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  GOTHAM GAZETTE: SEARCHLIGHT 2002: Bronx Borough President

The Education System Needs Radical Reform

By Adolfo Carrión

I wish you could spend a day in the life of a candidate for borough president. Most of what you would hear is about education. People say, The schools are not working, the kids don't have the kind of equipment they need, the textbooks are old, the facility is not modern. There are not enough after school activities. Where are the arts? Where are sports? How is my kid going to be a whole person?"

We must commit ourselves to providing a quality education to all children. The best economic empowerment tool, the best path to community development and the best social program is a good education.

To accomplish this, we need to bring radical reform to our school system. Reconfiguring the central Board of Education and dissolving the community school boards is not sufficient. We must move beyond reordering deck chairs on the Titanic to create a system that can deliver excellence in education to the children of our city.

The issue is not mayoral control because the mayor already has a significant influence on the board. After all, much of the money for schools comes out of the mayor's budget. The issue, rather, is the lack of accountability at the Board of Education. No one there has to answer for the many failures of the school system.

The issue is accountability. The voters want their elected officials to be accountable for improving education. To accomplish that, the central Board of Education should be eliminated. Instead, the city should have a Department of Education that is answerable to the City Council and therefore to the public. Under my plan, a new panel would recommend candidates to run the education agency to the mayor, who would then select the chancellor, or commissioner as he or she could now be called. The City Council would have to confirm the appointment. The confirmation process would provide an opportunity to begin building consensus on education policy and spending.

We need to have a chancellor who is responsible to the city's chief executive. Like other city agencies, the Department of Education would go through what should be a rigorous management review and a rigorous budget review by the City Council. This would shed light on a lot of issues. A public hearing in the City Council chambers is a little different than a public hearing by the Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street.

In this new agency, the community schools districts would still exist but the district superintendents would have a clear line of authority and be held accountable for the schools under their supervision. In every other municipality in the nation, superintendents are the backbone of the school district. Those in New York are highly educated and motivated but they are underutilized. This must stop. The superintendents are trained to educate children; let us let them do that job. Let them make important decisions and hire and fire principals.

We have nationally and internationally renowned stars in our school system. They must have more authority and not be micromanaged.

On my first full day in office, my first official stop was at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science. a Bronx high school that has to wrestle with the all-too-familiar problems of students who are considered to be at risk, overcrowded classrooms, and the loss of paraprofessionals. But under the leadership of principal Dr. Michele Cataldi and other administrators and teachers, the academy produces results that equal those of the best high schools in New York. Reading and math scores are in the top 10 percent of the city. The dropout rate is close to zero, and 90 percent of the students go on to college when they graduate.

It is administrators and teachers such as those at Hostos-Lincoln who should get the resources they need to help their students realize their full promise and potential.

Reorganizing the system alone will not bring about the improvement we need to see in public education. In January, I convened a task force to examine the best practices used at the best schools in the borough. From our discussions, we learned that we need strong principals and must create an environment to encourage parental participation in a meaningful, substantive and creative way.

The most successful schools we looked at had a lot of extracurricular activities to keep students on the hook and interested in the school community beyond the classroom. Because those things cost money, we found that the more entrepreneurial principals have the best schools. They seek out money, resources, sponsorships, trips -- all those things that kids need.

The challenge is how to accomplish this across the system without a lot of bureaucracy. We are currently formulating a plan on this issue. In addition, I plan to keep a complete report card on every school in the Bronx so we can track our progress and determine whether improvements are being made.

We must invest in our children. State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse's decision on school funding provides us with a basis for funding schools based partly on need. The state must try to meet the standard set in the court ruling. However, we in New York City must do more than point a righteous finger at Albany. We also must look at how we allocate resources in education, both for expenses and capital projects.

There is a huge, and redundant, education bureaucracy. We have a state department of education and a city board of education. They hold multimillion dollar meetings where people sit around tables for a full day thinking out loud about some of the same old problems. Instead, the superintendents need to have those bureaucrats, those technocrats, in their districts helping them make decisions. And the superintendents need to have the resources going directly to them.

As all of us work to improve public education in the Bronx and all of New York City, let us be clear about our definition of success. Success is a student with a high school diploma and a ticket to college or work. It is enabling all of our young people to become productive citizens. Bringing this kind of success to our young people requires participation by parents, the community and business and labor leaders, all working together to create a system in which resources reach the classrooms where the real work of education is done.

Adolfo Carrión is Bronx borough president. Posted March 1, 2002
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