It's teacher hunting season!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bloomberg's worse legacy: blatantly segregated schools in New York City

The Village Voice with Steven Thrasher's February 23, 2010 article, has done what liberal journalists have failed to do. They all have ignored New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's blatant racial bias in his policies. (Where is "the American Prospect" on this story?)

Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein have moved schools to a far more segregated pattern than existed prior to Bloomberg's replacing of the last Board of Education-selected chancellor, Harold Levy.

The racial concentration (90 percent white schools, 90 percent black schools, 90 percent Latino schools) has been obvious to teachers in the schools. Just go to the schools report card portal. You can see the pattern of which races have been enrolled in the schools in the last decade.

This article is a rare gem. The iron hand of administrators very aggressively does not permit teachers to ever to speak to the press. As to reader complaints about the journalist and reporting procedures, these are red herring distractions. The basic issue: opponents of the journalist and his story are embarrassed that in this nice liberal city that elected an African-American president, there are some parents that are conveniently shutting their eyes to a blatant racial bias that they benefit from. How shameful that we put such emphasis on the Supreme Court's 1954 "Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka" decision, yet in our nation's largest city, the mayor has been able to avoid scrutiny and create heavily racially imbalanced schools.
The difference in resources between the two public schools in the same Upper East Side building demonstrates that the situation is separate and not equal.

A journalist's comment on the Village Voice site puts it best:
he teachers that used to work at Lab spelled it out clearly--a divide exists and its unfair and there is something that can be done about it. This should be a wake up call. By making subtle threats--(the Village Voice's corporate headquarters out West)--you're really illustrating the kind of behavior that this article lays out clearly. You will bully your way into getting what you want--whether it's a segregated school or a journalist to shut up.

Here, in its entirety is Steven Thrasher's article on P.S. 198, where the mainly black and Latino student body enters through the rear door, and P.S. 77 for the "gifted and talented", where the largely (69.3 percent) white student body enters through the front door:
Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School: Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door
If you're a white student and you arrive at the public elementary school building on 95th Street and Third Avenue, you'll probably walk through the front door. If you're a black student, you'll probably come in through the back.
It's a very New York kind of school facility: two completely different elementary schools sharing the same space.

The boxy, utilitarian structure was built in 1959 to house P.S.198, named after Isador and Ida Straus to commemorate the Congressman and Macy's department store owner and his wife, who both died in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
Since 1988, the building has shared space with another school, in a tradition that has rapidly increased under the reformist scheme of Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
In this case, it's the Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education (P.S.77) that has been given space in the old Straus building—including the part that contains the front door.
Lower Lab is mostly composed of white students (69 percent) and Asian children, who are driven in from all over Manhattan.
Straus is zoned, which means it has to serve any child from the local neighborhood. For that reason, it's overwhelmingly Latino (47 percent) and black (24 percent).
Over the main entrance, the old sign for Straus remains, but Straus kids are told to go around to the back of the building.
Even Straus staff members are instructed by the NYPD School Safety Agent at the front door to use the rear entrance.
An African-American attorney, Granville Leo Stevens, who showed up at the front door recently on official Straus business, says he was only "grudgingly" allowed to enter the front door after he complained to the SS agent.
"It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," Stevens says.
The only people welcomed openly to the front entrance of the schoolhouse are very young kids with killer testing skills.
Lower Lab is designated as talented and gifted, and it's open throughout the Department of Education's District 2—which includes all of the Upper East Side and much of Manhattan south of Central Park—but only to youngsters who score high on tests given to them at four years of age.
In return for the high marks, the privileged kids of Lower Lab not only never have to sit in classes with the Straus children, they don't even have to mix with them on the way to school.
By 8 a.m., except for a few stragglers, the local kids walking on their way to Straus—some holding hands with parents—have all trudged up 95th Street, entered a gate, crossed a schoolyard, and disappeared into the back entrance of the building.
And that's when the other kids start showing up. Classes for Lower Lab start later—at 8:30—so at about 8 a.m., the automobiles start to arrive: Black Mercedes sedans, town cars, and taxis pull up to the curb at the front door, depositing white children onto the sidewalk. At one point, on a recent morning, there were so many black SUVs backed up that it looked like a head of state was stopping by before heading to the U.N.
Lower Lab parents often get out of their cars to walk their children the last few feet to the front door. Mom and Dad wear well-tailored jackets and suits. Several children's coats are adorned with lift tags, suggesting a weekend ski trip. And many of the Lower Lab kids arrive with musical instruments slung over their shoulders. (Lower Lab has an instrumental musical education program; Straus does not.)
Inside, the building is not divided neatly in half for the two schools. They share floors, and a Lower Lab classroom might sit right next to a Straus classroom.
There are areas that both schools share. In these spaces—hallways, for example—an emphasis has been placed on harmony: The hallways have been given names like "Respect Avenue," "Understanding Street," and "Unity Avenue."
Except for these nods to cooperation, you see signs of the division between the two schools everywhere. In a hallway, on a recent morning, there was a five-gallon water bottle for soliciting funds for Haiti disaster relief—but only from Straus people. A large bulletin board reads, "We are All Connected," and graphically connects pictures of all the teachers, assistants, and administrators—of just Lower Lab.
On a wall of "Golden Rule Avenue," there's a display of "position papers" written by a class of Straus fifth-graders. The illustrated title pages demonstrate how earnest 10-year-olds can be.
"Eat Healthy! It's good for you."
"The Damaging Effects of Alcohol."
Another, "No Smoking!," features the declaration that smoking "Damages teeth! Damages chin! [Makes a] Hole in throat! [Makes you] Lose fingers!" It's accompanied by matching drawings of finger amputation, face mutilation, and even a tracheotomy—the horrors of each rendered for maximum effect in the hand of a child using Magic Marker.
If only these earnest young moralizers were so passionate about classroom order.
"They are good children, they really are," a fifth-grade Straus teacher says as she fights a continuing battle to keep things under control. "But I have to get them to listen," she adds, her voice rising as she turns back toward her chattering flock, giving them the evil eye.
Throughout Straus, the biggest challenge of having almost 30 kids in a room seems to be controlling the chaos. Over a 40-minute period, a science teacher was observed asking her children more than 30 times to quiet down as she tried to teach a lesson about earthquakes. She scolded them and gave them disapproving looks. The students responded by staring at the floor, looking ashamed (or at least pretending to be).
Seconds later, some students tuned out the earthquake lesson and began a discussion of Nintendo DS.

The modern elementary school classroom doesn't really seem to help the situation. Gone are the rows of individual desks of yesteryear. Today's classrooms look more like the kindergartens of the past, with children sitting on carpeting or together at large tables. It's all very conducive to chatty conversation and not paying attention. The students of Straus spend nearly the entire day in groups on the floor or huddled together at tables with friends.
In this particular class, most of the students are Latino and black, and a few are recent arrivals from China. There's one white kid—and she seems utterly oblivious of her minority status.
The teacher is a stern woman whose commute can last up to two hours each way. Teaching is her second career, and she obviously has a love for it.
In the middle of a lesson, her students' chatter gets too loud. She stops speaking, and turns off the lights. First, she admonishes "those of you who don't want to learn, who are holding others back." Then she calls out another equally disruptive group: "For those of you who think you're all that, may I remind you that you still have something to learn."
In the constant battle, the teacher is always fighting on two fronts: There are those who talk because they're poor students and can't sit still in a classroom, and then there are those who interrupt because they're smart and bored.
One student from the latter group—we'll call her "Doreen"—can be as distracting as one of the troublemakers. Her intelligence shines above her peers. While her classmates are gradually starting to read simple chapter books by authors like Beverly Cleary, she's already plowing through the Twilight trilogy.
But for all her intelligence, Doreen is as likely as anyone else to disrupt the class: She's quick to get bored, and she's not especially modest about being the best. When the teacher calls out "those of you who think you're all that," her tablemate—we'll call her "Gwen"—rolls her eyes and looks at Doreen.
"She's talking about you," says Gwen.
Doreen sighs. "I think I'm all that, because I am."
"Well, why do you have to brag about it?"
"Because I am the best."
"Yeah, but if I got a 100 on a math test and you got a 90, I wouldn't act like all that and make you feel bad."
"But I got the 100, and you got the 90," Doreen sighs. "She never gets a 100," she says in an aside about Gwen.
"So? It doesn't mean you have to brag about it!"
"But I do have to brag. I have a big ego."
"Be quiet, ladies!," the teacher yells, the lesson interrupted yet again.
The teacher desperately wants the Doreens of the class to do well: She is noticeably tougher on the bright kids who she knows have the intelligence but lack the discipline they'll need in the higher grades.
As a Latina in the New York City school system, Doreen's odds of finishing high school are about 50 percent. The chances that Doreen will get into a top public high school are low. Latino students make up almost 40 percent of the school system, but at premier city high schools, they are pretty rare: 8.2 percent at Brooklyn Tech, 7.7 percent at Bronx Science, 2.8 percent at Stuyvesant.
Most of the Latino children who will go to these top schools are already enrolled in talented and gifted schools—not schools like Straus. The odds are greater that a bright girl like Doreen will drop out of high school than make it to college.
Meanwhile, the odds are very different at Lower Lab. At the very least, Lower Lab kids will usually go to the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies. Many, whose parents paid hundreds or thousands of dollars in tutoring fees for their kindergarten entrance exam, will benefit from similar training to get them into even more prestigious high schools.
It's hard to get to know Lower Lab too well: Administrators don't make it very easy even for parents of prospective pupils to observe the school. The process of getting one of the coveted 56 seats begins in October each year, a full 11 months before the first day of class.
Even a tour can't be had until you've aced the kindergarten entrance exam. According to Lower Lab's website, only 200 tours are given a year, and "qualifying families will be asked to present a qualifying letter during the tour. We kindly request that families who did not qualify for our Kindergarten or First Grade T[alented] and G[ifted] program refrain from requesting a tour as space is limited." The site refers to pre-K and kindergarten classes that don't require testing as "Non-Talented and Gifted Programs."
And in case you get any ideas that Mom and Dad might want to decide together on whether or not Lower Lab is the right fit, forget it: "Tours will be available to only one parent or guardian per qualifying family."
(School officials were just as uncooperative with Voice requests for visits, interviews, or even e-mailed responses to questions.)

From a distance, at least, it appears as if, despite being under the same roof as Straus, the children of Lower Lab are living in a completely different world. It's not just that they show up in fancy cars and wear better clothes. Nor is it even that the equipment seems newer in their classrooms, and that the science lab makes Straus's look barren by comparison. (It does.)
But, as one teacher put it, you can see the message taking hold that the children are already receiving about their station in life: "These children are babies—they're four years old—when we start separating them! When you tell them from such a young age, 'You are more than, and you are less than,'—when you tell them 'You are gifted,' and 'You are not,' they get the message."
To hear the staff of Straus tell it, the teachers of Lower Lab—who have exclusive use of the front door—have gotten the message that they're special, too.
"Some of those teachers, they think that because their children are 'gifted,' that makes them better teachers," says one teacher at Straus. "But why? They've already selected out the highest-achieving kids. They're easy to teach. We have to take anyone who walks in. We have to bring kids to the table."
Teachers at Lower Lab also deal with children sitting in groups, who are no doubt just as tempted to slip into conversations. But the teachers in Lower Lab have a major advantage: They have an adult-to-student ratio half that of Straus's.
It's very noticeable when there's an aide or reading specialist present in a Straus class: The teacher has a much easier time keeping kids quiet than when he or she is on their own.
Being alone is never a problem for teachers in Lower Lab. Each has a full-time teaching assistant in the room. That's twice as much help with students who tend to bring fewer problems to the classroom to begin with. Lower Lab teachers don't have to deal so much with children who live in poverty (9 percent of Lower Lab children receive free or reduced lunch, compared to 73 percent of Straus). The rate of special education is lower (13 percent of Lower Lab to 19 percent of Straus). Even the English language isn't an issue for Lower Lab: Straus has 45 English language learners. Lower Lab? Zero.
And yet all Lower Lab classrooms are staffed with a full-time assistant teacher, paid for by a robust and powerful PTA.
The differences between the PTAs of Straus and Lower Lab may be the most stark of all.
The Straus PTA is described as "almost nonexistent," "not much to talk about," and "well-meaning, but not very powerful" by several people. One parent (incorrectly) thought Straus didn't even have a PTA.
The idea of a fundraiser for the Straus PTA is a bake sale (selling Baked Lays and other "healthy" snacks, that is). Meanwhile, Lower Lab's idea of a fundraiser is an auction. In the 2006–2007 school year, the annual auction brought in $166,289. That same year (the last for which public records are available), the Lower Lab PTA took in more than a quarter of a million dollars, and reported $424,868 in total assets.
The organization also encourages each family to donate at least $950 a year to their child's public education via a direct appeal.
It's African-American History Month, and the Straus fifth-graders are marching up "Understanding Street" to the combination library and computer lab.
Both schools maintain their own labs. Straus's isn't bad at all, and seems well-supplied with flat-screen Macs—it's questionable how much the children retain, though, as each class gets only an hour a week of computer time.
Students find a list of famous black Americans on each Mac. The teacher tells them to pick one to write an essay about, with a few caveats: "No athletes, and no entertainers."
"I know!" one child exclaims. "I'm going to do Martin Luther King!"
"And no Martin Luther King," the teacher says.
"Awww," goes the chorus. "But I already know about him!"
"Exactly," she says. "Time to learn about someone new."
"What about Jay-Z?"
"Is he an entertainer?" the teacher asks so sternly that the normally talkative child doesn't respond.
"Mohammed Ali?" another child asks.
"What did he do?" the exasperated teacher asks.
"He was a—boxer, it says."
"Is that a sport?"
"Oh, yeah."
The teacher moves around the room, trying to help the students pick a subject and begin their research. One child is told he can't write about President Obama, because they've already learned too much about him, too. A lazy boy picks bell hooks. He's surprised to discover that she's a woman, let alone a feminist scholar: "I don't care. Her name starts with 'B,' and I don't want to scroll down anymore," he says, looking at the alphabetized list. "The teacher said we can't do anyone cool. This sucks."
Doreen, hearing about the prohibition on athletes or entertainers, types "boring African-Americans" into Google to find a subject.
The rebellious kids are not the ones that most worry the teacher and the librarian. It's the 10-year-olds who seem to know absolutely nothing about a computer, and are more than halfway through their fifth-grade year. One student can't find the period on her keyboard; another child doesn't know how to use a Web browser.

"How many of you have a computer at home?" the librarian asks. About a third don't raise their hands.
Getting their hands on keyboards for only an hour a week makes it hard for the teacher to make the students master and retain their "prior knowledge," a phrase the teachers in Straus repeatedly use. Teachers seem confident about teaching their kids—getting them to retain and build upon it is another story.
Doreen's search for "boring African-Americans" hasn't yielded too many results. She has gotten it into her mind that she wants to research "that doctor who separated the conjoined twins." She thinks he's male, so she puts "African-American male" into Google, which generates banner ads that the 10-year-old girl probably shouldn't be looking at. (She finally discovers she's seeking Dr. Ben Carson.)
The part-time aide that sometimes helps out is with another class right now. Working in tandem, it's hard for the teacher and the librarian—by themselves—to attend to all of these kids, help each one individually, and prevent them from ending up on the wrong websites. They barely have time to help the children navigate the computers, let alone deal with the content of what they are actually supposed to be researching and writing.
Even the ones with computers at home, the staff knows, are more apt to play games on them than practice their word processing skills. And, come next week, they'll be starting from scratch again with some of the kids, as if this week's computer lesson never happened.
It's 6:30 p.m. in the school cafeteria, and the Lower Lab PTA is about to come to order. Except for one parent, everyone is white. Before the meeting begins, member Patrick Sullivan regales the people assembled with tales of his evening the night before.
Sullivan is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's appointee to the Panel for Education Policy. The PEP, made up of five members appointed by the Borough Presidents and eight by Mayor Bloomberg, is the governing body of the Department of Education. Sullivan casts one of just 13 votes that control the entire school system of 1.1 million children.
The night before, the PEP had voted to close 19 struggling high schools. Each will be replaced with multiple schools, creating shared campuses like the one Straus and Lower Lab occupy. The vote came after a marathon nine-hour hearing, marked by racial tension.
Sullivan came off as the folk hero of the night. He stood up for the NAACP when testimony was cut off, to great applause from the crowd. He was one of the five dissenting votes against shutting down the schools.
In an interview with the Voice, Sullivan says that he was sympathetic to many of the protests that the mostly black and Latino parents were waging at the PEP about unequal treatment. But when asked about the inequities between the two schools in the building where his own children are students—where he is on the PTA—he didn't seem to view inequality the same way.
Does he think, for example, that there is a negative effect from having two racially segregated schools under the same roof?
"No, I don't think it has an effect," he says.
"[Lower Lab] is a gifted and talented program, and [Straus] isn't," he adds, more at ease talking about the issue in terms of economics than race. "The gifted and talented criteria is a standardized test that, I believe—and I believe many other people believe—unfairly draws from higher-income children and families, because they are better able to prepare for that test."
Sullivan says that he opposes the standardization of test scores for children citywide: "It used to be that the [talented and gifted schools] had different entrance criteria in different parts of the city, which would reflect the economics of the various zones." When the PEP voted to standardize scores, "I opposed it, and I was the only one who voted against it."
In Lower Lab's case, the sifting done by tests has resulted in a black population of just 3.1 percent.
If Sullivan was uncomfortable talking specifically about the racial differences between the two schools sharing a building, many black parents were not—even though they preferred to do it anonymously.
"We know they get better stuff and more money in Lower Lab," said one Straus African-American mother who works as a teaching assistant in a nearby school, "but there's nothing we can do about it." Another black parent, whose child was zoned for Straus, sent her to another school "so she wouldn't be humiliated by having [Lower Lab] in her face."
"Isn't that something?" the parent said. "I can't believe they put up with walking in through the back door."
Reconciling the disparity between what the schools receive is especially hard for the mother of one of the few African-American students who recently graduated from Lower Lab. "For my son and his development, I would have liked to have seen more students who looked like him."
When asked if she felt uncomfortable knowing her son received superior resources to most of the black students in the building, her gratitude outweighed her discomfort: "If I was on the outside, I'd say that that's not fair. But getting to be in the school, with my son there, I was happy to be the beneficiary of those benefits."
She candidly revealed that Lower Lab was a very good bargain for their money: "When you have 28 kids in a class, and you can give $500 or $950 a year, and you can have another teacher in the classroom and cut the ratio in half—I was happy to do it."
One thing that did seem to unsettle her, though, is her feeling that it happened through strong-arming. "The PTA was able to hire more personnel [teaching assistants]. That's circumventing Board of Ed rules. And in the Board of Ed, they are aware of this. But because the people on our PTA are powerful people, they are able to go out there and get these funds, and got what they wanted."
Another black parent put it more bluntly: "They've set up a private school within a public building, where they can raise money for their own kids, and their kids only."
It's the 99th school day of the year, and there is much to celebrate in the fifth-grade class of Isador and Ida Straus.
Not only is it the Friday before winter recess, but the class is having a lunchtime party (technically, a "cultural celebration"). The teacher has set up an elaborate chafing-dish buffet. Together with some of the children's parents, she has prepared a smorgasbord of foods to celebrate a smorgasbord of causes, including birthdays, Valentine's Day, the Chinese New Year, African-American History Month, and the final day of school.
Once the food is set and warming up, she returns to the carpet, where the children have been reading aloud When Marian Sang, a book about Marian Anderson.
"You see, children?" says the teacher, after Anderson has defeated Jim Crow to become an opera singer. "Marian experienced hardships, but she got over them. Every group has gone through hardships, and has gotten over them—black people, Latinos, Jews, Asians."
"Even white people?" one child asks his neighbor.
The food is served, and a table full of boys begins digging in. "This food is off the shizzle!" proclaims a bespectacled African-American boy. He and one of his best friends, a South Asian kid with a winning smile, are actually free to talk without being shushed for a change. They're arguing over who is taller, and whether or not hair should count in height. (The boy with the trim Afro thinks it shouldn't; the boy with the voluminous poof thinks it should.)
At the next table, a group of girls tries to trick adults in the room into revealing their ages by asking them what Chinese sign they were born under, then looking it up on the zodiac.
It's a festive mood, even though all the adults in the building cannot wait for 2:20 to arrive and their vacation to begin. With a snow day earlier in the week, the children have been unable to go out on the playground ever since, and they're wound especially tightly.
Despite the teacher's ebullience about the coming vacation—she is literally dancing at the thought—the hard work and money it has taken to put on this party shows how much she loves these children. She paid for the chafing dishes, and the food she has prepared out of her own pocket. Like all New York City teachers, she works with a budget of $150 a year—about 83 cents a day—to provide for all the supplies she'll need.
Unlike her colleagues at the other school in the building, there will be no reimbursement from the PTA. No auction is going to provide her with extra books, or a music teacher, or an assistant. Anything extra—like the food she cooked, after teaching all day and commuting four hours—is on her dime.
Once all of the children have been fed, there is still plenty of food. The teacher invites lots of other people to come in. Staff members and other teachers come on by. It seems like everyone is passing through.
Everyone, that is, except people from the other school in the same building.
The schools' PTAs exist on different orders of magnitude: Their teachers don't seem to interact at all. But what about the kids of the two schools? How do they interact with each other? Though they enter through separate doors, do they play on the playground? Can the "talented" and "non-talented" get along during recess?
The truth is, it never comes up, because they never, ever play together.
From arriving at different times, to having separate lunch times in the cafeteria, to having different recesses in the yard, the two schools just don't interact. They co-exist, as one parent put it, "like oil and water."
Dr. Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at NYU's Steinhardt school, and the author of The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education, thinks it's problematic to be segregating kids from such a young age: "When you send young kids to school where the racial lines are so stark, there is the process of saying there is something fundamentally different about us, which is why we can't be together.
"Some towns, because they are homogenous, their inability to create integrated schools is limited, simply by the fact that there is nobody else there," he says. "That's not the case in New York City. What we have here is really Plessy at work: separate, without even being equal—but very much separate."
In other parts of the country, cities and counties and states struggle with the inequalities that arise between schools that benefit or suffer from their geography—public schools in wealthy areas generally provide a better educational experience than public schools in poor areas. School districts have always wrestled with ways to minimize these differences, like how money is spent, how children are routed, and how teachers are allocated.
In New York, these striking differences have nothing to do with geography—not when two public schools can offer such unequal environments within the same building. And yet, the mayor's plan, embodied in the rush to close schools and replace them with even more multiple institutions, only seems to be exacerbating these differences.
Concerned about the lack of access for talented programs in Straus, the Department of Education is addressing the situation. Patrick Sullivan says the DOE will be starting a gifted program within Straus this fall, beginning with a kindergarten class.
Now, the zoned children will have the option of getting into a talented program, instead of competing with children district-wide. A girl like Doreen might have the chance to be in a gifted class, without competing against rich families who can pay for tutors. Teachers might not have to work as hard to accommodate their slowest and fastest students in the same class.
But the decision is not being universally heralded.
"Why on earth would [Straus] need to have a gifted class, if there's a gifted school already in the building?" asked one mother. "They say they're doing it to make the school more 'attractive,' but are they doing it just to keep [Lower Lab] segregated?"

Monday, February 15, 2010

Leonie Haimson's Feb 10, 2010 Huffington Post contribution

Here's New York City parent activist extraordinaire Leonie Haimson's latest contribution the "Huffington Post," February 10, 2010:
"Parents, Students and Civil Rights Advocates Protest the Mass Closings of Public Schools"
In communities all over the country, resistance is building to the mass closings of neighborhood schools.

Instead of strengthening our neighborhood schools, that have for generations accepted and served a variety of students, and providing resources and reforms like smaller classes that have been proven to work, officials are pursuing a scorched earth policy -- as during the Vietnam war, when the military claimed they were forced to destroy villages in order to save them.

Here in New York City, rallies and protests have attracted thousands, culminating in a tumultuous eight hour meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, at which parents, students and teachers pointed out how the Department of Education and Chancellor Joel Klein had unfairly targeted their schools, putting forward misleading statistics and incomplete or false data.

They also revealed how the DOE was itself responsible for overcrowding these schools with our neediest children -- many of them poor, immigrant, and needing special education services -- after having closed other large schools nearby. The small "boutique" schools and charter schools that took their place failed to enroll them. The schools now slated for closure also saw huge rises in the number of homeless students over the last few years.

Given all these challenges, many of these schools have done an admirable job. Particularly moving was the testimony of many students, some of them recent graduates, who eloquently pleaded with the administration, saying that after they had been rejected or discarded elsewhere, teachers and administrators at these schools had literally saved their lives.

Here is one story, told by a recent graduate of Paul Robeson High school in Brooklyn, now proposed to be closed:

Stephanie Adams, 22, described being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, getting turned away from school after school in a couple of states, and eventually enrolling at Robeson in the 10th grade. She started out in ninth-grade special education classes but was transferred to general education classes the following year and later graduated 11th in her class, despite being homeless for two years while in high school...."you're not just giving up on institutions, you're giving up on the kids, you're giving up on the teachers....Without Robeson to light the way I don't know where I'd be."

Over the course of eight hours, only a single individual out of nearly three hundred spoke up in favor of the proposed closings, and yet the panel, composed of a supermajority of mayoral appointees, rubberstamped these decisions with not a word of explanation offered to justify their decisions. Only the independent members appointed by the borough presidents of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens voted in opposition.

In Chicago, battles have been similarly intense and heartbreaking, with community members and parents fiercely defending the survival of their neighborhood schools, now fated for extinction, while officials assured them that they knew better what was best for their children.

As one commentator put it, "While local and national education leaders talk about increasing school choice, parents ... feel the choice they've made is being taken away" -- the choice to send their children to a neighborhood school.

And it's not just parents, students and teachers who oppose these policies; so do researchers. Studies have shown that in Chicago, students sent to schools in other neighborhoods after their schools had closed did no better academically, and in some cases, their displacement appears to have led to the worsening of gang violence, ending in shootings and deaths.

Before the 2006 school year, an average of 10-15 Chicago public school students were fatally shot each year. With massive numbers of school closings, this number soared to 24 deaths in 2006-07, and 34 deaths in 2008-9.

Here in New York City, discharge rates have skyrocketed as schools are phased out -- with up to half of the students in the last two classes at closing schools either forced to transfer to GED programs or just disappearing from the system's records.

Researchers have found that an increase in student mobility is correlated with worse outcomes in academic achievement, nutrition and health, and that nationwide, students who change schools even once are twice as likely to drop out.

Unfortunately, Arne Duncan, head of the US Department of Education, is forcing more districts to adopt these destructive policies, by making this a condition of their eligibility for federal stimulus funds. The federal government has ordained that states have to choose from a small number of "intervention models" -- none of which have been proven to work: either close schools, turn them over to charter school management, or fire half of the staff in the process of "reconstituting" them.

Attempts at actual improvement can be only used in about half of targeted schools -- and unfortunately the specified methods, like teacher performance pay, have never been shown to work.

After studying the these sort of policies for five years, the Center on Education Policy concluded that the federal government "must refrain form forcing schools to implement unproven strategies...Only with more specific knowledge can leaders create policies that help schools improve."

Meanwhile, in New York City alone, literally tens of thousands of students are going to be left without a neighborhood school they have a right to attend -- breaking the ties between their communities and their public schools -- while charter schools are installed in their place.

The expansion of the charter school sector proposed by the Obama administration is particularly risky. According to two recent studies, one from UCLA's Civil Rights Project and another from researchers at the University of Colorado and Eastern Michigan University, show that the proliferation of charter schools nationwide has led to more segregation nationwide.

Yet another analysis reveals how charters in NYC serve far fewer poorer, immigrant and special needs students than reside in the communities in which they sit, leading to a "separate but unequal" school system.

Some day these misconceived policies will be recognized as the educational equivalent of practices pursued by civic authorities the 1950s and 1960s to remake entire neighborhoods in the name of "urban renewal" and "slum clearance."

Those top-down policies led to loss of vibrant neighborhoods characterized by small businesses, a mix of low-rise housing in a complex eco-system, bull-dozed into barren complexes of cement, and caused misery for millions of residents dispersed elsewhere.

Just like the current educational establishment, which has withdrawn their support from neighborhood schools to make their eventual privatization easier to achieve, financial institutions in earlier decades disinvested in these inner-city neighborhoods and "redlined" them so that no loans would be available to improve their conditions- all in the interests of flattening them to the ground.

Indeed, the current policies constitute educational redlining, prescribing top-down solutions, with those in charge ignoring the experience and priorities of community members, in the heedless and arrogant fashion of those who have never themselves sent their own children to urban public schools, and know little and care less about what makes schools work.

Yet communities are fighting back. Here in New York City, the NAACP, along with the teacher's union and local elected officials have filed suit in state court in an attempt to block the city from closing these schools.

Let's hope that the courts deliver justice, before it's too late.

What a difference 10 years makes: UFT VP Leo Casey in 2000 on charters

Thought this Spring 2000 article by [United Federation of Teachers] UFT VP Casey would provide good background on UFT short-sighted thinking on Charters. The UFT is CEO of two charter schools in Brooklyn that take up public school space and are partners with Green Dot Charters which guarantee "No Tenure". (In District 8, Bronx)

(Given the UFT's supervisory situation in two charters, note the convenient duplicity. Casey's article below is from "Rethinking Schools.")
"The charter school movement provides both opportunities and dangers — which is precisely why progressives should not relenquish the movement to conservatives and venture capitalists."

By Leo Casey

When New York City's public schools opened last September, they included four charter schools for the first time. Two schools, International High School and Middle College High School, were small alternative high schools that converted to charter school status. Two elementary schools, Sisulu Children's Academy and the John A. Reisenbach Charter School, were new charter schools. Among the city's more than 1,000 public schools, no two are more different than International High School and Sisulu Children's Academy. Their differences highlight the complex and contradictory potential of the charter school movement, and of the need to engage that movement in positive ways.

International High School is located in Queens, in a neighborhood of commercial warehouses, small manufacturing plants, and large populations of Latin American, Caribbean, and Asian immigrants. The school was founded 15 years ago as a collaboration between the City University and the Board of Education, dedicated to providing a "multicultural educational environment" for students who were recent immigrants and English language learners. The only criteria for entrance to the school is that prospective students have been in the United States for less than four years and have scored in the bottom 20th percentile on the citywide language assessment skills test. "We are the only school which requires that you fail a test to gain admission," International teacher Claire Sylvan jokes.

Affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, International High School has a long history of collaborative decision-making, with its entire faculty making all important decisions concerning its educational program. Its teachers also play a leading role in a consortium of some 30 high schools seeking to institute a performance-based assessment alternative to the state's high-stakes Regents exams. International teachers were pioneers in organizing their school into fully heterogeneous classrooms, with neither ability tracking nor grade levels. Among its achievements, International High School helped trail blaze, in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a school-based staffing and transfer plan in which a school-based personnel committee, composed mostly of teachers, selects and evaluates the school's faculty.

But the staff at International High School had become increasingly weary of the many bureaucratic regulations and directives issued from the central Board of Education and the State Education Department. They saw New York's 1998 state law establishing charter schools as an opportunity to, above all, focus on education without interference from the bureaucracy. They wanted, in the words of principal Eric Nadelstern, "to be accountable for education, not for forms and paperwork."

The switch to charter status also raised some contract concerns, but the UFT negotiated an agreement with the Board of Education so that staff in converted charter schools will receive the same basic rights and salaries, pensions and health benefits they would have had as school board employees.

In setting up its charter by-laws, International formalized its traditions of democracy and collaboration. For example, the Board of Directors of the charter school was constituted entirely from individuals directly affiliated with it, as faculty, staff, students, and parents, with teachers constituting a majority. All board decisions are made by consensus. While International High School is facing new challenges as it assumes the responsibilities of the business side of education, the school community is excited by the educational possibilities ahead.

In essence, the school has a well-established history of innovation and collaboration and has proven over time that its primary commitment is to serving its students. It believes that charter status has become the way to best continue that tradition.*

Across the East River in Harlem, the Sisulu Children's Academy opened its door for the very first time this September. Sisulu is run by a completely new for-profit corporation, Victory Schools, which has no track record in education and which had just been licensed to do business in the state a few weeks before school began.

Victory Schools was started by Wall Street financier Steven Klinsky, a partner in the high-profile investment firm of Forstmann, Little & Co., who is known for his role in leveraged buy-outs. Klinsky is not shy about admitting that he has capitalistic, as well as philanthropic, motives for this venture.

Only a large corporation, he told The New York Times, can overcome the financial and logistical hurdles of starting up new schools; the profit will come when he achieves an economy of scale by opening up other charter schools. Already, Victory has submitted virtually identical applications to start five more charters schools in New York City during the 2000-2001 school year.

Klinsky's Victory Schools, the Times concluded, "intends to propagate schools as efficiently - and if its owner realizes his ambition, nearly as profitably - as McDonald's makes hamburgers."

To help achieve that profitability, Victory Schools used a carefully designed loophole in the state law and enrolled fewer than 250 students in the first year so that automatic union representation of its staff would not kick in. Consequently, it was able to hire a faculty that consists largely of novice teachers. The move appears to have been dictated by financial concerns, not by a desire to tap the enthusiasm of the young. The teachers are being paid well below the New York City salary scale and do not have the same health or pension benefits as other public school teachers.

On the pedagogical front, Victory is borrowing from the McDonald's approach of undeviating uniformity by employing a pre-packaged curriculum - a combination of E. D. Hirsch's "core knowledge" and a method known as "direct instruction." For seven days before Sisulu opened, its teachers were trained in the "direct instruction" method, which prescribes in exacting detail, down to their very hand gestures, what they will do and say in their classes.

While both E. D. Hirsch and direct instruction have their educational advocates and critics, the decision can be seen as primarily financial: A pre-packaged curriculum with novice teachers is less expensive than hiring experienced teachers who have the know-how to move beyond the pre-packaged curriculum and respond to individual children's needs.

This lack of concern with hiring experienced teachers also provides a potential explanation for a quite curious aspect of every proposed Victory charter school: that it consist simply of kindergarten, first, and second grades. When one understands that the state's standardized literacy tests "kick in" for the first time in third grade, it becomes apparent that Victory will be able to pass all of its students on to another school which will then be held accountable for any of Victory's failures to prepare its students to reach the state reading and writing standards in language arts.

Conscious that such a school profile may not be well-received in Harlem, Victory took a number of steps to give itself the aura of an authentic, community-based institution. It has named its school after a hero of the South African liberation struggle, Walter Sisulu, and rented its school building from a religious mainstay of the community, the Canaan Baptist Church. Despite the lack of any formal organizational or legal link, Victory Schools deliberately leaves the impression, with the willing assistance of the church pastor, that Sisulu Academy is somehow sponsored by the church.

The contrast between International High School and Sisulu Academy is telling, precisely because it points to the disparate social and political forces currently involved in the charter school movement.

First proposed in the early 1990s, the charter school idea grew out of the "public school choice" movement. The idea was to create distinctive public schools funded by public money but free of excessive regulation and bureaucracy. Each charter school would become, in effect, its own school district, responsible only to the chartering agency for its educational results. The idea was that this would allow the school to develop its own unique, meaningful, and innovative educational program.

It has been barely a decade since Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation and established the first charter school in the United States, but this new educational reform has already spread rapidly. According to a report this February from the U.S. Department of Education, there are a total of nearly 1,700 charter schools in 27 states and the District of Columbia, serving 250,000 children.

As it has grown, the charter school movement has become the focus of many disparate, contending forces. On the one hand, the idea of establishing new public schools free of bureaucratic rule and rigidity has attracted enthusiastic, idealistic, and innovative groups of teachers, parents, and community activists who want to create successful, exciting places of learning for children. This prospect is especially attractive in inner-city neighborhoods where there are so many failing schools.

On the other hand, there is a growing array of venture capitalists and for-profit corporations driven not by education but by the hopes of profitable business opportunities. These corporate forces are joined by conservative politicians and right-wing ideologues who view charter schools as the "thin wedge" which will prepare American society for greater educational privatization, for the transformation of public schooling, through vouchers, into a market driven by consumer demand and corporate franchise supply.

It is precisely this confluence of such radically different forces within the charter school movement that makes it a central battlefield in the struggle for the future of American education. If teacher unionists, progressive educators, and those genuinely concerned with educating all children abandon the charter school battlefield, it will certainly be completely taken over by the forces of educational privatization and the right.

As a starting point for engagement with the movement, one must appreciate just how different charter schools can be.

The enabling legislation for charter schools is adopted at the state level, and it varies greatly among the 30-odd states that have enacted it. State legislatures also tend to amend this legislation on a fairly continual basis, so even within a particular state, things are rarely static. Today, legislation can be as different as that in Arizona, where charter schools are, for all intents and purposes, totally unregulated, to Rhode Island, where local school districts have a de facto veto over charter schools and only two charter schools have been authorized. Even within a single jurisdiction such as New York, individual schools are starkly dissimilar in philosophy and program.

What is the significance of these differences? The more ideologically conservative of charter school advocates describe the Arizona law as "strong" and Rhode Island law as "weak," and give their support to "strong" laws which place the fewest regulations and conditions on charter schools. Without question, a law as restrictive as that of Rhode Island undermines the very possibility of establishing charter schools.

But not all regulations are undesirable. One has to know exactly what is being regulated and how it is being regulated. A recent study of Arizona's charter schools, for example, has shown that they have a much higher degree of racial and ethnic segregation than the traditional public schools: White students are over-represented in academic charter schools, and students of color are over-represented in vocational and "schools of last resort" charter schools. Similarly, a State Education Department study of Massachusetts' charter schools has raised serious questions about their record of accepting and properly teaching students with learning disabilities. One Boston charter school operated by the for-profit Edison company was cited by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights for its failure to provide learning disabled students with an appropriate education. Finally, a recent Michigan State University study showed that 75% of that state's 138 charter schools provided no special education services, and the remaining schools provided minimal and inadequate services.

For a system of public education to meet minimal standards of a level playing field, all schools - traditional and charter - must be open to and prepared to teach students of color, poor and working-class students, and students with learning disabilities. Regulations that enforce these principles in minimally intrusive ways are entirely appropriate. Yet for the ideologues of the right, educational regulation is always a counterproductive evil. As an invariable rule, it should be replaced with the invisible hand of the laissez-faire market.

For conservatives, this market approach also applies to the issue of teacher quality. Give the school administration the unregulated power to hire and fire teachers at will, regardless of licensure, certification, and tenure, and let the market punish the school if poor teachers are hired and retained. The subtext of this approach is that it frees non-union charter schools to cast an even broader net in hiring teachers whom they can pay below the local salary scale.

On an even more critical issue, some ideologues oppose any formal process of accountability for a school's educational performance, insisting that the market will discipline educational malfeasance on the part of the charter school. Amazingly, many states seem to have tacitly accepted this view. A University of California-Los Angeles study of California charter schools concluded that the state did not have "a systematic mechanism for measuring student achievement in charter schools" or for evaluating the performance of a school "against its charter."

At the same time, it is important not to fall into the inverse error of the ideologues of the right and see regulation as an unambiguous virtue. In the hands of an inept bureaucracy, regulation can do much more harm than good. Excessive numbers of regulations, lengthy and time-consuming paperwork and reporting procedures, and poorly wrought, top-down, inflexible rules are the cause of many serious shortcomings in public schooling - and the reason the staff of International High School found charter school status attractive.

The problem is how to achieve a proper, working balance between freedom for the individual school to pursue its educational mission and vision, on the one hand, and accountability to the public - not pseudo-accountability to the invisible hand of the market - for its educational work, on the other hand.

Charter schools present opportunities for educational innovation. On a pedagogical front, the potential benefits are clear: When a school is directly accountable to those it serves, and not to layers of hierarchical authority, and when it is of an optimum size for meaningful democratic self-governance, it can become an incubator of good educational practice.

Progressive charter schools can also be an ideal setting to develop new, streamlined teacher contracts that give the school staff more flexibility in organizing its educational program and more power over educational decision-making. As they now stand, teacher contracts are the product of the factory model school system in which they were negotiated; they follow closely an industrial union model, setting out to limit management's arbitrariness and abuse of authority with a web of rules and regulations.

But we must keep in mind there is a trade-off for this educational freedom. Each charter school becomes, in effect, its own district. It assumes all the responsibilities for the non-instructional side of education, from the procurement and upkeep of a physical facility to equipment and supplies (such as books, desks, science laboratories, computers); from personnel (such as payroll, Social Security, pension, health care insurance, unemployment insurance) to student transportation and student food; from insurance to federal and state government reports for reimbursable programs (Title 1) and compliance in the fields of civil rights, special education, and bilingual education.

Worse yet, it has to assume new functions, such as advertising and "public relations," since it must now attract its students. There is a serious danger that these extra-instructional functions will overwhelm the educational work of the school, taking energies away from - rather than adding them to - the school's core mission of teaching and learning.

So while charter schools do have the potential for progressive educational change, it is by no means automatic or inevitable that such potential will be realized.

Take the question of pedagogical innovation. Where charter schools follow in the footsteps of an International High School, such work is part of the very culture and life of the school. But where charter schools are turned out of the corporate franchise mold of Victory Schools, with "teacher-proof" curriculum pre-packaged like fast food and served up by a staff of inexperienced teachers, it will be a gigantic step backwards from what now goes in most traditional public schools.

Could there be a starker choice, or a more compelling reason for those who truly care about children - and not about profits and privatization - to become involved?

Leo Casey taught social sudies in a public high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY, for 14 years. He now works for the United Federation of Teachers on high school issues.

* In January of this year, however, the school was stunned to discover that the move to charter status may work against the school's innovative philosophy. State Education Commissioner Rick Mills ruled that International, as a charter school, would be required to give its students the state's standardized exams rather than continue the performance-based assessments it has used for many years. Faced with the possibility that charter school status might actually harm the school's educational program and students, International High School will now face some very difficult choices if it cannot persuade Mills to change his mind.

Spring 2000

Saturday, February 13, 2010

NAACP officials challenge NYC school closings

Benjamin Todd Jealous and Hazel Dukes, two National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) officials wrote a critique of the New York City Department of Education's closure of 19 schools, published February 10, 2010 in New York "Daily News."
Unfortunately, they did not call attention to the very keen racial pattern to the school closures, a pattern which I have addressed in a number of blog posts on this site since last year.
Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have decided it is a good idea to shut 19 troubled schools in New York City's low-income neighborhoods. The NAACP is suing to stop the closings.

The reason for the lawsuit is simple: Education is a civil rights imperative of our century. It is a ladder out of poverty for many working-class families. It was the civil rights struggle of the day when the NAACP brought Brown vs. Board of Education to end school segregation, and it has been one of the organization's cornerstone battles for 100 years.

We are suing because, in the New York City case, democracy was overlooked and citizens' voices - the concerns of those most affected - were left out.

In our view, the city blatantly disregarded the state-mandated analysis of how the closings would affect the more than 13,000 students who attend the schools, particularly special education and other special needs students, and how the closings would impact the often overcrowded schools they are sent to.

The Education Department disrespects the students and their parents with poorly planned and executed school closures. The department didn't even announce where the students would end up. Instead, they kept parents in the dark, worsening a situation in which trust was already a scarce commodity. If the students were from affluent communities, it's doubtful the administration would run roughshod over that democratic process - and doubtful the schools would even be closed.

The city needs to be more responsive to neighborhoods like Parkchester in the Bronx, where parents and teachers had to fight City Hall for more than six years to get children moved out of mold-infested trailers that were causing many students to become ill. Or the Queens neighborhood where the high school slated for closure is struggling to serve the needs of children who don't yet know English, have disabilities or are homeless. Or for schools in low-income communities citywide, where despite recently winning a 16-year-old lawsuit for fiscal equity and smaller class sizes, the necessary resources have still not been invested and students - often with intensive educational needs - are still being educated in class sizes of 35 or more.

Some New York schools may indeed need to close, but several of the schools slated for closure have foundations on which we can build better learning opportunities. If we invested in reducing class sizes, developed supports for improving teaching quality, implemented the court-mandated fiscal equity and emphasized college readiness, many of these schools could be turned around.

Read more:

Instead, many of the schools are bursting with students who have intensive needs - students who are being relocated from schools that had been closed earlier and will be transferred yet again. Some of these schools had an overconcentration of homeless children, who can find themselves moving from shelter to shelter and must frequently change schools.

No plan has been announced to indicate which schools, if any, have the capacity to serve the students being displaced. Instead, the city risks a vicious cycle of shuttling kids from one poor-performing school to another, disrupting their sense of stability and further threatening their success. The department's plan seems to be to keep rearranging these kids like deck chairs until the new schools sink, unprepared for their weight, or students grow frustrated and drop out altogether.

Some of the schools surpassed the list of criteria that the Education Department set for closing a school, so why do they face the chopping block? The majority of schools targeted for closure earned passing marks on their quality reviews, and one-third were in good standing with the state. These are legitimate concerns and should have been discussed in a thoughtful, meaningful way with the goal of seeking solutions.

Our lawsuit is about upholding democracy and inclusion, the ethos that drives all of our work. It's the underlying principle that led to Brown vs. Board of Education. The parents and students of New York City deserve no less. They should be given the right to raise their voices about decisions affecting one of the most fundamental and cherished aspects for any family - a quality education in a good school.

Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP. Dukes is president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP.

Read more:

NYT blogger points out curious coincidence of teacher "Rubber Room" stories

Sharon Otterman at the New York Times City Room blog drew attention,
in "A Teacher Terror Alert Phenomenon?"

to United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew's contention
that there is a curious timing of the recent spate of teacher reassignment center / "rubber room" stories when there is negative news about the New York City Department of Education.
While Otterman dismisses the idea of a conspiratorial campaign, one must note the New York Post is the biggest peddler of salacious teacher news, and that the Post even more aggressively than Bloomberg or Klein pushes core concepts of the education de former agenda. They do not need to be prodded by Joel Klein and company at Tweed Courthouse.
Otterman's disclaimer aside, she did a great job of pointing out uncannily convenient timing of the salacious stories to deflect general indignation over the path of the NYC Department of Education.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Charter schools are resegregating America

Study: Charter school growth accompanied by racial imbalance

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Seven out of 10 black charter school students are on campuses with extremely few white students, according to a new study of enrollment trends that shows the independent public schools are less racially diverse than their traditional counterparts.

The findings from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which are being released Thursday, reflect the proliferation of charter schools in the District of Columbia and other major cities with struggling school systems and high minority populations.

To the authors of the study, the findings point to a civil rights issue: "As the country continues moving steadily toward greater segregation and inequality of education for students of color in schools with lower achievement and graduation rates," the study concludes, "the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools."

Gary Orfield, a UCLA education professor who oversaw the study, said that racially segregated schools tend to face more problems than integrated schools in teacher retention, graduation rates and other areas. He also said charter schools have not been proven to be better academically than regular public schools -- a conclusion some researchers debate.

Charter school proponents say that their movement is giving families options they would otherwise lack.

"I'm less concerned about the comparison of the racial composition of the charter schools to public schools generally, than I am in looking at whether charter schools are getting the job done in providing a viable, meaningful alternative to the regular public schools," said Brian W. Jones, vice chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

In the District, about 28,000 students attend charter schools; the school system has about 46,000 students. Recent data show that 84 percent of the city's charter school students are African American, compared with 78 percent in regular public schools.

Nationally, according to 2007-08 federal data that the study cited, black students account for 32 percent of charter school enrollment. That is roughly twice their share of enrollment in regular public schools.

The study also found that 70 percent of black charter students are in schools in which at least 90 percent of the student population is nonwhite, and 43 percent of black charter students are in schools with virtually all-minority enrollment. For black students in regular public schools, the comparable shares were 36 percent (in the high-minority enrollment schools) and 15 percent (in virtually all-minority schools).

The study recommended that federal and state governments push for racial diversification of charter schools.

"We actually are very proud of the fact that charter schools enroll more low-income kids and more kids of color than do other public schools," said Nelson Smith, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington. "We're happy to talk about those demographic issues. We're also happy to talk about how to increase diversity overall in all facets of public education. The real civil rights issue for many of these kids is being trapped in dysfunctional schools."