York minute."

So far, none of these bills have received a hearing nor have they garnered a significant amount of co-sponsors.

Police Disclosure

Several council members are looking for a little more disclosure at the Police Department, from domestic violence statistics to reporting requirements for auxiliary police.

Councilmember David Weprin introduced legislation (Intro 788) that requires the department submit quarterly reports on officer assignments, specifying particular units, and what type of equipment, from bullet proof vests to radios, had been issued to auxiliary officers. Following the death of two auxiliary police officers last year, Weprin announced a 10-point plan to improve public safety. Part of that plan was providing officers equipment, like bulletproof vests.

Elsewhere, Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito introduced legislation (Intro 774) that requires the department release domestic violence statistics on its Web site, including the number of murders, assaults and felonies related to domestic violence.

Councilmember Jimmy Vacca also proposed a bill (Intro 775) requiring the department report the number of traffic violations for trucks both citywide and per council district on a quarterly basis.

Detector the Halls

Last spring, 42 people, including the bride, were hospitalized from exposure to carbon monoxide at a wedding at a dining hall in Queens.

No one noticed the odorless gas wafting about the room until the mother of the groom collapsed on the dance floor. Carbon monoxide detectors were not installed at the facility.

A bill introduced by Councilmember Thomas White of Queens (Intro 789) would require detectors in certain public spaces, including restaurants and performing arts centers. Currently, only public buildings and residences require detectors.

"We didn’t realize you didn’t have to have a carbon monoxide detector," said White's head legislative aide, Josh Wojehowski. He also called the bill a "no-brainer."

Parking Bikes in Garages

Councilmember Oliver Koppell introduced legislation (Intro 780) that would require any parking garage or lot with 50 spaces or more also provide parking for bikes. One bike spot would have to be provided for every 10 motor vehicle spots.

School Parking Regulations

Councilmember John Liu introduced legislation (Intro 785) that suspends parking rules between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. as well as 2:45 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. on streets adjacent to public schools. Under the bill, the rules would also be suspended on roads adjacent to private schools that service the fifth grade or below.

Hotel Fees

Councilmember Letitia James introduced legislation (Intro 772) that would require hotels include extra fees, such as extra costs for electricity, in their advertisements along with their rates.  

The Autism Gap

Photos courtesy of Rebecca Schools
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Schools
A student at the Rebecca School in Manhattan, a private school for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Strapped into his helmet, the boy kicks off, propelling his scooter about 30 feet before he trips off and come to abrupt halt. A young woman rushes to help, but the boy remains undaunted, "I want to keep riding," he insists, pushing off again.

Not an uncommon scene. But its very ordinariness makes it noteworthy. The boy is riding not along a city sidewalk but in the corridors of a public school on 100th Street. He attends the New York Association for Autism Charter School, and one thing the school aims to do is help its students play. "If a kid is isolated all the time, you're not preparing them for life," said director Jamie Pagliaro.

The charter school, which opened in fall 2005, represents a wave of new classes, schools and other programs designed to help the increasing number of New York City children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. The founders, both mothers of children with autism, started the school because of their own epxeriences looking for a school for their children. Neither could find programs they considered appropriate in New York City.

"You should be able to educate your child in the community where you live," one, Laura Slatkin, has said. "There should be a great school in New York City."

Those involved with the school and the Department of Education also hope the charter school can provide a model for meeting the needs of autistic children, who require a lot of attention. In that event, it will lead to more public programs -- and more programs in the five boroughs.

For government, the rising number of autism cases strains budgets and taxes services. For parents, the disorder poses an even more daunting challenge -- finding an education and therapies that will help their children lead the fullest possible lives. With a shortage of programs and funds, conflicts inevitably arise between school and family over screening and diagnosis, over the type of services a child needs, and over who should pay for it.

Navigating the system -- and finding scarce therapists and classroom slots -- can intimidate even the most sophisticated and aggressive parent. For the less educated parent, or one who doesn't speak English, the difficulties loom even larger.

"The lack of sufficiently intensive programs in the public schools, the lack of sufficient seats in private alternative programs and the failure of the state education department to approve sufficient private school providers render the search for an appropriate placement for many children a morbid game of musical chairs in which only the best resources and most legally adept may win," said a grant proposal from CUNY Law School and Hunter School of Social Work.

A Mounting Problem

Autism spectrum disorders are complex and not always easy to diagnose. Ranging widely in severity, they affect the development of normal social and communication skills.

In the past decade or so, autism has increased dramatically. Some experts believe television may be a cause; some blame vaccines or environmental factors. Others attribute part of the rise to improved diagnoses, particularly of people with milder autism disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome.

For decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control, autism was believed to occur in about four or five children out off every 10,000. But in 2000, a sample taken from 10 states (of which New York was not one) found that about one 8-year-old child out of every 150 had some variant of the disorder.

In New York City, the number of children with autism has increased by more than 70 percent since 2001. According to the Department of Education, as of June 2007, 5,863 students in the New York City school system had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Some educators have estimated the number could be far higher. Spending for children with autism is folded into the city's $4 billion special education budget.

Photo from the May Institute

This is a particularly expensive group of children to educate. All recommended methods for helping autistic children call for individual attention and various therapies. Many of the youngsters have behavioral problems that require close supervision.

Tuition for private schools for autistic students, such as the Rebecca School on East 30th Street in Manhattan, can easily run to about $80,000 a year. In 2006, the city reportedly spent about $825 million for tuition at private schools for special education students. The Department of Education does not break out numbers for autistic children.

Under federal law, if an individual school district cannot provide an "appropriate" education for a child with disabilities, including autism, it must pay tuition at a private school. While the federal government requires the school system to pay that cost, it does not give the school district or the state the money to do that. This leads to rancorous and costly battles between school districts, which must keep at least one eye on budgets, and parents, eager to do what they believe to be best for their child.

Two years ago, Scott Greenspan, a New York lawyer, testifiedbefore City Council about his frustration in getting an education for his son, then 9. The boy, he said, is autistic, non-verbal and has a condition called pica in which he puts objects in his mouth. This meant he required a paraprofessional to follow him around all day. But, Greenspan said, "the Department of Education has thrown roadblock after roadblock in our son's education."

While most parents worry abut their child's education, the issue is particularly fraught for parents of children with autism. A story from Floridathis month certainly brought that point home. There, according to the boy's mother and press accounts, a kindergarten teacher encouraged her students to tell an autistic classmate what they did not like about him. At the end of the proceedings, the students, apparently with the teacher's approval, if not even encouragement, voted 14 to 2 to vote the autistic boy out of the class.

Finding the Children

Many experts now believe that parents, pediatricians and day care workers should be alert to indications of autism in children as young as 18 months or 2 years. The city provides testing to children under five if the parent asks for it.

Despite that, "some children don't get found," Dorothy Siegel of NYU's Institute for Education and Social policy told a panel at the New School last fall. By the time some kids are diagnosed, they may have already fallen behind. "If this kid had been picked up when he was two or three he would be considered high functioning," she said.

Some parents and day care providers may not know about autism. Others may be reluctant to request a diagnosis that could place a child in the special education system. And others are dissuaded from asking for help. A recent survey by AHRC New York found that parents often suspect something is amiss -- their child is not starting to speak or making eye contact. "A good percentage of parents were told by doctors to wait and see if your child is going to improve," said Chris Treiber, the group's advocacy director.

Once children turn five and start kindergarten, they become the responsibility of the public school system. A team evaluates the child and comes up with a diagnosis. Parents with the wherewithal often bring in their own experts. Those without those resources can receive "a plain vanilla evaluation" involving the special education teacher and a school psychologist who may have no particular expertise in autism, said Bernardo Pace, the parent of a child with autism, who serves on the board of Eden II Programs for Individuals with Autism and wrote the CUNY Law School/Hunter School of Social Work proposal.

The evaluation matters. Based on it, children considered to have a disability receive an "individual educational plan" setting up a placement for the child and the services he or she should receive.

Again, said Pace this places some children at a disadvantage. "Kids who come from lower income neighborhoods....get diagnosed later, get diagnosed with less professionalism," he said. Many then get placed in classrooms that, he said, may "amount to babysitting more than education."

Perhaps few topics so roil education as these educational plans and the accompanying placements. The school system wants to hold down expenses. The parents want help for their child.

"There is increasing tension between parents' aspirations for their child and what the school is willing to provide," Michael McKee executive director of the Virginia Institute for Autism, has said. "School districts pretty much across the country define 'appropriate" as 'merely adequate.'"

Parents can challenge the city's decision first in an impartial hearing and then in court. The issued reached the Supreme Court last year. In a split decision, the justices ruled that parents did not even have to try the public school's proposed program for their child before seeking out a private school.

While parents assail the public schools for failing to meet their needs, the city Department of Education education clearly believes -- although if will not say this so bluntly -- that many parents whose kids could be served in the public school simply want the city to pick up the tab for a pricey private education.

"We basically have looked at our program and tried to meet the needs of kids," Linda Wernikoff, the department's director of special education, said. But she added, "No matter what we do there will be parents who think there will be a private program that is better."

Several years ago, former Schools Chancellor Harold Levy put that far more bluntly. Parents trying to get costly private educations for their children with disabilities consume "resources that are critically needed for the system," he said. "You cannot give one kid the Cadillac and the others the back of the bus."

Attorney Jesse Foley disagrees. "Parents have a moral obligation to give their children everything that they can," he said

To press its case, the city has added some 16 attorneys, many of them good litigators, according to Regina Skyer, a lawyer whose firm represents parents in these cases. "They're putting up a better fight than ever before," she said.

"They are responding to what they feel is a frontal attack by parents who want the world," said John Farago, a CUNY Law School professor who has also served as a special education hearing officer.

But Skyer said the real fault lies with the city's services. "If the programs were good, would there be so many lawsuits? Would you have a cottage industry of private services for autistic children?" she said.

A number of attorneys in the city, such as Skyer, specialize in helping parents handle their cases. Some schools will also help parents; the Rebecca School, for one, has given parents lists of attorneys and pointers on getting reimbursement.

While parents do not have to be represented by lawyers, those who do may be at an advantage. "Families who are able to hire attorneys are able to get better quality services for their kids," said Treiber,

As a result, some question whether the system allocates service equitably. "The kids who get private school placements are not necessarily the most severely disabled kids," said Pagliaro of the New York Center for Autism Charter School.

Staying in the Public Schools

Faced with increasing number of student with autism and the staggering cost of educating them in non-public schools, New York City, like other districts across the country, has sought to expand services within the public schools.

Of the 6,430 New York City students classified as autistic, 82 percent of them attend classes somewhere in the pubic school system, according to Linda Wernikoff, deputy superintendent for special education. Another 16 percent attend a state-approved facility meaning the state pays much of the cost.

As the number of students with autism has doubled, said Wernikoff, "We're coping with it by being aggressive about program development."

One key initiative in the past several years has been the Nest program, aimed at children with Asperger's -- in other words students considered to be "high functioning" on the autism spectrum.

Now serving about 200 students in 11 schools, it places four kids with autism spectrum disorders and 8 general education students in a room with two teachers, using what educators call a collaborative team teaching approach. In many respects, said Siegel, who played a key role in establishing the program, "the classrooms are exactly the same as every other classroom." The class follows that standard curriculum for that grade, although the disabled students receive "intense speech and social development therapy," she said.

"The classrooms look like any well-stocked mainstream classroom, but are designed to minimize distractions for children for whom distractibility is a common problem," Carmen Alvarez, who visited a Nest program in East Harlem, wrote in New York Teacher. "Everything I saw in these rooms was visual or tactile and explicit, all to maintain the children's focus and ensure understanding." And, she continued, something called the Incredible Five-Point Scale helps children gauge how loudly they are speaking and how to modulate their voices

The program has expanded to a middle school, MS 447. There, administrators "are revamping the school to make it more friendly to our kids" and teaching the staff how to do real collaborative team teaching, Siegel said -- doing a variety of things "that are beneficial for our kids but are good for their kids as well."

Nest receives widespread praise. Unfortunately, though, seats remain limited and the program only serves students who can speak and do regular academic work. "It's difficult to get your child in there," said Treiber. "It serves a small percentage of kids with autism."

To try to expand the boundaries, the department has started an intensive kindergarten program to prepare some children for Nest.

For students with more severe deficiencies, the schools offers specialized classes within the students' home districts. Most autistic children, though, attend classes administered by District 75, the citywide special education "district." To meet the rising need, the district has added at least 100 classes for autistic youngsters in District 75, Wernikoff said.

The new classrooms have not kept up with demand, according to Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. As a result, she said in a written statement, "Many parents are forced to seek alternative placements in private schools. ... The DOE must create enough placements for children with autism in order to provide them with the best possible education. If they do not, the resulting hearings and private school tuition will end up costing the city more money."

Advocates and parents see a wide disparity in the quality and availability of programs. "The Department of Education has some good programs," Treiber said, citing ones at PS 175 in the Bronx and PS 255 in Queens. But, he added, "It's not the rule, it's the exception."

The district 75 classes have six students of somewhat varying ages and abilities -- not necessarily all autistic -- with one teacher and one paraprofessional. In addition, a student with specific behavior issues may be assigned an individual paraprofessional.

While the staffing is generous for a school system where class size for elementary school averages around 25 students, advocates say it may not be sufficient for these children. This is partly because the language, behavioral and social deficiencies associated with autism "make it unlikely a kid with autism is going to be doing a lot of learning when the teacher is working with another student," said Pace.

"The teacher is supposed to be providing instruction and dealing with behaviors of these students. That can't occur," said Foley.

He has represented students in suburban districts where a class might have one teacher and three aides for eight students. These smaller, more affluent communities may provide extensive therapy sessions and programs extending beyond the normal school day.

There are a number of approaches for educating children with autism, but the city does not adhere to any one of them. Instead it takes an eclectic approach.

Autism spectrum is a very wide spectrum," said Wernikoff. "You need to be flexible.

Some experts, though, question this approach -- however good it might sound. Autistic children "thrive on the consistency of instruction," Gina Green, a California autism consultant told the publication Edutopia. "By definition, a mixed method has a lot of inconsistency."

Creating A Model

Faced with a disabled child and questions about the city's offerings, it is no wonder that some parents turn elsewhere. Ilene Lainer, a co-founder of the New York Center for Autism Charter, was one. Now she has said she hopes the charter school will keep other parents from making the decision that she did.

The charter school provides services to 28 children. As a charter, it must select its students by lottery, perhaps making it more accessible to some parents than private schools. The students range in age from 5 to 12 (the school can accept students up to age 14) and in ability. Some students come in wearing diapers.

"We have a gamut of kids with high -frequency severe behaviors," said director of education Julie Fisher. "We address these behaviors to get them to a point where they can learn new skills."

Some of the students are non-verbal and must communicate with picture or a voice output machine, said Fisher. Others, though, greet a visitor, asking my name and reaching out to shake my hand and trying to look me in the eye.

"We are pushing them to interact with each other, to greet each other," Fisher said.

Each child has his or her own curriculum, spelled out in a bulging binder detailing tasks and levels of accomplishment. This includes personal things, like brushing ones teeth, and helping kids ride bikes or bounce on pogo sticks so they can go to a park in the afternoon.

Teaching is done using applied behavioral analysis techniques. Almost always referred to as ABA, this has emerged over the past decade or so as the preferred method for teaching autistic students. It calls for teachers, parents or therapists to break skills into small tasks that students perform repeatedly. When they do the job correctly, they receive an award, such as a pretzel.

Located in P.S. 50 the charter foster ties with the school system. Some of the charter school students spend time in the larger school. One boy, Fisher said, goes to the larger school for about 15 minutes a day to practice sitting with other children. "He has issues about being in groups. This allows us to desensitize him," she said.

For their part, P.S. 50's seventh and eight graders work with the charter school students and get a little course in autism.

The charter hopes to provide training to public school teachers, part of an effort to take what has been learned at the charter and use it in public schools.

But there may be limits. For one, the school remains very expensive. It receives $62,000 per child in public funds and still needs to fundraise to close a gap of about $20,000 a student. It is unclear how that model would transfer to the regular public school system.

And even with models and training, Pagliaro said, public schools may not be able to provide an appropriate education within the system to every child: "For kids with the most severe problems, the public schools are not equipped to deal with that," he said.

The Private Approach

Some of those students enroll in places such as the Rebecca School. One a recent morning, Ben, a boy of about 9, lay on a mat in a classroom using a large cone to play peek-a-boo with a teacher. Ben smiled but did not say much. He has limited verbal skills.

Unlike many such schools Rebecca, on East 30th Street in Manhattan, is operated by for profit company, MetSchools, which also run the Aaron School for youngsters with learning disabilities. When a number of autistic students applied to Aaron -- even though it was not intended for them-- MetSchools chief executive office Michael Koffler saw a need and decided to fill it.

Opened in 2006, Rebecca now serves 87 students from 4 to 16 (it can accommodate up to age 18) with a range of autism-related deficiencies. Each class has eight children with one head teacher and three assistants, but children also have one-on-one sessions with a range of specialists, including art, music and drama therapists.

The school uses the DIR/Floortime approach favored by some who see ABA as too focused on rote learning and not paying sufficient attention to relationships and to the child's needs." Most of our children are coming from a more behavioral approach," said admissions direction Elizabeth O'Shea. "Our approach is more relationship based and more learning based as well. We're following the child's lead."

Whatever its difference with ABA, though, this model also calls for a lot of individual attention.. In a corner of a hall one morning earlier this month a child made anguished noises as a teacher tried to soothe the student and figure out what was wrong. 'Every behavior is a form of communication and it's our job to try to figure out what the child is trying to communicate," said O'Shea.

Whatever the children's limitations, the school wants them "to them to feel as though they're living normal lives and going to a normal school," said PD Cagliastro, director of public affairs for MetSchools.

The Problem of Shortages

Creating a normal environment -- and life -- for these children is enormously complicated, expensive and, for parent, exhausting. No one disputes that more resources, programs and trained professionals are needed to meet this challenge.

"The most substantial impediment "to children receiving services is "the lack of resources overall," said Farago. For example, he noted, many experts believe a child with autism needs 20 to 40 hours of ABA therapy a week. Money aside, "there isn't anything that approaches that number of therapists," he said.

As a result, "you wind up with people competing for scarce resources, and it's always going to be the case that ...the people with resources can fight harder and longer," he said.

Bridging that gap would cost money. In an op-ed piece, Michael O'Hanlon and C.A. Garland, parents of a child with autism, and developmental pediatrician Brenda Harris recommended that Congress provide at least $20,000 a year for every autistic child in the country needing full-time treatment, for a total bill, they estimate, of about $2 billion a year.

Not cheap, they agree, "but compared to what is spent addressing the nation's other health-care problems and, even more, to the human cost of our treatment approach, it would be a bargain."


Going Online, Digital and Interactive at the Library

photo by Jake Bouma
Photo (cc) Jake Bouma
NYPL's proposed expansion of digital offerings includes more podcasts and online media

Most of us can still remember the day we got our first library card -- the effort we put into signing our name on the back (if we even knew cursive at the time), the realization of the opportunities we had with this flimsy little card, the excitement of finding the perfect book on the shelves.

But for many, the thrill wore off long ago. In this age of e-books and Google, some view libraries as unnecessary or even obsolete.

The New York City Public Library system wants to erase that perception. To encourage more people to use the libraries and make the collections more accessible, it has been updating its facilities in many ways.

"We want to make sure that the library continues to be useful and relevant resource for everyone. Part of that is adapting to changes and the way people use libraries," said Herb Scher, director of public relations. "This plan is creating a structure that we think will remain essential to all those who use it in their home, around the world online, and in the central library on 42nd street."

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsumoto, Getty Images
Photo: Hiroyuki Matsumoto, Getty Images, courtesy of NYPL
A rendering of the slated 42nd Street library renovation

The plan focuses on expanding the library's online offerings and on the construction of six new hub libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. It calls for the creation of programs to entice New Yorkers who might otherwise never pass through the library's doors and other efforts to attract far-away international visitors to the library's online resources.

(The New York Public library system covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. Brooklyn and Queens each have their own library systems.)

Adapting to a Digital Age

Just as people shop and watch current movies without leaving their homes, they can visit the library as well. Currently, the library has two separate catalogues available to search online: One, called "LEO," is for circulating materials only; the other, CATNYP, is for non-circulating materials only. Soon, however, they will be integrated into one large database that will include the library's entire collection.

"It's not like there are two sets of people using them; the people using them are New Yorkers. So we're bringing it all together, which will make for a more efficient and more coherent process," said Joshua Greenberg, director of digital strategy and scholarship for the New York Public Library. He also mentioned plans to expand the Spanish-language version of the site, as well as potentially offering new languages.

The library recently launched its own page on iTunes U, a sector of iTunes that hosts educational media. All material available for download from the library is, of course, free.

The system also hopes to exploit the Internet's capacity for interactivity by creating online communities led by librarians and curators. Users will be able to ask people in these communities questions regarding the library and share information.

"We're trying to take a strategic approach," Greenberg said, noting that if, there are communities formed around topics where libraries have strength, such as literature, shouldn't that extend to the libraries themselves. As an example of how that might work, Greenberg cites a teacher who has downloaded an image from the library's Website. "With an online community, she can talk with other teachers that have used that image and see how well it worked. That's the sort of thing the library has a real role in supporting," Greenberg said.

One Center, Many Hubs

But the library has not completely forsaken buildings in favor of cyberspace. Its plans call for the renovation of existing library buildings and the construction of new ones. The system will expand the 42nd Street reference library (that's the one on Fifth Avenue with the lions) to add a new lending library. Books and other materials for the lending library's collection will come from the Mid-Manhattan library, which will be eventually shut down. In addition, the famed 42nd Street building will improve its exhibition spaces, offer hundreds of computers and have full wireless Internet access. There will be meeting rooms, program venues and even a café.

For those who do not want to come to midtown Manhattan but need more than their local lending library, the system will create new so-called "hub" libraries. They will be open for longer hours than the local branches and offer the public a far greater array of resources, including computers, literacy classes and spaces designed for children and young adults. In addition, they will serve as a venue for more events and programs.

The new hub libraries will be modeled after services provided in a pilot program at the Bronx Library Center on East Kingsbridge Road. Eventually there will be three hubs in the Bronx, two in Manhattan,and one in Staten Island. "The hub libraries are organizationally connected to a number of smaller libraries. The idea is that each hub will be no more than thirty minutes by public transportation from the other libraries it's connected to," said Scher.

A Place to Gather

Beyond being places to read -- whether from the printed page or online - libraries serve as a kind of community center. In this capacity, they offer plethora of programs, which are as diverse as the city's populations. Among the most popular are the free English classes, presented in cycles starting three times a year and with courses at beginner and intermediate levels. Other programs and events include story time for children, guided tutorials on using the Internet and lessons on the art of crocheting, to name just a few. Lectures sweep across a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from ancient Roman architecture to the principles of business.

In an bid to attract kids and teens who might not otherwise deem a library worthy of their time the library features ("Game on @ the Library," where teens can play Nintendo Wii with their friends to test their, as the nypl website calls it, "skillz." The program received a favorable reception when it was launched in late March and has become a recurring event.

But the library have not lost its literary focus. Every summer, it holds a summer reading initiative. encouraging New Yorkers of all ages to settle down with a few books over summer vacation. The Website offers book lists for four different age groups (birth to five, kids, teens, adults) in both English and Spanish.

Questions of Cost

Some of these programs might face cuts or elimination if City Council approves Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed reductions in library spending for the 2009 fiscal year. In his executive budget, released earlier this spring, the mayor suggested budget cuts that, according to City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who chairs the subcommittee on libraries, would result in loss of 60 percent of the funding designed to keep all libraries open six days a week.

The 2009 Executive Budget for Libraries proposes $303.1 million for all three (Brooklyn Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Library) libraries. Adjusting for the fact that the city prepaid some of the expenses for the libraries, there still will be $11.7 million less than the 2008 forecast of $314.8 million. Although City Council may be able to restore the money that the mayor has cut, library funding remains precarious.

Gentile said libraries should remain open to serve their neighborhood. "It's a high priority," he said. "I don't see any reduction in the degree of importance for having six-day service, from library staff or other council members. Circulation is up in every system. They've been able to add programs, and it really is a great anchor for the community."


Grading New York's Public Schools

Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

In the six years since Mayor Michael Bloomberg won control of the city's public schools, installed Joel Klein as chancellor and instituted sweeping changes, teachers, parents and other New Yorkers have differed sharply over the city's education policies and their effects on more than one million students.

A key issue has been how to measure school achievement. The administration has touted rising test scores as signs of success; critics have questioned whether the scores really have increased significantly and have also raised concerns about the validity of the tests. The administration and its critics have differed over how much the high school graduation rate has improved and over the performance of the new small schools the Department of Education has launched to replace large high schools with high failure rates.

Debate over evaluating schools intensified last fall when the education department issued report cards for almost every school in the city, awarding them a grade of A through F. Bloomberg and Klein hailed the grades as a way to hold principals and teachers accountable while proving valuable information to parents. Many educators assailed the grading system as grievously, if not fatally, flawed.

In the coming months, New Yorkers and their representatives in Albany will have to give their own grade to New York City schools. The state law establishing the current system of mayoral control expires in 2009. As politicians, parents, educators and other concerned citizens wrestle with whether to end, continue or somehow modify mayoral control, they will certainly examine how the schools have performed under the six-year-old governance system.

On April 23, Citizens Union Foundation, the publisher of Gotham Gazette, sponsored a panel discussion on "Grading NYC Public Schools." Expert panelists discussed whether various measures such as test scores and report cards help New York City students learn. The following are edited excerpts from that discussion.

Much Accomplished, Much to be Done

By Chris Cerf

We need to judge everything we do with a profound understanding of the depth of the crisis we face as a nation. It is morally unacceptable to have the promise of equality of opportunity in this country be essentially a broken promise. If you are born poor in urban America today, you face an unacceptably low likelihood that you will succeed at the minimal level that will enable you to grab hold of the bottom rung of the American dream. So I think we should be judged by how much our children are learning and whether all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, are learning.

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have been around since 2002, and we think there is a lot to be proud of. But if the progress we have achieved stopped now, we should all be very, very, very disappointed. It is unacceptable to have a high school graduation rate at 60 percent, even if that's 10 percent better than it was before.

The four-year graduation rate in New York City has gone from 51 percent when we got here and 53 percent in 2003, to 60 percent in the last year. In 2004, that state decided to try to make the metric for graduation rates uniform. By that measure, our progress has been exactly the same, but from a different starting point -- from 44 percent to 50 percent. Interestingly, throughout the state during that same period, the graduation rate dropped 2 percent, and in the so-called Big Four cities in the state it dropped 4 percent as well.

From 2003 to the present, there are a lot of successes and some disappointments. Scores on the fourth grade standardized math test are up by 7.4 percentage points, while the rest of the state is down. Fourth grade English Language Arts scores are up by 8 percent if you make the following, and I think responsible and appropriate, differentiation: The number of children who do not speak the language who were tested -- because of a change in state rules -- went from 6 percent to 50 percent of the test-takers in these two years. If you factor those children out, which is not to say that we don't have full responsibility for those children, the numbers are up 8 percent versus the rest of the state.

Eighth grade math has been a terrific success, with 2003 up 11.3 percent. Eighth grade English, is a disappointment, we're a little behind the rest of the state.

On the federal National Assessment of Educations Progress, which is a very different test, we have had a number of great successes and a disappointment or two. We're up substantially in fourth grade math --much higher than the national trend -- and up substantially in English language arts.

All of this is about quality teaching. I believe we have the finest teaching force this city has ever had. One hundred percent of our teachers are certified. A 43 percent salary increase has been essential to attracting and keeping good people. We encourage the view that more is better when it come to teachers. So last year, with the actual enrollment declining across the system, we had a net increase of almost 1,900 classroom teachers. That is a huge dollar commitment, and I can't think of a better place to spend money.

I don't want to tell you that every parent in the city is satisfied -- a long way from it -- nor should they be. But the numbers based on surveys are considerably higher than the media may suggest. We are seeing tremendous levels of satisfaction with teacher quality -- 90 percent is a pretty good grade, any way you slice it. And overall, we are seeing general satisfaction with the direction of the system.

We need to unleash the potential of our great educators, whether teachers or principals, by giving them the money, the authority and the funds to do great things for kids. But if you do that in a way that does not make it clear that they are responsible for student learning, you will have anarchy and bad things happening for the kids. So we believe in a deep partnership that holds schools accountable for the results and gives them the autonomy to find the best path to get those results.

What do we mean by accountability? We mean that schools, teachers, principles -- everybody -- should be held accountable for making sure that students learn to achieve what the state standards expects them to know.

When you go to schools that got a bad grade on our report card, you hear over and over again, "This is unfair," "This is a good school," etc., etc. Then you sit down, and you meet with them, and you show them it happened because their African-American students weren't progressing at nearly the rate of comparable students in other schools across the state, or wherever the reason was. Then they say, "As much as I disagree with everything you're saying, this is never going to happen again." There is a level of focus that comes from being held accountable in a very metric and concrete way.

This accountability requires making use of objective measures of how much children are learning. Those are called standardized tests. There is no question that a system built on training kids to take tests is counter-productive. There is no question that there are abuses associated with this focus, and I have no doubt that some of them are present in our system. But in a bygone era without tests, it was impossible to gauge the effectiveness of a school or a school system. The lack of any common standard led to gross educational inequities and low expectations. Teaching what children should know and then assessing what children have learned, is educationally sound. That's what we do.

Chris Cerf is deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

A Need for Openness and Accountability

By Pedro Noguera

There have been real improvements in New York City public schools. As I travel the country, I'm often asked which districts are improving, and I often cite New York as one that is making progress. I say that not because I believe the data because there is a problem with data in New York City. The Department of Education controls all the data. There is no independent data or analysis of what's going on.

But I am in schools a lot, and I will tell you there are fewer schools that are disorganized and chaotic today than there were five years ago. The Department of Education is to be praised for its efforts to create new schools, particularly in areas where they have not had good schools. I also think that many aspects of this new reform are commendable, like possibly getting new funding to kids with needs. That's a very progressive innovation, and it shows that the chancellor and the department have a commitment to trying to address education/civil rights issues.

However, there are two examples of policy made by the Department of Education that are not effective and make little sense. One of them is this eighth grade-retention policy that we just adopted [that would not allow students to go on to high school unless they pass key subjects and score at a basic level on standardized tests]. I was asked to chair a task force on middle schools. We identified over 50 middle schools in the city where kids were not learning. The mayor came to a big public event and promised that we were going to do something about this. Instead, they came up with the eighth grade retention policy before they even addressed any of the reforms.

Research shows that when you retain children in school, you significantly increase the likelihood that they will drop out. No one wants to see kids entering high school not prepared. But why isn't the Department of Education intervening more aggressively earlier? Signs that kids are not performing show up in elementary school; why are we waiting until eighth grade?

The second one is this crazy idea is that idea they have of paying kids in certain schools, who get good test scores. This is based on a number of false assumptions: Largely that kids are lazy and if you just give them a little money, they'll go to school and work hard. This is instead of addressing the conditions within those schools.

There are other disputes over big issues that are not being addressed by the Department of Education. The first, and probably the biggest problem is the concentration of inexperienced teachers, inexperienced principals with high-needs kids. New York calls that the "Teaching Fellows Program." There is no evidence anywhere that that will ever work. The kids with high needs need more experienced teachers, who are better trained. And the Department of Education has not come up with a strategy to address that.

Now, the dropout rate. When you look at African-American/Latino males, less than 40 percent graduate. Some of these schools are really dropout factories. In this city, we're losing so many kids, and I don't see that being addressed.

The segregation of kids, in this city, has increased. The number of African-American and Latino kids who constantly attend the lowest performances schools is a huge issue not being addressed by the city.

I support mayoral control because I know that school boards are often very narrow and contribute to some of the chaos in school systems. But mayoral control should not mean that the mayor does whatever he wants, with no accountability to the public. Whether it be cell phones or the budget, the mayor should have to be accountable to the public for the decisions being made. They want to make principals accountable, teachers accountable, kids accountable. My question back to them is, "What are you accountable for?" We need a better system -- one that is more transparent, that has independent research to monitor what's going on in schools, and we need the strategy to address chronically under-performing schools in the city.

Pedro Noguera is a professor at NYU's School of Education and served as co-chair of the City Council's Task Force on Middle Schools.

The Delusion of Accountability

By Diane Ravitch

I am a historian of education, and my first published book was a history of New York City public schools." Most people don't seem to realize that we had mayoral control of the schools from 1873 to 1969. Mayoral control is not new; the only thing that's different is that then we also had the Board of Education, which appointed the superintendent or the chancellor, so there were checks and balances. Today we have no checks and balances.

This is a good time for an assessment of results. Spending since this version of mayoral control began has risen from $12.5 billion a year to $20 billion a year.

The mayor announced his program in January 2003. The children took their tests in January 2003, so Bloomberg's program begins in September 2003. From 2003 to 2007, the aggregate gains on the state tests were smaller than during the previous four years. Under chancellors Rudy Crew and Harold Levy gains were 17 points in fourth grade math, compared to 7.4 points under Bloomberg and Klein's Children First program. Fourth grade reading under Crew and Levy gained 20 points, from 1999 to 2003, compared to 3.5 points from 2003-2007.

So the gains have not been extraordinary.

On the national tests, the gains are simply not there. On fourth grade math, the city did see significant gains, but there were no gains on fourth grade reading, eighth grade reading or eighth grade math.

Is the mayor accountable as we often hear? No he's not accountable. He stands for re-election once, he's already been re-elected, he's term limited, so we can't hold him accountable. He did say we could boo him at parades.

Is the chancellor accountable? No -- he only reports to the mayor, and the mayor's not accountable, so we can't hold either one of them accountable. When things are wrong in the schools, no one is ever quiet, but no one is ever accountable.

Last fall when the national test results came out, they showed no gains in reading in fourth grade and no gains in eighth grade math, and no one was held accountable. There were no changes made in the reading or math programs that were mandated citywide. Instead the chancellor put out press releases saying that the scores showed great progress, even though they didn't. No one was held accountable for the flat scores in reading over the past four years.

The Department of Education, in fact, does not have an educational strategy. It began with one -- it mandated a citywide math and reading program -- but it has given up on that, and instead there's only "accountability." The education department gives bonuses to principals to raise test scores and bonuses to some teachers to raise test scores and bonuses to students to raise their test scores. There are schools surveys where parents rate schools and teachers rate schools. There are quality reviews where schools are graded mostly by a group of British educators, and now there are the progress reports that give a letter grade to schools.

The schools are drowning in a sea of incoherent accountability. If schools fail to meet their requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, they are called "schools in need of improvement." If schools consistently perform poorly, the state calls them "schools under registration review." Add onto those accountability measures the city's new grading program, A through F.

Last November, the city released its grades, and two thirds of all the schools got an A or a B. Last December, a month after the city, the state released its list of failing schools. Of the 61 middle schools that were added to the list of failing schools by the state, 30 had received an A or a B from the city just a month earlier. More than half of the schools that got an F from the city's new grading system were in good standing with the state and federal government.

One of the schools that got an "F" from the city was listed by U.S. News and World Report as one of the best high schools in the nation. In another "F" school, PS 35 in Staten Island, 90 percent of the students either regularly meet or exceed state standards and yet this good school is stigmatized with an "F." Some of the schools that the city is closing because they got an "F" grade are in good standing with the state and federal governments.

The city's grading system is inherently unreliable because 55 of the grade is based on one-year changes in student test scores. Testing experts say that one-year fluctuations in test scores are not reliable and that anywhere from 35 percent to 80 percent of the fluctuation is random. As one of the testing experts said, "Maybe there was a dog barking in the playground distracting the students." Unfortunately this is the same metric that will be used to award bonuses to principals and teachers.

How can a parent make sense of this? How can this help the kids to have all these different accountability systems? What is the point of an accountability system that gives an "F" to a great school and an "A" to a school that the state says is a failing school.

New York City copied Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's grading system in Florida. But what matters most is what happens after the grades are handed out. In Florida, if a school gets a "D" or an "F," the state has a carefully calibrated program to help the school get better. Low-performing schools get extra resources, they get reading coaches trained in scientifically based reading research, and a team of experts is sent in to help them. Because of the follow-through, accountability in Florida apparently is working.

In New York City, the Department of Education seems to have no plans to support public schools other than to humiliate them and close them down. Accountability works when it is part of a plan to improve education, but when there's no educational vision and no educational knowledge, the schools gain no benefit.

Diane Ravitch is research professor of education at NYU and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education.

Four Measures for Education

By Randi Weingarten

Accountability -- it's a great buzzword. The question becomes are we talking about everybody having their feet held to the fire with a focus on student achievement or are we talking about a shift of responsibility? We came up with an accountability system that we thought would be premised on 360-degree accountability. Instead of focusing exclusively on test scores, we wanted to focus on how you sustain and create good schools. How do you build capacity instead of building fear? How do you engage all the parties in a roadmap to use accountability as a blueprint, a roadmap, to make a school better?

This is how we do it. The system is based on four pillars. One is academic achievement; two is safety, order and discipline; three is teamwork for student achievement; and four is Department of Education's accountability to the school. All standardized tests would continue, but under this system, these tests will be placed in a broader context that would include the missions of the school's curriculum, the overall environment within the school building and the adequacy of the funding the school receives from the Department of Education. The new accountability system balances test scores with a multitude of other factors that constitute a successful school. What we are saying is that the content of what we do matters a lot more than this relentless focus on test prep, test prep, test prep.

Number two, teachers, and you'll see this in this, want accountability done with them, not to them. So what we tried to do as a result is figure out what are the core elements other than academic achievement. We looked at safety in a broader way, so that if lids are falling through the cracks, we can find them and get them before they fall through the cracks. We should have metal detectors in the schools. But safety has to be also building a culture. That's why safety and civility is very important and teamwork as well.

I have seen in the last 22 years, including in running two charter schools ourselves, that resources matter a lot. The most important resource, though, is a good principal and good teachers working together. There are thousands of decisions they have to make every day. And if you do not have a culture in a school of them working together and engaging parents, a school is not going to work. That is why the third pillar was teamwork. That is also why we took the risk of doing school-wide bonuses. Even though we are not terribly happy about 85 percent of them being based upon test scores, we thought it was really important to try to promote collaboration.

Our last pillar is the Department of Ed's responsibility. Have they given enough money so you actually could lower the class sizes to the average that's now called for in the state, from 20 is K through 3, or 23 in grades 4 through 12 at 23? Is there enough wherewithal that a school principal could provide the professional development that is needed for instructional growth of the teachers and therefore instructional growth of the kids?

Then let's be transparent. Bottom line is this: We can keep on doing what has gotten done in the last seven years, both in terms of what has been done here and No Child Left Behind across the country, which is everybody's back is just fighting with each other. Has it really helped our kids learn? There's no question that we in the United States of America want universal achievement and universal attainment and universal access. There's no question that everybody in this field wants to help our kids succeed. All this relentless focus on testing hasn't worked in the last seven years. If it did, scores would be much higher now. We have to come up with a different approach, to keep everyone's feet to the fire and build the capacity instead of fear .

Randi Weingarten is president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Schools and Democracy

By Esmeralda Simmons

I am a human rights attorney, and I believe that education is a human right. So I did a little testing. This is not a scientific survey.

My two children went to public schools for at least part of their educational careers. My granddaughter is currently in public school. I am a parent advocate. So, I simply called the Department of Education and asked, "What should I do about my student's school? The school is failing according to the DOE. I want to move my child out of the school."

After five phone calls, I finally got someone who told me that she was in charge of student placement. Her first question was, "Is your student a new student?" I said, "No, but I want to move her out. There's a choice program, right?" She said, "The choice program is limited. You have to fit one of these three criteria: safety and for that you need a police report; health, obviously a doctor's note; or distance, you are 45 minutes away from school."

I said, "I'm not going to lie, we don't fit into those criteria. I want my daughter to succeed." She said, "Well, if the school is failing, then you can go and ask permission to go to another school but that's completely in the realm of her principal and if they don't accept you there's nothing else we can do."

I tested this out by calling the district office. After three phone calls, I was told, you should apply to one of the new schools they're opening up -- at least if there's space. It might be untested, but since your child is in a failing school according to the DOE, what do you have to lose? You might also have to pay for private transportation, but still, at least your child will be educated."

I use that example to illustrate that what is really wrong with the system: There is no connection between the family and school that makes any real difference in the child's ability to learn. That doesn't mean there are not PTAs, that doesn't mean that some schools do not have School Leadership Teams. That means that if a parent wants to be actively involved and sees that there needs to be a correction, there is no way for that parent to truly intervene in the school.

And why does a parent need to be involved in the school? Because in my opinion, schools should exemplify to all students the core principles that guide this country and that is they should be much more democratic in nature. There should be community involvement, teacher involvement, there shouldn't be a principal/dictator, there should be a team. The parents should have something to say about who the chief executive officer is that runs their children's schools and who is at the head of the school system. Because what's really at stake for the chancellor? What's really at stake for the mayor? Their families are not at stake, their child is not at stake.

A basic human rights perspective will bring the system to account for the fact that there is very little to no mandated history based upon the students' culture, which would make them feel their education has some relationship to their existence. The system also takes away one of the basic resources of any school and that is the creative genius of its teachers. I'll say that again, the creative genius of its teachers. I can't tell you how many teachers I know who have complained to me that they are tired of reading a script. They're not teachers, they're actors. If they're not on the right page on the right time on the right day on the right week with the script, they are accountable to the principal and to others for that, because that's considered teaching outside of the standard. That's not really true. It's not teaching outside the standard, it's just the way this department, which is a corporation, is shaped and how they have decided education should be.<.p>

We are in crisis in this city, a major crisis. The majority of the students, as you all know, are black and Latino. If the black and Latino students aren't learning, the system isn't working, we cannot blame poverty. We need a new system that is not just accountable in terms of punishment; it needs to be accountable in terms of the principles that guide the country. Let's get back to what I consider to be community in the schools, and schools within the community.

Esmeralda Simmons is executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and a former member of the New York City Board of Education. 


Time Out for Phys Ed

Photo courtesy of en321
Image courtesy of Susan NYC / Susan.

For many, physical education class meant enduring the pain of a dodge ball to the gut or the dread of being picked last for basketball. It's no wonder there was little outcry over the past 30 years as physical education gave way to math, science and reading classes. Today, though, PE, as it was called, might be making a comeback.

Since the city's fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the physical education budget has been cut in half. As parents, educators and politicians focused on how to improve poor academic performance and the quality of the public school system in general, the emphasis on gym class diminished. At the same time, the childhood obesity rate began to rise across the country, more than quadrupling from the 1960s to today. Now, almost half of New York City's elementary schoolchildren are overweight. Of those, one in five, including kindergarten students, is obese, according to a 2003 survey conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with the Department of Education.

Video games, computers, fast food and more sedentary lifestyles deserve much of the blame, said a spokesperson for City Councilmember Robert Jackson, chairman of the Education Committee. But, she said, "Change in the mindset of the Department of Education to emphasize math and reading test performance above all else combined with school overcrowding and lack of or inadequate gym facilities" are also factors.

"They keep telling us to stay physically fit, but they're not practicing what they preach," said Kelly Zito, a parent at PS 42 in Staten Island. "They push testing all the time. You can't promote health and fitness and not devote any time to it."

A New Type of PE?

To improve fitness levels among schoolchildren, in 2003, the Department of Education created the Office of Fitness and Physical Education. Director Lori Rose Benson has implemented Physical Best, a new curriculum that shifts the focus of physical education class away from competitive games, toward exercises and activities that help students improve their fitness levels and learn about the benefits of physical activity.

Schools also participate in NYC FitnessGRAM, an assessment of each child's fitness and health level that compares the students to the national standards for their age group. Kids in kindergarten through third grade are assessed only by their Children's Body Mass Index "BMI" (height to weight ratio). The kids in higher grades are tested in endurance, strength and flexibility. The schools send the results to the parents, with suggestions to maintain or improve their child's weight and physical abilities.

Both parents and physical education teachers applaud the programs.

"It was a rude awakening, but I liked it," said Zito, whose child was considered "overweight" based on her BMI result. Her family has been exercising and walking more since they got the report.

Alison Ryan, PS 42's new physical education teacher, likes the creativity of the curriculum. "I try to keep the kids moving as much as possible and make the best use of the limited time," she said. It also helps that she tells the kids why activities that they do, like aerobics, strength training and stretching are important.

Sedentary Students

Now that these school programs have taught parents and kids how important physical fitness is, many of them would like the schools to devote more time to put these lessons into practice.

A 2004 study by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's office randomly sampled 100 elementary schools (20 per borough) about the amount of time devoted to physical education classes. Almost all of the 100 schools were in violation of state laws requiring elementary school students to attend physical education classes at least 120 minutes per week, spread over the five days. This does not include time spent in dressing rooms, showering or recess time.

Bernadette Riotta, PTA president at PS 42 in Staten Island was shocked when she heard about the state requirements. When her two kids, now in second and fourth grade, started school they had no gym periods at all.

"They had 'allotted time slots' for gym once a week. But, it was up to the teacher whether to take them or not, and most of them didn't bother to do it," Riotta said.

After years of pleading by the PTA, the school, under the leadership of a new principal, finally got a dedicated gym teacher two years ago. Now the kids get one 50-minute class per week, still below the state standards.

Director Benson herself admits the city is not complying with the state rules. Although the NYC FitnessGRAM program, which collects the information in a database, has garnered praise, it has no effect on the amount of time devoted to physical education classes. "The assessment doesn't measure the quality of the school's physical education program or its physical education teachers," she said. "It is purely to help students and their parents individually to incorporate health and fitness into their lifestyle."

The public advocate questions the value of the FitnessGRAM program unless school accompany it with additional gym time. "While assessment measures and tests are important for gauging student progress, the Department of Education needs to make sure that schools are providing students with the amount of physical education required by the law," her office said. "I don't see the point of investing resources in another test before students have access to the physical education they need."


Preventing Cuts in Education

photo of Jim Brennan

As chair of the Assembly's Cities Committee, I'm both deeply concerned and deeply immersed in how Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposed budget will affect New York City. Although I am a candidate for city comptroller in 2009, my immediate and primary duty as a member of the Assembly from the city is to do everything in my power to assure a positive outcome for the people of New York City in the state budget - which must be adopted by April.

Both the state and the city are confronted by the fallout from the irresponsible lending practices that have led to massive financial losses in the credit markets, grief and foreclosures for millions of Americans and to declining tax revenue that is now pressuring our budgets and critical services like education and health care.

The responses of both Spitzer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the financial pressures created by the economy are actually similar. With a deficit now predicted at $4.7 billion, Spitzer has pledged "no new taxes" and is cutting spending on education, health care and other programs. Bloomberg is looking to protect $1.35 billion in tax cuts budgeted for fiscal year '09, while cutting education and other services in the middle of the fiscal year and into next year.

The mayor is also using $4 billion in cash surpluses to help cushion the estimated $2.75 billion deficit for the 2009 fiscal year. However, because more than 50 percent of the city's budget involves obligations that are not within the city's discretion -- like pensions, debt service, and Medicaid -- the area feeling much of the pain right now is education, which accounts for 30 percent of the city's budget.

Keeping Education Afloat

Although the governor is giving the city's public schools a 7 percent increase -- or $540 million for fiscal year '09 -- the second year of the state's commitment to the Contract for Excellence is not fully funded by at least another $300 million, including a reimbursement for 50 percent of the city's school construction costs. At the same time, the city's contribution to the schools is primarily covering increased pension, fringe benefit and debt service expenses, leaving little left over for other rising expenses like salaries and fuel.

The city is imposing a mid-year $180 million cut to the public schools, followed by a $324 million cut for the school year beginning in September. Since the governor's Contract for Excellence plan called for a $5 billion increase in funding over four years, split 60-40 between the state and city, I am advocating the state make up the city's cut to the schools by adding at least $200 million in state education aid and require that the city increase its contribution proportionately, which would more than make up for the $324 million cut. This money would come from an income tax surcharge on the wealthy.

I am also advocating for full restoration of the city's revenue sharing aid, which Spitzer inappropriately cut last year, to a full $328 million or $164 million for the coming year above the governor's budget.

Beyond The Books

The New York City Office of Management and Budget has estimated the shortfalls in aid for the city in the state budget will leave a $500 million hole in the city's financial plan. Of course, the city could use more of its surpluses to cover the needs of its schools and other services, or cut back on its planned tax cuts. However, those surpluses need to be carried forward to deal with deficits in the years to come. Ideally, the state should return to the progressive choices it made in 2003.

Then, confronted with a $10 billion deficit in the wake of the recession following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the legislature enacted a modest income tax surcharge on families making more than $150,000 a year. That surcharge raised nearly $2 billion. Although Gov. George Pataki predicted the sky would fall if the surcharge were enacted, the legislature overrode his veto, and within a few years the economy recovered and the state was in surplus. This year we do not need a full $2 billion, so the surcharge would be very modest and begin at incomes over $200,000 a year.

Of course revenue from an income tax surcharge has to be distributed fairly across the state, but the New York State could help New York City meet its needs and protect education from cutbacks at the historic crossroads of an improving public school system.

As a comptroller candidate, I would use my experience in the state budget process to help the city achieve a balanced budget and fiscal health going forward. Doing well vis a vis the state budget will provide great relief for the city's budget, and moderating property tax cuts is one route to that fiscal stability. Important cost-saving ideas identified by the Independent Budget Office - consolidating health and welfare funds, merging some of the pension funds - are worth consideration but they can only be achieved through collective bargaining and legislation. Energy conservation is an area with untapped potential for savings for the city. Investment in greater efficiency could yield tens of millions in savings. In addition, providing on-site electric power and using by-product energy for heat and air conditioning for major facilities such as college campuses, hospitals, schools and municipal buildings could save the city millions.

As comptroller, I would identify savings and inefficiencies through audits and studies of these and other issues. By conducting continuous objective appraisals of the city's financial condition I would play an integral role in helping the city to confront our fiscal problems responsibly, effectively and creatively.

Jim Brennan, a Democrat from Brooklyn, has served in the New York State Assembly since 1985.


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