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Entering the Autonomy Zone; Poll on Schools

by Vanessa Witenko and Clara Hemphill of Insideschools.org, Mar 10, 2005
 

One principal saves five hours each week because he no longer has to attend regional meetings. A second says onerous paperwork on student transfers has all but disappeared. And a third revels in the freedom to take students on field trips on short notice -- without getting approval from the superintendent's office.

They are among the 29 New York City principals participating in the "Autonomy Zone," a one-year pilot project created by Chancellor Joel Klein last fall. The program is designed to test whether schools with greater autonomy can help schools be more successful.

Schools in the Autonomy Zone (mostly new small high schools) must follow all laws, as well as federal, state, and union regulations. However, they no longer work under a local instructional superintendent, and they have more control over their school budgets.

Some administrators and advocates worry that inexperienced principals in the program may not be getting the supervision they need, but the principals in the program are mostly enthusiastic. "The Autonomy Zone is the best thing that has happened for our school in a long, long, time," said Robert Lubetsky, principal of City-as-School in Manhattan, one of the schools in the zone.

The idea is that schools can be better held accountable for their performance if they are given more autonomy. "Put control in the schools [and] remove any excuses for why the school is failing," Eric Nadelstern, the chancellor's chief academic officer for new schools, said at a panel discussion in December.

The Autonomy Zone schools must meet higher standards than the average New York City schools. In five years, for example, average daily attendance must be 90 percent and 80 percent of students must graduate. If the school fails, it is closed.

But principals aren't worried about the higher standards. "The threat of the schools closing in five years is the least of my concerns," said David Banks, principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx. "In my opinion these are minimal standards."

Autonomy Zone principals praise the time saved by not communicating extensively with regional officials. Aaron Listhaus, principal of Middle College High School in Queens, said regional officials “would show up without making an appointment, and so we would not be prepared to deal with them," he said. Before the Autonomy Zone, Listhaus said he spent 30 percent of his time spent dealing with regional officials; now it is 10 percent.

Leonard Trerotola, principal of International Arts and Business High School, said he uses the five hours a week he no longer spends attending regional meetings to teach one period a day and hold two advisory session per week. He also wrote two grant proposals for the school library.

Autonomy Zone schools also see a reduction in paperwork. Nancy Gannon, principal of School for Democracy and Leadership in Brooklyn, recalls the days when it took 17 papers and a police report to transfer a child to another school. "In the Autonomy Zone, I only needed 20 minutes and it was done," she said.

Instead of working under a regional superintendent, principals in the Autonomy Zone support each other in "networks" of five to six schools that have similar issues or philosophies. The networks meet once per month.

Lubetsky is helping his network schools develop an internship program similar to that at City-as-School. Another network focuses on improving instruction for classes that mix children of different abilities.

Listhaus said the network gatherings are more productive and beneficial than the numerous regional meetings he attended. "We can decide on the topics that suit our needs and not have to participate in the one-size-fits-all agenda from the region."

Autonomy zone principals also have greater freedom to assign staff and to design a schedule and a curriculum than their counterparts in regular schools. "At the school level, if you want to have three vice-principals, or you determine that you want a second parent coordinator, you can do it," said Banks of the Eagle Academy for Young Men.

Pace High School Principal Yvette Sy decided to have eight 54-minute periods instead of the nine 40-minute periods in most of the other schools in the region. She also hired an additional English teacher, dropping the class size to 13 students. "Every year there will a different program to meet the needs of the kids," said Sy. "We will change the curriculum depending on student needs."

But despite the principals' cheers, veteran principals believe that the Autonomy Zone has too many schools with first-year principals, who need the support and guidance that a good regional office would offer. Some of these tasks fall to the experienced principals who act as mentors.

But the role of a veteran principal and a regional superintendent are not the same, says Jill Chaifetz, director of Advocates for Children (the parent organization of Insideschools.org). "[The mentoring] helps a lot, but I don't think it's a substitute," she said.

Despite, the new principals' dedication, intelligence and hard work, they still lack work experience and professional contacts. "When you're a first year principal you don't even know enough about the system to ask the right questions," said Banks, who has been a principal for more than a decade. The chancellor is to decide the future of the Autonomy Zone program this spring.

Poll on City Schools

A new opinion poll (in pdf format) shows that nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers surveyed think the city's public schools are headed in the wrong direction. At the same time, more than 40 percent of New Yorkers surveyed said they think the schools in their own neighborhood are "good" or "excellent."

The poll, conducted by eTownPanel.com, a survey research unit at Baruch College, suggests New Yorkers have contradictory opinions about their schools. More than 60 percent of those surveyed said the local government should spend more on schools and nearly 80 percent said the state should spend more on schools. But fewer than half said they would be "very‚" or "somewhat willing" to pay higher taxes for schools.

The results could spell trouble for Mayor Mike Bloomberg this election year. He has staked his mayoralty on improving the city's schools, and the fact that the majority of those surveyed think the schools are getting worse is bad news for him. Also bad news for the mayor are survey results showing a very low level of trust in local government to spend money for schools wisely.

At the same time, there are bits of good news for the mayor. While New Yorkers may be gloomy about the state of schools citywide, fewer than one in four ranked their own neighborhood school as poor. And more respondents blamed the state for inadequate funding than the city.

The online survey, conducted from Dec. 13 though Dec. 31, 2004, included responses from 1,340 panelists in the United States, 169 of whom live in New York City. Although the panelists do not represent a random sample, the results are adjusted by gender, race, and geography to more closely reflect the general demographic profile of the city and the nation. Baruch College conducted the survey at the request of Inside Schools.

The survey also compares New York City to the nation. New Yorkers are more likely to give their schools a negative rating than most Americans. More than 70 percent of New Yorkers surveyed said the city's schools are "fair" or "poor." Nationally, more than half of all respondents rate both their city’s schools and their neighborhood schools as "good" or excellent."

New Yorkers surveyed are less likely to trust their local school system to spend money wisely than those surveyed nationally. At the same time, they are somewhat more willing to pay higher taxes for schools than those surveyed nationally.

This topic page has been adapted from articles that originally appeared on Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.  

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