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Citizens Union

Education

A Battle Brews Over Who Controls the Schools


Illustration of schools on a chess board.

Kelly J. Brownlee/Gotham Gazette

It is a tale of two systems.

In one, students in orderly classes eagerly learn language arts and math as teachers, equipped with the latest data, tailor the work to the children's needs. Teens flock to nurturing small schools that capture their interests, enabling them to earn a Regents diploma in four years as delighted parents hail the achievements of a system that finally puts children first.

In the other, arrogant Ivy League-educated lawyers ignore parents bewildered by constant bureaucratic reshuffling, convoluted admissions procedures for middle schools and draconian discipline. Students spend hours preparing for standardized tests, unable to experience art, music, physical education or the joy of real learning.

Which of these describes New York City public schools? It depends on who you ask. Six years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg successfully persuaded the New York State Legislature to give him control of the nation's largest public school system, New Yorkers remain sharply split over the success or failure of that experiment.

Those divisions, centering around who can best make decisions about the education of 1.1 million students, will come to the fore in the coming year as the State Legislature prepares to decide whether to end mayoral control, modify it or keep it in its current form. Sixteen months before the law creating this system of school governance is set to expire, hearings already are taking place, reports are being written and positions taken. In short, lines are already being drawn.

THE LEGISLATURE'S TASK

The law creating mayoral control expires in June 2009. If the Legislature does nothing at all -- lets the date come and go without taking action -- mayoral control will end, and the schools will again be governed as they were from 1969 to 2002: by a central Board of Education appointed by the mayor and borough presidents and 32 elected community school boards.

On the other hand, the legislature could simply renew the current system as is -- without changes.

Many are seeking a middle ground: keeping mayoral control in its basic form but changing it to address some of the mayor's critics, who have chastised how Bloomberg has controlled the schools. Parents, politicians, educators and others variously call for more checks and balances and a greater role for parents.

"I have never seen a time when parents felt more put off," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. He would like to see some changes. But, he continued, "I don't think we should end mayoral control....Having a strong leader works." And he said, "There's a lot of creativity at [the Department of Education] and looking outside of the box."

Although the administration, according to Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, will be talking with the legislature about school governance, it backs the system and wants it continued. "People say, "We really don’t want to go back to the old system, but…' What is the but? The but is always key," Walcott said, adding, "we strongly believe in the system of mayoral control."

HOW WE GOT HERE

The New York City schools has been organized and reorganized many times since the State Legislature created an elected New York City School Board in 1842. That system ended in 1871, when William Marcy a.k.a. Boss Tweed persuaded the legislature to launch mayoral control.

Since then, the system has veered from centralization to decentralization and back again several times. Demands for community control, largely from black and Latino communities, in the 1960s sparked the decentralization of 1969 with its elected community school boards. That ended in 2002.

The new system abolished the Board of Education, replacing it with a largely powerless Panel for Educational Policy controlled by the mayor. The mayor gained the power to appoint the chancellor, and Community Education Councils, consisting of parents, replaced community school boards.

In turning authority over to Bloomberg, New York joined a number of other cities, including Boston and Chicago. And Bloomberg has encouraged other mayors to follow his example. With his support, the mayors of Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles won major changes in how their schools are run.

TAKING THE REINS

Whatever one thinks of mayoral control, the push for it was spurred by widespread frustration over the failure of the old Board of Education to provide a sound education to many children, particularly in low income and black and Latino communities. Elected officials vied with each other for power, special interests staked out their positions, and community school boards dissolved into internecine squabbling. As a result, the reasoning went, children suffered. Mayoral control would sweep that away, putting one person in charge and making him or her accountable to the voters for the successes and failures of the schools.

"It’s about accountability," said Walcott. "It's about focusing attention on schools directly and making sure we have results to show from it. And being able to respond to issues and question and not having people have to worry abut where they have to go to get a response. That's a direct result of control by the mayor."

Bloomberg has clearly been in charge. He appointed Joel Klein as chancellor, shaped the Panel for Educational Policy to his liking (and got rid of members when they balked) and instituted an array of changes in the school system: tying promotion to test scores, requiring more standardized tests, closing many poorly performing large high schools, opening dozens of new small schools, establishing a uniform curriculum, changing the funding formula for schools, and on and on.

Bloomberg has even reorganized the reorganization. After centralizing the system -- so much so that teachers complained bureaucrats from the Department of Education told them how to arrange their bulletin boards -- he shifted power to principals, giving them greater autonomy over hiring and budgets. And after establishing 10 educational regions in 2003 to supplant the community school district, he did away with them in 2007 saying, "their job is done."

CHANGE FOR BETTER....

While always being careful to note that more remains to be accomplished, administration officials believe their efforts have been a success, citing significant progress in test scores, the dropout rate, discipline and numerous other measures. The Citywide Performance Report unveiled by Bloomberg last week looked at 48 indicators in the area of education and found only two (English language learners testing out of special programs after three years and building ratings for schools in fair to poor condition) to be declining and those by only a small amount. Reporting on an education department survey of parents, teachers and students last year, Bloomberg noted that 90 percent of the parents who responded were satisfied or very satisfied with their children's teachers and said the results showed a "generally high level of approval among parents."

"It's important to put this in context," Walcott said. "The system that preceded mayoral control was in existence for 38 to 40 years… This system of control has been in place for roughly six years, and we have shown significant results in that very short term frame."

The applause goes beyond the administration itself to much of the city's media and its business community.

Calling mayoral control a "quantum leap forward," Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group, credits the change with getting businesses involved in the schools and keeping middle class people in the five boroughs. Wylde reportedly opposes any effort to modify the system, fearing the State Legislature would start tinkering and not know when to stop. "That's a horrifying prospect," Wylde has said. "I would venture to say that if that happened, it would trigger a mass exodus of corporations from New York City."

In 2007, the school system won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, awarded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to "large urban school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students. " And editorials, particularly in the Daily News and the New York Post, have praised Bloomberg and Klein for taking control and boosting achievement.

...OR WORSE

Anyone who attended a teachers union forum in the northeast Bronx earlier this month would have come away with a sharply different picture. Speaker after speaker, including parents, teachers and some students, stood up to denounce a system that they charged ignores educators, puts too much emphasis on standardized tests and neglects the arts and social development.

Academic experts echo some of these concerns.

Diane Ravitch, probably the leading historian of education in the country and a professor at NYU, has emerged as a leading critic of mayoral control. Few people inside or outside New York City, she has written, "realize mayoral control means that there are no public boards, no central board, no local boards, no public voice whatever. The mayor controls everything. Decisions are made behind closed doors by a cadre of lawyers, with no public discussion or public review…. All democratic governance has been eliminated from public education in NYC."

This form of management, Ravitch continued, has supposedly created a miracle in city school. But, she wrote, "Unfortunately there is no such miracle…. Parents, teachers, and student know it. The editorial writers in NYC don't. The business community doesn't."

The skeptics on mayoral control have their polling data too. The department's survey omitted any questions on overall school policies, because officials said, they wanted to focus on individual schools. So Class Size Matters, an advocacy group, commissioned a telephone survey of a representative cross-section of 604 parents and invited other parents to respond on-line. In response to questions on mayoral control, less than 30 percent of the random sample and 20 percent of the other group wanted to continue the system in its current format, with the largest percentage of respondents from both groups wanting to "modify the current system."

"Mayoral control simply gave control to this administration to make whatever changes the administration wanted," said Carmen Colon, a parent and education activist. "There's simply no other side. It's their way or the highway."

Colon attributes some of the support for the changes to the education department's large public relations operation that has succeeded in shaping the media's perception of the changes. "Their perception becomes the reality," she said. But Colon added, "For parents, it's a completely different reality."

MODIFYING THE SYSTEM

Few, if any, concrete proposal have emerged yet for changing mayral control. However, as they begin to examine governance, many elected officials say they would seek changes to address some overarching concerns.

Consulting Parents

"Parent involvement has been wiped out," said City Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee.

Colon believes the law intended to involve parents. It just hasn't turned out that way. "In terms of the state law, parental involvement was one of the key elements to make the law work," she said. "But it was vague enough so that [education department] attorneys could come in and put their own spin on it."

Parents also complain of not knowing where to go for information and help. "There's a blurriness as to who parents should call and reach out to," said Councilmember James Vacca, one of the three co-chairs of the council's working group on governance (see box).

Walcott counters that parents are notified and consulted. To keep parents better informed, he said, the administration created the role of parent coordinator in almost every school in the city and appointed Martine Guerrier, herself a public school parent, as the department's first chief family engagement officer.

Checks And Balances

The alleged lack of consultation does not extend only to parents. "When my office interacts with the Department of Education, they're almost gleeful when we're not included in a meeting," Stringer said. "This is a world unto itself... I think the building went to their head.... It looks like a fortress," giving rise to a fortress mentality.

Under the old system, the borough presidents appointed some members of the Board of Education. And in communities across the city, people elected community school boards. "It didn’t mean there were a whole lot of people who elected us," Carmen Alvarez of the United Federation of Teachers and who once served on a board recalled. "But it was a very interactive democratic process."

To many people the key challenge in fixing governance is restoring some of that democracy -- but avoiding the chaos and dysfunction.

Walcott though denies such a change is needed. Already, he said, the administration consults with community groups, the Panel for Educational Policy, community education councils and other groups "We firmly believe -- and we believe the system is set up for -- major consultation taking place," Walcott said. "A lot of times people may not agree but at least they know who they disagree with."

"In the past," he said, "you didn’t know who the final decision maker was and if you knew it wasn't always in the best interest of the entire city. It may have been what was in the best interest of a small part of the city."

Critics see the existing review groups as rubber stamps, if that. And they argue, the administration resists supervision from City Council, ignoring legislation passed by the council a that would allow student to have (but not use) cell phones in schools and instituted an anti-bullying initiative.

To correct this, they offer a number of remedies, such as giving City Council more authority on education, establishing fixed terms for members of the educational policy panel, who now serve at the pleasure of whoever appointed and changing the composition of the group.

The Business of Education

In calling for more controls on the department, some parents and others complain the Department of Education at Tweed Courthouse is run more like a business than a government education system.

"There's a corporate structure where decisions are being made without consultation," Jackson said. This results, some parents and teachers contend, in students being treated more like widgets -- whose progress can be measured on a precise numerical scale -- than as human beings.

Many teachers, in particular, say educators would know better, but they note that Klein is a former corporate and government lawyer who has only the most minimal teaching background. "We have the largest educational system in America and it’s being run by non-educators. How is that possible?" Pascual Peloso, the UFT chapter leader at Walton High School said at the Bronx forum.

Transparency

 

While the administration regularly produces reports demonstrating the huge strides the system has taken, some experts question the data, particularly on rising test scores. In his critique of mayoral control, Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute accused the education department of distorting test score data. "Without transparency, real accountability doesn't exist," Stern wrote. To address this, Stern calls for a "guarantee that that an independent research agency will be created and properly funded."

Even if the numbers and ratings isued by the education department are valid, they can be difficult to understand. According to Vacca, parents are confronted with an array of often conflicting data, with the city report cards, state Schools Under Registration Review and federal No Child Left Behind systems all assessing schools differently. "There's no independent analysis as to how a school is doing," Vacca said. "As we discuss governance, you have to discuss verifiable information a parent can have."

DOES IT MATTER?

It is far too early to know what kind of school governance system will emerge from the coming months of discussion.

Vacca, for one, sees a number of questions left to be answered. "Do we have mayoral control or municipal control?" he asked. "Should we empower the City Council for example?" Should the city once again have community superintendents, which he said, many people feel "was not a bad model." And what about the fate of the local bodies, the Community Education Councils, and the school leadership teams, the committees made up of parents, administration, teachers and students in every school, which still exist but have less power than they once did?

The governance issue, along with budgets, will probably dominate the education news during the year ahead. But is this the discussion we really should be having? Does this make a difference?

Perhaps not. Looking at the country as a whole, results of mayoral control seem mixed. New York City's test scores have shown some improvement but so have test scores in Rochester and Syracuse, which did not see a shift to mayoral control. And Stern contends that the advances in test scores in the city predate mayoral control. Looking at national figures, different academic draw different conclusions about the impact of mayoral control.

"I'm not sure that it doesn't matter," said Josh Karan, a long time education activist and member of the District 6 Education Council. "We need to focus on the core values of education. Only then can structure have some impact."

Whatever happens, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will not control education in this city after 2009. And what will that mean?

"I think this mayor has done an outstanding job in making it work, but if you're really for this system you're for it and you're for it for the right reason, not based solely on personalities," said Walcott.

Stringer believs that whoever is sworn in as mayor in 2010 could have an even greater impact on school governance than the legislature in 2009. "The next mayor has to look at how parents interact with the system," he said.

Or as Karan put it, "is the problem mayoral control or control by this mayor?"

Previous Articles School Governance

Reorganizing the Schools (Again) (January 2007)
Another round of adjustments to the city's school system announced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg would give principals more power, reform tenure and change the school funding formula.

Parents Grading School (July 24, 2006)
An education department official describes the school system's plan to start asking parents, teachers and students how they rate city schools.

Grading Students, Grading Schools (June 5, 2006)
Since the advent of mayoral control, the Department of Education has increasingly relied on standardized exams as an indication of a school's performance and of the state of the nation's largest school system.

Giving Principals More Control (June 2006)
In the second radical reorganization of the school system since 2002, hundreds of city principals have been gives far more autonomy.

Hang Up on Parents (May 22, 2006)
The ban on cell phones in schools heightened complaints that mayoral control shuts parents and others out of any meaningful involvement in school decision-making.

After Mayoral Control, Rivals Call for More Changes (August 2005)
School governance in the 2005 mayoral campaign.

Setbacks and Successes for Community Education Councils (July 2005)
A look at one of the local structures that replaced community school boards.

Entering the Autonomy Zone (March 2005) Are more autonomous schools more successful schools?

School Reforms (July 5, 2004)
Assessing the first full year of Bloomberg and Klein's program to dramatically change the New York City school system

Gearing Up for Changes (July 2003)
The school system tries to put all the new programs into effect before students start school.

Mayor's Education Plan Challenged (June 2003)
Opponents go to court in an effort to block some aspects of mayoral control

Shaking Up the School System
Education officials begin implement the "Children First" agenda.

The Mayor's Plan for Schools (Jan. 20,2003)
Bloomberg unveils the biggest changes in New York City schools in 30 years, turning a decentralized one into a centralized one.

The New Chancellor (August 2002)
Mayor Michael Bloomberg appoints lawyer Joel Klein to run the nation's largest public school system.

Hope and Fear for City Schools (Nov. 11, 2002)
The late Jill Chaifetz wondered what mayor control would mean for city students.

Major Changes for City Schools (Oct. 14, 2002)
Newly appointed chancellor Joel Klein lays out his approach to shaking up the school system

Improving the Schools (July 29, 2002)
The mayor won a big victory when he convinced the legislature to give him control of schools. Now comes the hard part.

School Control (May 20, 2002)
Irving Hamer, a former member of the city Board of Education, looks at the shortcomings of mayoral control.

Elect the Board of Education (May 20, 2002)
The former head of the principals union presents another alternative.

Community School Boards' Uncertain Future (May 20, 2002)
What mayoral control might mean for 32 local school boards.

Mayoral Control (March 2002)
Newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg presses the state legislature to give him control of city schools.

NYC Issues 2001: Education Overview
Mayoral control as a key issue in the 2001 campaign.

 

The Crackdown on New York City Students


Last month, a 5-year-old kindergarten student in a Queens public school threw a temper tantrum. After being taken to the school office, he shoved some things off his principal's desk. In response, a school safety agent handcuffed the child, and school officials sent him to a psychiatric ward for evaluation - even after a babysitter arrived on the scene asking to take the boy home.

The incident made the front page of the Daily News, and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein expressed concern about it. Unfortunately, though, it was not an isolated occurrence. Instead the incident at the Queens school represented an extension of the even more abusive discipline used in middle and high schools across New York City.

A heavy police presence and discipline policies that rely on punitive zero-tolerance approaches, are denying students their fundamental human rights to a quality education and to be treated with dignity.

Police in the Hallways

The New York Police Department employs and supervises more than 5,000 school safety agents. An additional 200 armed police officers patrol New York City schools. This massive presence would make the city police department's school safety division the fifth largest police force in the country - larger than the police forces of Washington DC, Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas. This uniformed force creates a prison-like environment and results in police getting involved in school disciplinary matters that used to be dealt with by a visit to the principal's office.

"With more than 5,000 agents, the NYPD's school safety division is larger than the police forces of Washington D.C., Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas."

Interviews with students documented in reports by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other organizations reveal that students are harassed, handcuffed, patted down and in some cases arrested for shouting in hallways, being late to school, and talking back to teachers and safety personnel. This kind of misconduct, while inappropriate, is fairly typical adolescent behavior that should be dealt with by educational staff. Even being involved in a fight, does not make a student a criminal. Safety agents can play an important role in schools, but they need better training and clear guidelines for how and when to intervene. Analysis of data from the Department of Education by the NYCLU found that police are increasingly involved in non-criminal incidents in school. During the 2004-2005 academic year, 77 percent of police incidents in schools with permanent metal detectors (those the Department of Education deems dangerous) were for non-criminal incidents, compared to only 6 percent for major crimes.

Harsh and Unequal Punishment

The use of suspensions in schools is also increasing. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of superintendent suspensions (involving more serious conduct and lasting for six days to as much as a year) rose by more than 76 percent, from 8,567 a year to 15,090. Students can get suspended for up to 90 days for "engaging in intimidating" behavior or "threatening" a student or staff member, and as many as 10 days for "being insubordinate." The definitions of these infractions are quite vague and punishment can be applied unevenly, with devastating consequences for the academic development of children.

Under these vague standards, African American and Latino students are suspended at disproportionate rates. For example, in 2004, African American students made up 33 percent of the enrollment in New York City schools, but accounted for 52 percent of out-of-school suspensions, according to data from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.

Without question, police presence and school suspensions are distributed unequally, disproportionately targeting students of color from poor communities. About 82 percent of students in schools with permanent metal detectors are African American or Latino, compared to the average of 71 percent citywide, according to data analyzed by the civil liberties union. These same schools with permanent metal detectors and heavy police presence are also some of the most overcrowded and resource-starved schools in New York City. For example, schools with permanent metal detectors are 18 percent over capacity, compared with the citywide average of 6 percent.

Disrupted Learning

Police incidents and suspensions have a devastating impact on a student's education. Students told interviewers from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative that a suspension of even one week is "a lot of class time" to miss. Being forced from school for two weeks or more resulted in students falling behind, missing tests they were not allowed to make up, and even failing classes, leading to summer school or repeating a semester.

Not surprisingly, this contributes to the dropout rate. The National Center for Education Statistics found that 31 percent of students who had been suspended three or more times before the spring of their sophomore year dropped out of school. Only 6 percent of students who had never been suspended left school without a high school diploma.

Looking at the Alternatives

To address these destructive policies, New York City schools first need to improve monitoring and accountability for school safety agents, police and suspension policies. A coalition of organizations in New York City has called for the City Council to adopt the Student Safety Act. This measure would create mechanisms for students to file complaints against school safety agents and would require the education department and the police to report to the City Council about police incidents and suspensions, including providing breakdowns by race. The coalition includes Advocates for Children, the Correctional Association, Make the Road New York, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Teachers Unite, the Urban Youth Collaborative and the Children's Defense Fund - New York.

Beyond this, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way schools deal with discipline and safety. Discipline should be a part of the educational mission of our schools and focus on conflict resolution, positive behavioral skills and providing students with mediation, counseling and support.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world, states that school systems must "ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child's human dignity." Used by school systems in countries around the world, the convention states that school policies must not violate the dignity of students, cause mental or physical humiliation or harm, or criminalize adolescent behavior. Instead, "the education of the child shall be directed to the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential." The New York City Council in 1989 embraced these principles when it passed a resolution (Resolution 1891) supporting the Convention on the Rights of the Child and acknowledging that children have the right to "education and the right to develop in a safe environment free from discrimination."

Research and best practices from school districts around the country support this approach. For example, a growing number of school districts have implemented Positive Behavior Intervention and Support or PBIS. It aims to prevent conflict and behavior problems, along with student suspensions and other extreme punishment, by making sure students understand what is expected of them and helping students meet those expectations. This approach provides assistance for students with chronic behavior problems and seeks to involve families and the community.

In Illinois, over 150 school districts have adopted some type of PBIS. One study found that in 12 Chicago public schools implementing it, the percent of students who received six or more disciplinary referrals fell by more than half over three years, from 6 percent to 2 percent.

In February 2007, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the country after New York City, passed a new policy to implement School-wide Positive Behavior Support, its version of PBIS. Policy makers at the federal level also have begun to take notice. Last September, Senators Barack Obama and Richard Durbin and Representative Phil Hare, all of Illinois, introduced the Positive Behavior for Effective Schools Act, which would allow school districts to use federal funds for Positive Behavior Intervention and Support and other preventive approaches to discipline.

New York City, though, has so far remained on the sidelines. It is time for the people who run the nation's largest public school system to acknowledge the devastating impact their punitive and sometimes draconian policies are having on our children and implement positive and preventive discipline that will create nurturing environments and keep students in school.

Liz Sullivan is Human Right to Education Program Director for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

 

Investing in Higher Education


Arriving in America at the age of 13 from Macau, Benny Lee knew that education was the best chance he would have for a bright future in his newly adopted country. He studied hard and finished in the top 20 of his class in a high school in Jamaica, Queens.

But when it was time for college, his options were limited because of his parents' modest income. Eventually he chose Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. He did not even apply to any private colleges.

"I felt that private colleges are too expensive, and I didn't want to put big burden to my parents," said Lee, now an information technology executive at an investment bank in Manhattan. "Compared to private colleges, CUNY is a good bargain with competitive programs."

Lee is one of the hundreds of thousands of graduates of CUNY, the largest urban university in the United States with 230,000 students in its 23 institutions. Historically serving a diverse student body, especially those excluded from or unable to afford private universities, CUNY offers education to New York City's working class and immigrants. Thirty-eight percent of its first-time freshmen were born overseas.

Mostly immigrants could not afford the high price of private colleges," said Lee. "CUNY is definitely an alternative to high prices of private colleges and opportunity to allow immigrant students with little money to have a decent college education."

Today CUNY and SUNY, or the State University of New York face a number of challenges, including rising tuition and the fight to provide a quality education. With Gov. Eliot Spitzer promising major changes at the two institutions, many wonder what that will mean for schools that have provided many immigrants with the education they needed to better their lives and the lives of their children.

Keeping the Price Down

John Liu, a New York City Councilmember from Flushing, Queens, and a graduate of SUNY Binghamton, said public higher education is indispensable to immigrant families. "And it is not just special for immigrants but also for other working-class families," said Liu, who emigrated from Taiwan at 5. "It is important to the equalizing of the playing field."

Liwia Rosamond, a native of Poland, came to New York in 1997 and eventually settled in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. After teaching English as a second language teacher for many years, she earned a Master's degree in French literature and culture from Hunter College, also a CUNY institution.

"CUNY gave me a new career," said Rosamond, who recently found a job teaching French in a high school in Queens. "As an immigrant and adult, I was able to work full-time, pay my New York rent and get my master's degree at Hunter. I believe that this is one of the very few places where you can get a high-quality education at an affordable price."

The city university, though, is more expensive today than it once was. With the aim of serving the underprivileged, CUNY was tuition-free until 1975, when the city's fiscal crisis forced it to impose tuition. Now the four-year colleges charge $4,000 per year while the community colleges are priced at $2,800 per year and receive public funding.

SUNY, the largest university system in the nation with 64 campuses and over 400,000 students, also receives public funds. Its price tag is set at $4,350 for four-year colleges and $3,176 for two-year colleges.

While the tuition rates at CUNY and SUNY have increased by 25 percent or more in the last decade, they still fall behind other major state flagship institutions. For example, the University of Michigan charges from $5,129 to $7,126, and Rutgers University in New Jersey between $8,540 and $9,484. The University of California at Berkeley, widely recognized as the top public university in the country, is priced at about $8,000 per year, while the tuition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ranges from $8,440 to $12,232 depending on the major. Out-of-state and international students generally pay more than double the price.

Undocumented Immigrants and Public College

As legal immigrants and their children continue to benefit from the quality education from CUNY and SUNY, things can be more difficult for students without documentation. Ten states (California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington) offer in-state tuition to long-term undocumented students, who were born overseas but raised in America.

The subject recently became a hot issue in the Republican presidential race. In a CNN/YouTube debate with his fellow Republican candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney attacked Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for giving illegal immigrants "special treatment" for offering them publicly subsidized college education. He also criticized former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for "welcoming" illegal immigrants. Both Giuliani and Huckabee support offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria.

According to CUNY's official Web site, an undocumented student in New York is eligible for in-state tuition if he or she has attended a New York high school for at least two years and graduated from it, or has attended a New York State program for a General Equivalency Diploma and received a GED issued in New York. In addition, the prospective student must apply for college within five years of high school graduation and file an affidavit stating that he or she has filed or will file for legal residency. The student also must show proof of New York residency.

Undocumented students who graduated from high school with at least a B average can also apply for the Vallone Academic Scholarship ($1,250 per year) if they enroll in college within two semesters after high school graduation and maintain at least a B average. They can also apply for the tuition-free Macaulay Honors College.

"As long as they pay taxes, I think it is right to offer them in-state tuition," said Lee. "A lot of these people pay taxes but do not get any benefit. I don't think it is right."

According to statistics, many of the country's 12 million illegal immigrants pay taxes under a purchased Social Security Number or a government-issued tax ID number for someone without a Social Security number. But they usually are unable to collect welfare or medical benefits except for emergency medical care and a primary and high school education. About $7 billion a year in taxes filed by undocumented immigrants pours into the Social Security Administration.

"New York has a long history of being friendly to all immigrants - both the documented and the undocumented ones," said Rosamond. "These undocumented people usually pay all the taxes just as the people with green cards, and they deserve to be treated like New York residents because they are."

That aside, Liu thinks helping immigrants get an education represents a good investment. "It will benefit the overall society because those who benefit from the education will only come back to make more money and pay more taxes than they would otherwise," he said.

However, according to State Legislature magazine, published by the National Conference of State Legislatures, many American apparently disagree. Some states that grant the in-state tuition are facing lawsuits from people who oppose that. Utah is looking into ending the policy, while Georgia and Arizona have both voted to bar illegal immigrants from receiving the in-state tuition benefit.

Reshaping New York's Public Universities

As the in-state tuition debate continues, a report conducted by Governor Eliot Spitzer's special commission on higher education has suggested that the state increase spending on public universities in the hope of revamping New York's public higher education. Many fear that another tuition hike could be just around the corner.

The 30-member commission, chaired by Hunter Rawlings, a former president of Cornell University, urged the state to create its own low-cost student loan program, and to hire 2,000 new full-time faculty, including 250 eminent scholars in five years.

The preliminary report called for the creation of a $3 billion innovation fund to support research at public and private universities in fields like bioscience, engineering and medicine that can drive economic development. It also called for more focused attention devoted to SUNY's four research campuses in Albany, Binghamton, Stony Brook and Buffalo.

Among other recommendations, the report said support for public universities should be more predictable, proposing a "compact" in which the costs of new investment would be shared by the state and the universities.

Both CUNY and SUNY administration applauded the report, saying it is an urgent matter to keep New Yorkers competitive.

"In 1975, CUNY employed more than 11,000 full-time faculty. Today, 6,500 full-time faculty work at the university," said Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of CUNY. "This is a decrease of more than 40 percent, although our student enrollment has grown to its highest level in over three decades. The commission's recommendation would help to reverse this pronounced decline."

Even if Spitzer embraces the plan, it is expected to face opposition in the legislature. Kenneth LaValle, a Republican senator from Port Jefferson and a member of the commission, said he favored modest, regular tuition increases but opposed having "differential tuition" from campus to campus, which would lead to higher tuition at the research centers.

"No student who attends the state university should have a feeling that their degree is worth less than those who are paying more money," he told the New York Times. "There were other ways to ensure that the research campuses drew more dollars."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  

Stated Meeting: Columbia Gets Approval


Most of us make New Year's resolutions or at least we attempt to.

We hear them recited over and over by friends, family and in our own heads:

"I will lose 30 pounds."

"I will quit smoking."

"I will stop introducing frivolous resolutions."

Wait, what?

Just like the personal pledges we make every year, the City Council has its own resolutions. Some, like those approving the budget, have clout. But many opine on state or federal policy or take a stand on a controversial issue outside the council's jurisdiction and are completely nonbinding. The 51 members of the New York City Council introduced 507 resolutions in 2007, and some City Hall observers and prospective candidates argue they should cut back for 2008.

"I think often my gut instinct is they are symbolic expressions of sentiment by the City Council or perhaps groups that are pressuring the City Council or exerting pressure on the legislature," said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, of resolutions.

Contending the measures are merely symbolic or for political gain, some critics claim that resolutions waste the council's time and should be eliminated completely or capped at a "reasonable" level.

While you may agree or disagree with a resolution's purpose - whether it's your own promise or one from the New York City Council - at least one similarity is difficult to ignore: Like the more than 90 percent of individuals who will fail to meet their goals in 2008, most City Council resolutions will likely fail to fulfill the aspirations of their sponsors, observers said.

The Purpose

What exactly does a resolution do? Technically - for a large number of them - nothing.

While resolutions are used to formally approve the budget and financial transfers and to confirm any uniform land use review procedure, many merely express the views of the council - after all, they call them nonbinding for a reason.

Thanks to the City Charter, the City Council really can't do that much. It may have sole power over the budget's approval and land use review procedures, but much of the "sexy" issues, as one lobbyists put it, are the responsibility of the mayor or the state government. Resolutions provide a means for council members to get involved, said City Hall observers.

From urging the state legislature to adopt a real estate tax rebate for veterans to creating a symbolic moratorium on the pejorative use of the word bitch, policy-related resolutions have no teeth and no requirement that any New Yorker comply.

Though nonbinding resolutions lack the power of enforcement, some members can't get enough of them.

Out of the 507 resolutions introduced in 2007, 66 percent were procedural in nature, usually a land use resolution memorializing a rezoning or redevelopment approval. About 170 were policy oriented, nonbinding resolutions, and of those 17 percent were approved.

Not surprisingly, of the 51 City Council members, chairs of committees affiliated with the land use review procedure or finance, like Melinda Katz, who chairs land use, or David Weprin, who heads the Finance Committee, have sponsored or co-sponsored the largest portion of resolutions - 268 and 147 respectively.

While the majority of members have sponsored or co-sponsored about 50 items, a few, including Dennis Gallagher and David Yassky, signed on far more sparingly.

Beyond the City's Borders and the City Charter

Policy-based resolutions often express opposition or support for state or federal legislation and can even take a stand on foreign policy - from the distribution of resources in China to the plight of democracy in Myanmar. Even council members admit that their efforts to weigh in on such distant matters has made the body the target of ridicule.

But the introduction and subsequent approval of these resolutions can send a meaningful message to one's constituents, some council members say. While the People's Republic of China may not notice if a City Council thousands of miles away votes to condemn its labor practices, residents of Bed-Stuy, Jackson Heights and Harlem could appreciate that their representatives took a stand.

"I think its good idea for us to come out and condemn genocide in Darfur," said Councilmember Michael Nelson. Overall, he added, a resolution's impact can depend on its scope. "It can definitely have an effect. In some cases it can be questionable."

Knowing that internationally focused resolutions are unlikely to affect uprisings in Asia or Africa, some say the intentions behind this type of measure are entirely political.

"Is it just something they are going to trot out in their end-of-year newsletter or are they trying to educate the public?" asked Haven of New York Public Interest Research Group. "It's very hard to separate the just self promotional aspects to the genuine advancement of policy."

Even some council members admit that these resolutions are to draw attention to the sponsors. Councilmember Tony Avella said as the 2009 elections approach, he expects many more symbolic gestures to be introduced on the council floor.

Influencing U.S. and State Policy

In the 2007 legislative session, council members introduced 30 resolutions calling on the federal government to pass legislation or change policy. Of those, four were approved, including a resolution (Res. 842) urging Congress to adopt a comprehensive immigration policy that protects the civil liberties of undocumented immigrants and fully incorporate them into society.

As you recall, Congress was not swayed by the New York City Council.

Whether this legislation can make an impact on a smaller scale is a greater question. More than 50 resolutions introduced in 2007 were aimed at the state government in Albany - though the full council approved only seven of them. Given the size of the city's delegation in the legislature, the council's resolutions on state issues could have some influence, some political observers suggest.

Weprin, for example, introduced a resolution in 2004 urging the state Legislature to approve Timothy's Law -- a bill that expanded medical coverage for the mentally ill and people with substance abuse problems.

Once the council held a widely publicized hearing and passed the resolution, Weprin said Albany finally acted. He couldn't attribute the bill's passage entirely to his resolution, but the councilman said it helped.

"I think it's part of your responsibility as the council to use that bully pulpit for the greater good, and part of that is trying to influence state and federal policy makers, whether it's legislators, governors, presidents," Weprin said.

But many of the state-targeted nonbinding resolutions passed in the 2007 legislative session were not so successful.

For instance, when the City Council approved a resolution urging the state legislature to approve a recycling center on the Gansevoort peninsula that would enable the city to follow through with its Solid Waste Management Plan, Albany turned a deaf ear.

It's even difficult to get city's agencies to pay attention. When the council approved a resolution in March urging the Department of Education to reassess its milk offerings in school cafeterias, the department did not change its policy to offer only low-fat or 2 percent milk in schools. A department spokesperson said the current arangement helps keep kids healthy.

"The effect of resolutions being introduced is to mobilize interest groups," said Norman Adler, president of lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns. "Given the substantive number of them that are introduced, I would say their impact is minor."

Banning Resolutions

Some, including Bob Zuckerman, who plans to run for the City Council in 2009, want to do away with the nonbinding measures all together.

"What is the purpose of a council resolution saying that we think the state legislature should pass this?" asked Zuckerman. "That's why we have state legislature."

Others argue a resolution can have an impact if an individual council member follows through. When a council member can get a resolution to the floor and get it passed, Avella said, the individual member must then work to see it become successful upstate, in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere.

"Even when you just succeed at getting it passed, the council doesn't do anything with it," said Avella. "It sits on a shelf. It's up to the author of the resolution to move it."

The Labor of a Lobbyist

Most of the nonbinding resolutions never make it to the full council (Some council members contend whether a resolution gets a hearing depends on his or her relationship with Council Speaker Christine Quinn).

But even if a resolution doesn't make it to the floor, it can still cause ripple effects throughout City Hall.

It may, for example, mobilize interest groups for and against the measure. More than a decade ago, the then-sitting City Council introduced a resolution condemning the Anheuser-Busch Companies for alleged discriminatory policies against minority and independent business owners.

Adler, who was hired by the beer company as a lobbyist, recalled the company paid thousands of dollars in a successful effort to quash the resolution. While the symbolic legislation never threatened Anheuser-Busch financially, it still thought it had to fight the nonbinding measure.

"In my experience in lobbying at City Hall over the years, resolutions very frequently annoy or frighten corporations," said Adler. "It puts meat and potatoes on the table of many a lobbyist."

A Resolutionary Recap

Here is a sample of some of the resolutions that were introduced during the 2007 legislative session:

Limiting Homework: As Councilmember Peter Vallone prepares to introduce a resolution to limit homework for New York City public schools students to two hours a night, he has his kids in mind. The resolution, which calls on the Department of Education to reform its homework policy, also landed him on a plethora of national broadcasts and made headlines in many city papers.

Obama's Bill: Sometimes it's not the premise of the resolution that sparks controversy, but its lack of movement. Councilmember Darlene Mealy introduced a resolution earlier this year endorsing a bill on voting rights sponsored by presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. Another councilmember, Charles Barron, claimed Quinn buried the resolution because she supports Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. He also called Quinn a racist. Barron and Quinn often clash over legislative matters.

Iran Divestment: City Council Minority Leader James Oddo introduced a resolution in August urging the city and the state to divest their pension funds in companies who invested in Iran's energy sector. The resolution hasn't received a hearing but did get some press.

Curbing Curses: Twice this year, members introduced resolutions symbolically banning the use of certain words. First was one on the n-word, introduced by Councilmember Leroy Comrie, which passed in February. The b-word measure introduced by Mealy followed. That resolution, introduced in July, has yet to receive a hearing.

Sorry for Slavery: Following the example of some states in the South, several black members of the City Council introduced a resolution in April expressing profound regret for slavery. That resolution also has not received a hearing.

Caffeine Count: Councilmember Simcha Felder introduced a measure in February urging the federal government to require food companies to include caffeine counts on nutrition labels. The council never moved on it and neither did the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

 

A Common and Necessary Practice?

Faced with the opportunity to take on issues like these, the City Council is unlikely to abandon such resolutions anytime soon. Members like resolutions: The number of them introduced on the Council Chamber floor in 2007 outnumbers the number of bills, or introductions, during the same time period by nearly 3 to 1.

"Every resolution has its place," said Councilmember Letitia James. "Some of them are more influential than others. Some of them are not worth the paper they are written on."  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Report Cards Flunk the Clarity Test


Many city parents reacted with puzzlement, rather than celebration or disappointment, when they saw the newly released school report cards. Instead of taking the grades at face value, discussions have centered on comparisons between expectations and final results. Parents and educators alike seem obsessed with arguing why the grades are wrong and how the Department of Education will misuse them. Hardly a show of confidence for an effort costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Over the years, New Yorkers have seen a lot of seemingly conflicting and confusing information from the department. There have been varying accounts of the high school graduation rate from the state and city and, after years of rising scores on state standardized tests, parents learned in mid-November that student achievement had not improved much at all according to another measure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

This backlash to the report cards in particular results from the education department's mistaken premise: that the grades mean something to anyone but senior district officials. In fact, and fatally, these school grades symbolize nothing. They have no independent basis outside the factors and weights subjectively built into their design.

This is not true for other "report cards," which evaluate everything from student mastery to hospital mortality rates. There, we understand that the grades refer to some agreed-upon level of performance. As a society, we have a pretty good idea about the degree of acumen reflected by a third grader's "A" paper or what problems might persuade the health department to give a hospital a "D." Certainly we understand their comparative utility: that a "B" paper is worse than an "A" and that, all things being equal, we would rather have surgery at an "A" hospital.

But what are we to make of a school's rating when "environment," with its multiple variables like safety and communication, all rated according to statistically unreliable survey results, constitutes 15 percent of the grade? Or that "student progress" - measured by questionable state test results - is weighted almost twice as much as "student performance"? Where is the social agreement on the measures that add up to school quality? The reports cards' emphasis on improvement over actual achievement has angered and befuddled many. Certainly many parents and students would prefer a "D" school with smart kids and little school-parent communication, despite the taint of that scarlet letter. If a school earns an "A" through an emphasis on test prep, with little emphasis on arts or social studies, is that where I want my child to go to school?

If this is the rubric Chancellor Joel Klein wants to use in grading principals, it is his right. Evaluation must be based on some subjective measures of performance and Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose Klein to exercise this type of managerial judgment. But there is no consensus that the ratings on the report cards indicate what makes a good school, so spare us the judgmental rhetoric!

"These Progress Reports will give educators and parents the clear information they need to make smart decisions," said the chancellor in the press release accompanying release of the reports. "With these Progress Reports, parents no longer have to navigate a maze of statistics to determine how their child's school is doing and how it compares to others," said the mayor.

"Clear information"? No longer "a maze of statistics"? Did they try reading these things? The reports are a hodgepodge of scores, indexes, ranges, and calculations that only a statistician could love.

A Recipe for Confusion

It is as if a cook prepared a stew. A little beef, maybe some pork, potatoes, tomatoes, whatever suits the taste. The chef thinks, "It's delicious." Fine. But there is no more reason to think this is an "A" stew than another dish, equally satisfying to some, with a different mix of ingredients. Indeed, the federal government with its designations of success ("Blue Ribbon") and failure ("School in Need of Improvement") and New York State's list of low-performing "Schools Under Registration Review" have created stews of their own for parental consumption.

Klein and Bloomberg have arrived at a highly individual definition of a "good school," without any social consensus on that definition. No matter parents are confused. None of them would have mixed the ingredients in just that way were they to evaluate the school. So none of them should rely on the mayor or chancellor to determine where they send their children or how they behave toward poorly (or, for that matter, highly) graded teachers and administrators.

Fair grading requires comparison based on agreed-upon standards. In failing to establish the latter, Chancellor Klein has failed to adequately fulfill his obligation to the former. Rather than providing clarity, the chancellor has further muddied discussion of his and the mayor's success or failure.

David Bloomfield is the author of "American Public Education Law" (Peter Lang, 2007) and a parent member of the Citywide Council on High Schools.

 

 

 

Greening City Schoolyards


To many New York City kids, it is part of life in the city. Hold a basketball in one hand, hang on with the other and clamber over a 10-foot tall wire fence. These kids do not want to do anything wrong – all they want is a little fun and exercise.

In a city with courts, playing fields, open space and greenery in short supply, the government has long ignored one key resource: its school playgrounds. Many school playgrounds are locked after school hours and so unavailable late afternoons and on weekends. Too many are used for parking, bleak asphalt wastelands without friendly play space or equipment. And too many school children never get to see trees and shrubs in their daily environment, or take advantage of their shade and the wildlife they attract.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long-term sustainability plan calls for opening up school playgrounds for community use to help meet the goal of putting every New Yorker within a 10-minute walk of a park by the year 2030. But is the city using short-term stopgap measures instead of long-term strategies, creating play areas that may not last for even a decade? And will these areas really meet the needs of their communities?

USING UNDERUSED SPACES

In 2006, some 746 school playgrounds stayed padlocked weekends and during the summer, according to numbers compiled by City Councilmember Gale Brewer. All together, these areas totaled 948 acres of unused public land, an area larger than Central Park. (Another 257 were already open last year.) While no one argued New Yorkers would not benefit from the open space, the schoolyards seemed caught in a kind of limbo between the Department of Education and the Department of Parks ad Recreation.

That has apparently changed.

The mayor’s Schoolyards to Playgrounds plan unveiled earlier this year calls for eventually opening 290 schoolyards for use from 8 a.m. to sundown and on weekends. To finance this, the mayor put $3.5 million in the 2008-2009 budget and proposed another $107.3 million in capital spending over a period of eight years. While the playgrounds are maintained by the Department of Education, private and non-profit sponsors can contribute to improvements and support recreation programs.

A key partner for the city in all this is the Trust for Public Land. On October 10, the city inaugurated a renovated playground at PS 64 in the Bronx, one of 24 to be developed through a partnership with the non-profit trust. The organization, working with the education department, hopes to turn 25 schoolyards into new community playgrounds over the next five years. Money will come from the city, the trust, individuals, corporations and foundations.

THE QUALITY OF SPACE

The one clear step forward of Schoolyards to Playgrounds is that it will help meet the city’s enormous deficit in public open space. PlaNYC2030 identifies many pockets of city-owned property that are now only minimally accessible to the public. The city’s Department of Transportation, through its Office of Planning & Sustainability, is taking a hard look at the enormous asphalt jungle under its jurisdiction to see where there is potential for new public spaces. Large expanses of city roadway are underutilized, monopolized by small numbers of private vehicles and turned over to car owners for free parking.

The Bloomberg administration says that the opening of the schoolyards alone will allow more than 400,000 children and their families to be within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground by 2030.

But what will be in those parks? Sixty-nine of the playgrounds have opened without any major improvements. Another 185 were slated for physical improvements

Many of the new parks will have artificial turf instead of grass. According to the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, the city’s parks department is one of the biggest consumers of artificial turf in the nation. Two products, Field Turf and Astro Play, may be found throughout the city’s parkland.

By using manufactured turf on many these new parks, greater doses of capital funding are likely to be required to repair them long before the year 2030 comes around. And without clear evidence that the artificial materials being used will have no long-term negative health and environmental effects, the program could undermine PlaNYC2030’s promise of a healthier and greener New York

The city accepts industry claims that the manufactured products are safe for children and claims that they are cheaper than natural grass. A 2006 parks department report, “A New Turf War,” claimed that although it costs $675,000 more to install artificial turf, annual maintenance is $14,000 less than natural grass. Over the 23-year period of the 2030 plan, the city would thus save $332,000 on maintenance.

Most turf manufacturers, though, only warranty their product for eight years, and no one can say for sure how long it will last. With natural grass, regular maintenance means that it is continuously replaced and, in the end, this will probably cost less.

One big advantage of artificial turf is that it can be used year round and almost continuously. It is ready for use shortly after a rainfall, whereas natural areas need time to drain and dry out. It requires no use of polluting industrial fertilizers and pesticides.

But there are some big questions about the long-term environmental and health effects of manufactured turf. Artificial turf increases surface temperatures dramatically, not only contributing to global warming and the local “heat island” effect but possibly affecting the health of children using the fields. Reducing global warming is a major goal of PlaNYC2030. And the fake grass increases groundwater runoff into the city’s overburdened sewer system. The long-term effects on soil quality and underground water remain unknown.

Some studies show that the materials used in artificial turf, including recycled rubber, release volatile organic compounds, chemicals that are known carcinogens. In the absence of research examining the long-term health effects, many schools systems and governments have chosen not to use these products. Artificial turf may also increase the risk of certain types of injuries. There is an ailment called “turf toe,” a sprain where the big toe meets the rest of the foot, that, according to NYU medical center, is caused by “playing sports on artificial turf.”

PLANNING THE PARKS

The Trust for the Public Land’s model for school playgrounds involving community-based partners opens up many possibilities for change in city where neighborhoods often have little say in what goes on in their midst. At P.S.64, the trust worked with students from the school and residents and staff from the nearby New Settlement Apartments to plan the new playground. The space, which opened last month, features a track, sports field, basketball court, swings, play equipment, maps, trees and benches. The trust also got money to turn a blighted vacant lot adjacent to the playground into an outdoor classroom and garden.

The group has plans for 24 model playgrounds such as the one at P.S. 64. But, while it anticipates providing design workshops for people involved in developing the 161 other playgrounds, they will not necessarily have the same close collaboration that P.S. 64 enjoyed. The partner—in P.S. 64’s case, the New Settlement Apartments -- is responsible for organizing after-school programs. Without programming, the schoolyards could easily lapse into disuse and disrepair.

Beyond Hoops and Swings

The development of the playgrounds could strengthen the role of schools in communities and encourage neighborhood involvement. This would be a welcome change for a Department of Education that does not usually embrace the idea of community schools.

Because schools are one of the few city facilities in every neighborhood, they could become models and training grounds for ecological citizenship. In other words, they could be a lot greener than artificial turf. This is happening in school systems throughout the nation and there is no reason why it can’t happen here.

New York City schools could become recycling and compost centers. Drinking fountains could be fixed so that the schools could junk all those machines selling sweetened water and juices. The schools could have green roofs and develop on-site recycling of brown water (from rest rooms). They could have a farmer’s market and community garden producing fresh produce.

While PlaNYC2030 commendably continues the city’s commitment to replace aging school boilers, there is a long way to go before each building is retrofitted to maximize energy efficiency and the use of natural sunlight. We can also imagine solar panels instead of the ancient 20th century technology that relies on fossil fuels. And if schools become true centers for community activity, they could also generate more employment for community residents – including people to maintain the grass and landscaped areas.

In New York City, lots of kids never have the sheer thrill of tumbling in dirt or mud during a soccer game. That is as important as preserving handball and stickball wherever there is asphalt or concrete. The Schoolyards to Playgrounds initiative is a step in the right direction, but it could become the first step in something far more ambitious and exciting.

Shira Siegel contributed research for this article, and is working on a longer working paper for Sustainability Watch about the school playground program.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

 

College Boom


NYU's Web site proudly proclaims its location in the center of Greenwich Village, "long famous for its contributions to the fine arts, literature, and drama and its personalized, smaller scale, European style of living." But starting this semester, some graduate students who enroll at NYU find themselves living not in the Village but across the river in Brooklyn. Once the residence for Jehovah's Witnesses, a narrow building at 67 Livingston Street now houses NYU graduate students.

Many predict that in the not too distant future more NYU students may live in dormitories "off borough." NYU is booming, and it wants more space.

NYU's situation reflects the reality facing many colleges and universities in the city. To the delight of economic development officials and the Bloomberg administration, higher education is thriving in New York City. But while the schools would like to grow, they cannot find the room to do it. That real estate crunch has led to a variety of expansion plans -- and to conflicts between the universities and the communities that surround them.

Head of the Class

While New York City does not have an image as a college town, it does have 113 colleges and universities. More than 200,000 students attend independent, or private, colleges in New York City, according to a report by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities. Another 226,000 are enrolled in degree programs at the City University of New York, with thousands more taking adult or continuing education classes at one of CUNY's campuses.

Students who leave their home states to attend college are more likely to come to New York than any other state. Of the 10 colleges ranked highest by the Princeton Review for being in a "great college town, four are in New York City and one -- Eugene Lang -- placed number one on the list.

All of this has a major impact on the city and state economy. The payrolls of private schools alone in New York City amounted to almost $8 million for the 2004-2005 academic year. Employment in higher education has been rising throughout the nation and the state, but according to Crain's New York, the city "is seeing the sharpest growth," led by the City University. CUNY, Crain's reports, has hired about 800 faculty members this year as part of its effort to replace adjunct professors with full-time staff and to improve its academic standards.

E Is for Education

City officials would welcome that many jobs in any field that's legal, but economic development experts see university employment and spending as particularly desirable. For one, colleges and universities draw talented people to the city and lend the city an intellectual energy it might not have otherwise have. More concretely, the research done at universities can help industry and lead to the creation of jobs in such cutting edge areas as biotechnology and high technology.

Despite the large number of college and universities in the five boroughs, New York has been seen as lagging in such industrial spinoffs behind the Route 128 corridor around Boston and California's Silicon Valley. Though New York City's major universities capture and receive an enormous amount of federal research and development funding, the city has gotten "a relatively small return, in business development terms, from that federal investment," economic development consultant David Hochman wrote for the Center for an Urban Future.

Many experts see the increased prominence of universities as part of an overall shift in the city's economy from an emphasis on FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) to one centered on ICE (Intellectual, Culture and Educational area).

State employment trends give this some credence. Employment in manufacturing in New York State dropped by 40 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities. It fell by 9 percent in the FIRE sector. But employment in the so-called ICE area rose by 17 percent.

This idea of an ICE economy has been championed by NYU President John Sexton. A decline in the finance, insurance and real estate jobs that have long driven the New York economy seems inevitable, he has written. "Cyberspace increasingly will deny oxygen to New York's FIRE sector; today's chief executives can conduct business from Aspen or make deals from the Caribbean." But the ICE sector needs the talent and intellectual ferment best found in an urban setting, particularly in New York.

While universities reap the benefits of New York, they cannot escape its problems. And so, colleges grapple with the high cost of living, particularly for real estate, and a shortage of space at any price. That dilemma has led to ambitious plans and persistent conflict, particularly at the city's two most prominent private universities.

NYU: Back to Engineering...

In the mid 1970s, with New York City declining and private education ailing, New York University seemed in danger of extinction. To raise money and trim costs, it disbanded its engineering school and sold its Bronx campus -- an imposing tract of land featuring the Hall of Fame of Great Americans -- to the City University of New York. Today it serves as the campus of Bronx Community College.

In the ensuing decades, though, NYU would see a great change in its fortunes. In 2004, it announced plans to add 125 faculty to its 625 member arts and science faculty. "The ambition here is to live out what it means to be a first-class university," Sexton said at the time.

As part of that, the university has decided it needs an engineering school after all. "The absence of a school of engineering and applied science has been felt keenly in a world increasingly reliant on technology," Sexton and David McLaughlin said in a memo to the NYU community in August.

"They realized that, as far as being a major research presence, they need an engineering school," said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future.

With that its mind, it has announced plans to merge with Brooklyn Polytechnic University, which describes itself as America's second oldest private engineering school. Approval of the plan seems virtually assured.

Polytechnic's 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students attend classes in buildings on the Metro Tech development in downtown Brooklyn. For Polytechnic, the move will enable it to offer more opportunities to its students, an effort that has been hampered by its relatively small size. The school also has reportedly long struggled with financial problems.

Many observers see the merger as addressing a key shortcoming in New York's university offerings: the absence of a large, top engineering school. While City College and Columbia, along with Poly, offer engineering programs, none of them receives substantial federal research funds, according to Hochman. Columbia conducts about $30 million a year in engineering research and development, while Georgia Tech, the nation's leader, does some $286 million.

Over the years, some experts have cited the absence of a major engineering school as one reason New York does not fare better in creating jobs from developments at universities. "The mixture of engineering and science can provide an important spark for the invention, commercial applications and the economic growth opportunities that result," said Hochman.

...And Across the River

In their memo Sexton and McLaughlin cited Polytechnic's location as one of its assets. "Wouldn't this location in Brooklyn - so vibrant and so near our own location in Manhattan - be a wonderful neighborhood of which to be a part in the future?" they asked rhetorically.

Given NYU's history, that could give some residents of downtown Brooklyn pause. As the university has sought to create faciltities for tens of thousands of students, it has transformed its neighborhood, alienating many of its neighbors. "NYU has deep pockets, a wandering eye and a shocking lack of aesthetic ingenuity when it comes to building new structures," Lenora Todaro wrote in the Village Voice in 1999.

NYU has said it needs as much as 6 million square feet of additional space over the next 25 years, and some question whether all, or even some of it can be around the Washingtn Square campus. "We've more than reached the tipping point, and they really need to start planning toward future growth being absorbed by places outside the nighborhood," said Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Historic Preservation Society, which has often opposed NYU's actions in the neighborhood.

Now, though NYU, with a toehold at Polytechnic, could expand in Brooklyn.

The borough "is a wonderful location to build other programs," Sexton told the Brooklyn Paper.

Reaction in Brooklyn seems mixed. An influx of students would have a positive effect on downtown Brooklyn, according to Ian O'Connell of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, an economc development group. The NYU-Polytechnic merger, he said, is "very positive for downtown Brooklyn. There's nothing negative."

As for NYU's new dormitory in Brooklyn Heights, that too seems to have attracted little concern. "We tend to focus on planning and zoning issues in terms of height density," said Judy Stanton of the Brooklyn Heights Association. "More NYU students would be welcome in the community, but not at the expense of tall buildings."

And some express delight at NYU's venture across the river. "I'm hoping the neighborhood will turn into something like 3rd [Avenue] below 14th [Street], so I can stop going out there for my reckless partying entertainment," a reader commented on the Brownstoner blog. "If these college students bring more bars and, dare I say it, some genuine clubs out by here, I for one would be a very happy camper."

 

Columbia: Expanding North

In the annals of town-gown disputes, Columbia University's battles have been the stuff of legend, spawning one of the major campus revolts of 1968.

 

In 1968, essentially all Columbia sought to build in the surrounding community was a gymnasium. Now it wants to construct a whole new campus covering 17 acres and extending as far north as 134th Street. The 6.8 million square feet of new space would include a science center, facilities for the school of the arts and an academic conference center among other things.

The main impetus for the proposal, according to Columbia, is that the university is running out of room. As evidence, it notes it has far less space than any of its fellow Ivy League institutions, with half the space per student as the next most cramped Ivy, Harvard.

The university’s vision to deal with this has won plenty of praise. “The plan is gorgeous and enumerates many of today's fashionable planning principles,” Julio Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute wrote in 2004. “The buildings will have transparent ground floor sections, to create a light and airy, seamless transition from building interiors to outdoor spaces. The now narrow sidewalks will be widened. Streets will be lined with trees to encourage pedestrians.”

On the other hand, the neighborhood now, with its low-rise apartment buildings, small businesses such as auto repair shops and storefront churches, has been derided as all but a wasteland. Not surprisingly, those who live and work in the area disagree. The plan will directly eliminate 132 apartments – not a huge amount for New York City but still significant in a real estate market where any affordable home has become precious. Many also fear that the Columbia expansion will accelerate the gentrification of West Harlem.

Despite their huge differences, though, in the past several months, the two sides have moved closer together. Over the summer Columbia promised it would not use eminent domain to force out residents in the area of the new campus, although it did not rule eminent domain out for commercial tenants. In September, the university announced it had obtained a site where it could construct a building with apartments for some of those facing displacement.

Also in September, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Columbia reached agreement on a wide-ranging plan. Stringer came out in favor of Columbia’s move north. For its part, the school said it would create a $20 million affordable housing plan, try to create and improve open space in the area, use environmentally sustainable construction practices and provide information of job opportunities to community residents. At the same time, Stringer and the city planning department said an area adjacent to the new Manhattanville campus would be rezoned “to put in place protections of mitigate secondary displacement impacts the Columbia expansion could potentially cause.”

Opposition persists, however. The local community board, whose role is purely advisory, had already come out against the expansion. It drafted its own community plan, in conjunction with the Pratt Center for Community Development. That plan puts greater emphasis on preserving and creating affordable housing than Columbia’s.

Officially the Manhattanville campus is not a done deal – the expansion still needs an official OK from the city planning department and City Council. But with the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many council members, that seems almost certain.

Up, Not Out

 

To meet its need for additional space, Fordham University has decided not to spread out but to build up. While the plan has not yet begun the official land use approval process, it has already attracted some opposition.

Fordham’s main campus is in the Bronx, but the school opened a law school near Lincoln Center in 1961. Over the years, it has added more offerings – and students – to the Manhattan campus. Today, more than 8,000 students attend a Lincoln Center campus that the university says was intended for 3,500. “We don’t have enough dormitory space, we don’t have enough classroom space, and we woefully lack office space,” Fordham president Joseph McShane has said.

Fordham’s plan essentially calls for putting more buildings and taller buildings on its current campus – a so-called super block bounded by Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues and West 60th and West 62nd Streets. This will include a new 16-story law school and a campus center with five floors, along with hundreds of additional parking spaces.

To finance all this Fordham, which says “has relatively modest endowment resources compared to other major research universities,” envisions tall, luxury apartment buildings on the super block. Residents charge that all the high-rise development will be out of touch with the area's character and will cut Fordham off from the rest of the community. “We’ll be living in a fortress if Fordham gets what they want,” Doreen Moresco, who lives at the Alfred, an existing luxury building in the area, reportedly said at a recent public hearing. Representative Jerold Nadler and several members of the state legislature have opposed the plan in its current version.

Community Board 7 has not yet taken a final position on the plan – it expects to hold hearing on it as the proposal goes through the approval process. The board has, however, submitted a response to Fordham’s scope of Fordham’s draft environmental impact statement. In that, the board expressed an array of concern, such as buildings that are “too tall and bulky,” too many parking spaces and “large fortress-like walls along the streets.”

To help win over its community, Fordham recently launched a “Neighbors” site on its Web site. On it, the university points to its “broader effort to engage the community in conversation about the redevelopment of our Lincoln Center Campus.” With the long approval process for the plan just starting, it remains to be seen whether the conversation will be a dialogue or a shouting match.

A Citywide Solution

The space problem at New York's colleges is not limited to a few private universities. More than 100 of the city's institutions of higher learning project they will need a total of 20 million square feet of additional space over the next few years, the New York Sun reported recently. With real estate in the five boroughs expensive and hard to come by, city officials fear the colleges will move some of their operations beyond the city limits.

With that in mind, the city would like to create facilities for groups of colleges in relatively low-rent areas, such as Long Island City, the South Bronx or even Governor's Island.

Colleges, that sell their brand to students and parents (for as much as $45,000 a year) might resist the idea. But Teresa Vasquez of the Economic Development Commission told the Sun, university administrators should give it careful consideration. "Twenty million square feet is not something easy to come by," she said.

Sarah Johnson contributed reporting to this article. 

 

A Report Card from Students


“Everything must be filled out,” yelled my homeroom teacher at Staten Island’s Curtis High School as she passed papers with envelopes down the aisles.

“What’s this?” mumbled some students. Others laughed at the piece of paper, on which we are asked to agree or disagree with statements like, “I feel welcome in my school,” and “I am safe in my classes.”

Some people struggled to answer the questions sincerely. Others would have played garbage basketball with the papers if our teacher hadn’t stopped them.

Though my teacher did not tell my class, the mysterious surveys were part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education reform plan. To collect information from the people most intimate with the ins and outs of New York City schools, the Department of Education gave surveys to 1.8 million teachers, parents and students last May.

“Parents, teachers and students know better than anyone what their school does well and how (it) can improve,” explained DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob in an email.

While that may be the case, some critics think the Department of Education is not asking the right questions. In May, WNYC reported that many parents faulted the survey for ignoring critical issues, such as class size and standardized testing. One parent group, Class Size Matters, in conjunction with the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University, issued its own survey, with questions aimed at determining whether school are overcrowded and have enough resources. The independent survey also asked parents for their opinion of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

To find out what students thought of the education department’s effort, the staff of New Youth Connections interviewed close to 25 students from high schools around the city who had taken the survey and found that students felt similarly about it as parents.

While many students appreciated having their opinions included in the city’s education reform plans, only two students interviewed thought the survey would actually be effective. The others said the survey process was flawed, and that, as a result, its findings could not be taken seriously.

When asked to fill out the survey, "most students were hysterical" with laughter, said Keeri Joseph, 16, from Freedom Academy High School. Tristan Reginato, 15, of Beacon High School in Manhattan called the survey “pointless,” and Nydia Palaz, who just graduated from Forest Hills High School, said that students in her school felt the surveys were “not effective."

Many students found the questions, which asked how much they agreed or disagreed with various statements about their school, to be vague and silly. When teachers passed out the forms, many did not explain what the survey would be used for, which only heightened student confusion.

When I took the education department survey, I shared many of the feelings of other students interviewed for this article. As my pen started to fill in the circles of “agree” and “disagree,” I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was actually going to take the time to make sense of my answers.

FOR STUDENTS, BY STUDENTS

Last year, the Citizens Committee for Children’s Youth Action, which is made up of New York City public and private school students, gave out its own student survey. The young advocates there were pleased with the insights it provided. They discovered, for example, that most of the schools they surveyed had out-of-date library resources.

Unlike the city’s survey, which was administered by teachers, students handed out the Youth Action survey at their schools and explained clearly what it would be used for. And while the Department of Education had students answer questions on an agree/disagree scale that many students found odd, the Youth Action survey allowed room for personal anecdotes. Students are more likely to be candid when they’re speaking with peers and given room to explain themselves, the Grace Chao of Youth Action said. (Results from the Youth Action survey Youth Weigh In are available online.)

THE NEXT STEP

Despite the cynicism on the part of many students, the Department of Education says its surveys are indeed going to be used. The results from students, parents and teachers will account for 10 percent of a school's “grade,” that will also incorporate test scores, attendance, safety and observations by experts who visited the school. The department hopes to have the survey results on the department’s web site by the end of the summer. It also plans to distribute the survey again next spring.

When the city does that, Chao thinks it should adapt some of the methods her group used when conducting their survey. For example, she advises that the department add “youth directed questions” to “get a more comprehensive view from the students’ perspective.” And she suggests the city hold “more youth forums so they can see what is needed most.”

This article by Jill Feigelman, 17, a writer for New Youth Connections, written by and for New York City teens, is adapted from the pages of our partner, Youth Communication.

 

Regents Exams and English Language Learners


Like many of her high school classmates, Sharzina Halim, a senior at Curtis High School in Staten Island, will be taking her Regents exams in early June, and she is nervous about them. Her graduation is primarily dependent on her ability to pass the exams in Math, Living Environment, and History, but her native language is Bengali, and she is worried that, despite the extra tutoring she has been getting, she will not be able to understand certain words.

To graduate in New York State, high school students must pass five Regents exams -- in English, math, global history, U.S. history and government, and a science. Of the more than 310,380 high school students in New York City, an estimated 36,867 of them, or 12 percent, are students who are in the process of learning English. The Regents exams present a major hurdle towards graduation for English-language-learner, or ELL, high school youth, a group that already has the highest dropout rate of all students, with more than half of the English language learners in the class of 2001 failing to graduate in seven years. .

Parents and advocates are concerned that students are not being tested in their subject knowledge, and that too often, a student’s low level of English robs them of the chance to score well on their math, science, or social studies exams. Many of these students have a great deal of knowledge in the subject area in which they are being tested (like earth science or math), but because the tests are administered in English, they may score poorly because they do not know English well.

Data from the State Education Department indicate that fewer English-language learners take the Regents exams, those who take the exams are more likely to fail, and those who do pass are more likely to pass the exams with lower scores. Given the dropout crisis facing these students, the challenge for the Department of Education is to ensure that they have a fair shot at passing their Regents and being able to graduate from high school.

Test Site Accommodations

To address this challenge and to give these English-language learners a better chance at passing the state’s exams in math, science, and social studies, New York State permits test site accommodations to ensure that they are tested on their knowledge of the particular subject, not their English proficiency. There is no uniform system or standard across the state, but in most cases, they may be entitled to more time, separate accommodations, and the use of bilingual dictionaries or glossaries while taking the test. Only dictionaries and glossaries that give direct translations are allowed; those that give definitions of words are not permitted, as they may give the child an unfair advantage.

In some cases, students may be entitled to take the test in their native language or have an interpreter read them the questions in their native language. Those students whose native language is Chinese, Russian, Haitian-Creole, Spanish, or Korean, can have access to tests translated into these languages. Translated Regents tests include Math A, Global Studies, U.S. History, Earth Science, and Living Environment. Oral interpretation can be made available for students who speak a language not covered by the translated tests. In either case, these students may have the option of writing responses in their native language.

While test site accommodations can go a long way toward helping students like Sharzina, parents and advocates are concerned about the lack of information regarding the types of accommodations available throughout the state and inconsistencies in administering these accommodations. There also are serious concerns about the quality of the translated Regents tests available.

English Language Regents

While the subject-content Regents exams are not intended to gauge English proficiency, the English Language Arts exam is intended to ensure that a student has achieved a certain level in reading and writing English. The English Regents constitutes perhaps the greatest hurdle to graduating high school for ELL students. In 2001, English-language learners in New York City scored 20 percentage points below mainstream students in the English Regents Exam. In 2003, only 33 percent of those English-language learners who took the exam passed the English Regents.

Immigrant students, parents, and community leaders have been advocating for the Board of Regents, the Governor, and the State Legislature to address the dropout crisis by establishing an alternative English proficiency test for late-arriving students to be able to graduate. One proposed alternative is to use a native language arts exam in combination with the State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) – an exam that English-language learners already must take each year to gauge their English proficiency and progress in ESL or bilingual classes.

Opponents of this idea say that creating different standards for English-language learners does them a disservice by not preparing them as well as those students who are native English-speakers. Advocates of the alternative test counter that an alternative exam would set an appropriately high standard that reflects the background and experiences of recently-arrived students. They argue that requiring recently-arrived students to take an English Regents exam designed for native speakers who have grown up speaking, reading, and writing English unfairly sets up these students to fail and drop out.

State legislation (A.4313), introduced by Assemblyman Peter Rivera and approved by the State Assembly Education Committee, is currently pending that would permit recently-arrived English-language learners to pass a native language arts exam and English proficiency test as an alternative to passing the English Regents exam.

Advocates are urging the city to help students prepare for the Regents by increasing funding to provide much-needed additional quality instruction for them and by creating an English-language learner dropout prevention initiative that would substantially increase funds for those at risk in high school to receive more English and subject-content instruction and test preparation.

Deycy Avitia works on education reform for The New York Immigration Coalition 

Bringing Diversity to New York Elite High Schools


 

Calculus class at Stuyvesant

Luis Rosario just completed fifth grade but he already thinks about attending an Ivy League college. And he would seem to be on his way. He won first prize in his district’s fifth grade science fair, scored high on the state math test, gets straight A’s and is fascinated by robotic sciences.

His mother, Judith Pena, wanted to get him into a program to prepare him for one of the city’s specialized high schools. Then she learned about the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering. ”This is even better,” she said. And so, next month Luis Rosario will join the first sixth grade class of Columbia Secondary, a new select school in upper Manhattan.

Columbia Secondary is aimed at top students like Luis, students who one would expect to attend an elite public high school. But over the years the so-called specialized schools have not attracted a large number of gifted black and Hispanic students. In fact, over the past decade, the percentage of students from the city’s large black and Hispanic population who attend these select schools has decreased significantly.

Under the banner “strength in diversity,” Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering will try to change that. The school, a partnership of the Department of Education and Columbia University, is aggressively recruiting black and Hispanic students and plans to try out new methods to achieve a more equitable racial balance.

The Elite High Schools

Every fall, eighth graders across all five boroughs compete to gain admission to New York City’s elite select schools, officially known as specialized schools. Admission is based solely on a student’s score on the specialized schools exam. In recent years, the longstanding triumvirate– Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech – has acquired five newcomers, bringing the total number of select high schools to eight. (The Department of Education considers LaGuardia, an art school, as a specialized school but students are admitted on the basis of auditions, portfolios and their records – and do not take the specialized high school test.) Nevertheless, of the 28,000 students who applied to the freshman classes of these schools in 2006, only some 5,500 got in, and an increasing number of them are white or Asian.

 

Meanwhile, the percentage of black students at these schools -- never high -- fell between 1994 and 2005. At Bronx Science only five percent of the students are black, at Brooklyn Technical High 15 percent, and at Stuyvesant, the most selective of the schools, only 2 percent of all students are black, according to the city Department of Education.

The student body at the newer select schools is more diverse. The High School for American Studies at Lehman College, which opened in 2002, is 31 percent white, 23 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian and other. But it still fails to mirror the citywide ethnic breakdown of students: 14 percent white, 35 percent black, 37 percent Hispanic and 14 percent Asian and other.

City officials have repeatedly said they have no explanation for the drop in black enrollment. Some experts blame the reliance on a single test for selecting students and the ability of more affluent parents to hire tutors to prepare their children for that test. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has resisted any effort to alter the admissions criteria. He has, however, expanded the Specialized High School Institute to help students prepare for it.

Clara Hemphill, former director of Inside Schools and author of New York City’s Best Public High Schools, attributed the decline in black enrollment to the increase in the number of Asian students. Today Asians constitute 56 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body. Given the limited number of seats at the select schools, if enrollment from one group increases substantially, the number of students admitted from other groups must decline.

“There is a culture of test-prep among many Asian families which doesn’t exist (or which exists to a much lesser extent) in black and Hispanic families,” Hemphill wrote in an email. “Some Asian kids start prepping on Saturdays for the test as early as third or fourth grade.” Hemphill added that many of the brightest black and Hispanic students get offers from private schools, leaving fewer top minority students available to attend the elite public schools.

A report released in January by the Coalition for Educational Justice on New York City’s Middle-Grade Schools suggests another factor: “pervasive low achievement in the city’s middle-grade schools, particularly those serving predominantly African-American and Latino students, based on the patterns of low academic expectations and inequitable instructional quality.”

“I honestly feel like kids in low income community schools are not provided with the kinds of resources that prepare them to take the necessary tests to make it into some of the specialized high schools,” wrote Ocynthia Williams of the coalition in an e-mail. “Plenty of resources are provided in elementary and high schools, but by the time they enter junior high (a critical period in their lives in many ways), the system seems to just forget about what is needed for those kids.”

Dona Matthews, director of the Hunter College Center for Gifted Studies and Education who has written widely about gifted education and adolescents, said that gifted programs tend to be predominantly white or Asian, raising questions of cultural identity for the black and Hispanic students in them. “Making it work and making it comfortable and welcoming so they don’t feel they have to choose between being black on the one hand and gifted on the other is important,” Matthews said.

An Elite School in Harlem

Whatever the explanation for the paucity of black and Hispanics in elite schools, the education department hopes the addition of three select schools, including Columbia Secondary, by 2009 will help reach more minority students. “We are definitely positioning these schools in neighborhoods where we hope we can attract the attention of historically underserved populations like blacks and Hispanics,” said Melody Meyer, press secretary for the Department of Education. “It was important for us to have a specialized school in Harlem.” she said, explaining that strong students from northern Manhattan have had to travel to the Bronx, lower Manhattan or Brooklyn to attend a select school.

Location isn’t the only factor that differentiates Columbia Secondary from the other elite high schools. For starters, Columbia Secondary is the only one to begin in grade six, rather than nine. The first sixth-grade class starting in fall 2007 will have 86 students. The school will admit an additional grade each year. In seven years, the school will reach its full capacity of seven grades and 650 to 700 students. In keeping with the general move toward small schools, Columbia Secondary will be significantly smaller than the three original select schools, which have between 2,500 to 4,000 students in grades nine through twelve.

Science class At Brooklyn Tech

For grades six through eight, Columbia will admit only students who live north of 96th Street, which includes Harlem, Washington Heights and East Harlem, home to large populations of blacks, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics. For ninth grade and above, Columbia Secondary, like the other select schools, will be open to students throughout the city.

The restricted admissions policy guarantees an applicant pool with large numbers of blacks and Hispanics, said the school’s principal, Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico and long-time educator. to further guarantee diversity, the school admissions committee selected the students from each of four districts in northern Manhattan.

To spread word about the school, Maldonado-Rivera undertook an extensive recruitment effort last academic year, visiting elementary schools and holding information sessions for parents, students and guidance counselors. More than 800 students from across northern Manhattan applied to the 2007 sixth-grade class. Of these, school officials, based on standardized English language arts and math test scores and fifth grade report cards, selected 227 students to take an essay exam. Only 105 made the final cut when admittance letters went out in the second week of March.

The entering class is 55 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black and 30 percent white and Asian. “I know of no other math/science specialty school that can claim this diversity,” Maldonado-Rivera wrote in an e-mail.

Maldonado-Rivera’s hope is that the diversity of the sixth grade class will spill over into the high school. Columbia Secondary will really be two schools in one – a middle school serving grades six through eight and a high school for grades nine through twelve. The high school will be open to students throughout the city based on their score on the specialized high school test. But students who attend grades six through eight at Columbia Secondary could get some kind of preference in admissions. Maldonado-Rivera said that exactly what that “preferential treatment” might entail was still being worked out and emphasized that their admission to the Columbia Secondary high school would not be a free ride.

In including grades six through twelve, Columbia Secondary is part of the trend toward combining middle school grades with either elementary schools or high schools. Some educators believe the best way to solve the problem of failing middle schools is to largely eliminate them.

Maldonado-Rivera sees the length of time students could spend at the school as an advantage. “We’re here for seven years as opposed to only three or four,” he said

The Columbia Program

Students at Bronx Sceience

The school will provide a rigorous core curriculum with courses in science, math, engineering, social studies, English and philosophy. Students will be able to take creative arts minicourses and physical fitness electives as well, along with after-school electives like journalism, robotics and webpage and multimedia design. The school will also host field expeditions and a travel abroad program.

Columbia Secondary will embrace the cultural backgrounds of its students. In addition to requiring five years of Spanish instruction, the school will offer courses that focus on black and Hispanic scientists and literary figures. Maldonado-Rivera said he has lined up black and Hispanic scientists and engineers to give lectures and participate in career fairs.

As part of the school’s outreach efforts, Maldonado-Rivera wants to initiate a tutoring-buddy system with four elementary schools in the area. This would give Columbia Secondary students, who will be mentored by Columbia engineering undergraduates, the opportunity in turn to mentor local third-grade kids.

“The idea is that the elementary kids of these four schools will start to visualize themselves as future Columbia Secondary students,” said Maldonado-Rivera.

Maldonado-Rivera said the school plans Saturday projects in the community, such as . a cleanup of Morningside Park. In keeping with the school’s emphasis on developing it students’ social and political consciousness, each sixth-grader will participate in a group that will design and carry out a community service projects like measuring water quality or monitoring garbage disposal in the city’s parks.

Looking for a Home

Like most of the new schools the Department of Education has launched in the last few years, Columbia Secondary has experienced startup problems. Relations with the Harlem community got off to a rocky start last fall when the city Department of Education announced plans to temporarily house Columbia Secondary in PS 36, the only K-2 school in the city. The department said this would only be temporary and Columbia would eventually have its own new building.

This did not mollify many in the PS 36 community. Parents and local residents held rallies to protest the decision, which they said the Department of Education made without consulting them. They also expressed concern over 13-year-olds attending school with kindergarteners and first-graders. Eventually their protests convinced the department to withdraw its proposal early this year.

Columbia University is planning to construct a building for the school as part of its expansion into Manhattanville, but this would not take place for at least five years, according to Columbia’s vice-provost, Roxie Smith. She said Columbia University’s support for the school would continue regardless of whether or not its controversial expansion plan goes forward.

For now the Department of Education has decided to temporarily house the new school on two floors of PS-125 on 123rd Street.

The confusion about location did not faze Barbara Pressman, who thought the school might be a good fit for her son, Matthew. She particularly liked the school’s emphasis on reaching out, being communicative and relating science to the world, which she described as “crossing the science/society barrier.”

Adam Stern, whose son Jackson will enter the sixth grade at Columbia Secondary this fall, said the school almost sounded too good to be true. “The fact that he can be in this school up to college and take classes at Columbia is fantastic,” Stern said. “What more could you ask for?”

 

When Students Need 'Someone to Talk to'


Our guidance counselor came to the classroom for a brief, and awkward conversation with my English class. One of our schoolmates had committed suicide. It was almost exactly a year after the deaths of two other schoolmates had left my classmates and me reeling. The counselor asked us how we felt, and it felt strange for an adult working in the school to ask us about our emotions.

Many New York City students would like to have someone to whom they can turn. But a large percentage of New York City schools offer no mental health services.

According to the New York State Coalition for School Based Primary Care, one in five children in New York City have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, and at least one in ten has a serious emotional disturbance that interferes with their ability to function on a daily basis. Seventy percent of teens with a severe diagnosis do not receive any mental health services, and about 100,000 teens are on waiting lists for mental health services in New York City.

BRINGING HELP TO SCHOOLS

To help more young people get the care they need, New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer and representatives of a number of advocacy groups rallied outside City Hall in June to try to convince the city to provide $6 million to fund at least one full-time clinical social worker or psychologist in each school-based health center. The groups also wanted to open school-based health centers, where students can receive medical, mental and dental services, in schools that don’t have them.

Advocates like Adria Cruz-Peña, school health services manager of the Children's Aid Society, thought that the time was right for this cause. “When we were pushing for this, we had just learned about the killing scene in Virginia,” says Cruz-Peña, referring to the events at Virginia Tech where a student with a history of psychological problems killed 32 people and himself this spring. “We think this type of thing can be prevented when you have timely mental health services and information.”

But the funding was not included in the city budget adopted in June. “It’s so disappointing because we know the impact that the services have on the mental health of our teenagers,” Cruz-Peña said.

The Coalition for School Based Primary Care plans to try again next year.

SERVICES IN SCHOOLS

The New York State School-Based Health Centers Program, which Cruz-Peña calls “the best-kept secret in New York,” started in 1981 to treat children in low-income, high-risk communities, many of whom had no health insurance. The program sought to provide health services to children through teams of school nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, physician assistants, community health aides, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, health educators, nutritionists and dentists. There are now 61 such centers in New York City high schools and middle schools, according to the New York State Coalition for School Based Primary Care, and many other states have introduced similar services.

Advocates of the centers say that providing mental health services can make a profound difference. According to the Children’s Aid Society, students who received mental health services in the centers showed declines in depression and improvement in self-concept. They also determined that adolescents were far more likely to seek help for depression and suicidal thoughts at school-based programs than ones in the larger community.

But not all schools have health centers, and of those that do, not all provide adequate mental health services. One quarter of the school-based centers provide no mental health services, one quarter have only one mental health provider for up to 4,000 students, and only half have one full-time provider.

Children in schools without school-based health centers can have a tough time accessing mental health services. Although the Department of Education must hire a school nurse for every New York City public school, the nurses do not have to be trained in mental health issues.

The school based health centers are funded through grants from the state and city government or agreements with private health centers or nearby hospitals. This almost guarantees that not every school will have a center since not every school is near a hospital or able to get a grant from the government. Few of the centers can bill Medicaid and virtually none can bill private insurance, so most are not reimbursed for the services they provide.

EXPANDING THE CENTER

Advocates for the centers say they provide a valuable service. “Young people have issues,” said Brewer. “Communities are challenged with drugs, incest, housing and there’s nobody to talk to. You need someone to talk to and you need somebody on site because if you tell people to go to a hospital, they’re not going to go.

Teens who do not have access to these centers have few options beyond government health clinics, which Dr. Chris Kjolhede, a member of the steering committee of the Coalition for School Based Primary Care, describes as “understaffed and not necessarily teen friendly.”

Further many teens may be reluctant to go to them. Because mental illness has a ”stigma,” Brewer said, students might be reluctant to go to a clinic in an unfamiliar setting. But, she continued, ”If you’re at a [school based] health clinic, there is no stigma. No one knows who you’re going to see and it’s none of anyone’s business.”

But not everyone sees the need for more mental health facilities. Columnist Mike Males of Youth Today cites numerous studies showing that teens are happier than they have ever been. He also refers to a Kansas State University study that showed that only 5 percent of students use mental health services, a rate that has not changed in 15 years.

Brewer thinks there remains a pressing need. In New York City, she said, 5 percent still means a large number of students. “It’s just someone to talk,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be more than that.”

I can see her point. After the guidance counselor left my classroom, a quick glance around revealed bowed heads and watery eyes. It was clear many of us did need someone to talk to.

This article by April Daley, 17, a writer for New Youth Connections, written by and for New York City teens, is adapted from the pages of our partner, Youth Communication.

 



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