Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Queens Courier: PEP OK’s closure of two Campus Magnet schools, collocations at Flushing, Newtown

Collocations at Flushing, Newtown also approved at raucous meeting

Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:13 am, Thu Mar 14, 2013.
The police officers and bodies in suits standing guard at the end of the auditorium aisles have become a familiar staple of late winter and early spring meetings of the Panel for Educational Policy in recent years.
The policy-making arm of the city Department of Education decided the fates of dozens of city schools, including two high schools in Queens — Business, Computer Applications and Entrepreneurship; and Law, Government and Community Service — and voted on a slew of other new collocated schools, including new ones that will be placed in Flushing and Newtown high schools at a meeting Monday night at Brooklyn Technical High School.
By a vote of 8-4, the PEP approved all of the changes. Seven of the votes came from mayoral appointees — the eighth member was absent — and one vote came from Staten Island representative Diane Peruggia.
The two closing schools — both located at Campus Magnet Complex in Cambria Heights — will be phased out starting next year. A new high school focusing on English language learners will open in Newtown High School’s building and two new high schools, including one dedicated to Chinese-speaking students, will open in Flushing High School’s building next year, which will allow the DOE to decrease enrollment at Newtown and Flushing. The DOE had attempted to phase out both schools last year, but a lawsuit prevented it from moving forward with the plan.
The four schools were the only ones in the borough out of more than 50 citywide whose futures were decided Monday night. Most of the phaseouts and collocations were in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The six-and-a-half-hour meeting was calmer than many in past years, but did have a number of vociferous moments. Parents, teachers and union officials were not coy about their frustrations and disapproval of the body’s decisions, not only those made Monday, but Mayor Bloomberg’s entire education policy.
“You’ve had 12 years to fix our schools and you’ve failed!” scolded Michael Mendel, the United Federation of Teachers’ secretary.
The real anger toward the board was less about its decision to close or collocate dozens of schools citywide this year specifically. Most were already resigned to that happening. At issue was the frustration with the Bloomberg administration’s policies on schools period, especially in his third term.
“You don’t listen to us!” screamed one teacher repeatedly as Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg explained the DOE’s phaseout and collocation policies.
Walcott said the department had done everything it could for the problem schools and that new collocated schools provide another option for students at failing institutions. He acknowledged there is strong opposition to the DOE’s idea, but defended it.
“We know we can’t please all the people all of the time and that leads to the reaction we see in the audience tonight,” the chancellor said.
Sternberg struggled to speak over the boos and hisses and chants of “Liar!” and “Fraud!” from the crowd when he outlined steps the city took toward saving failing schools. At times seemingly affected personally by the catcalls from the crowd, Sternberg said closing schools is a “last resort” and he wasn’t happy to be doing it.
“There is no joy for me or my colleagues in having to bring these proposals to you this evening,” he said. “But we have a responsibility to act.”
James Eterno, UFT chapter leader at Jamaica High School — which was approved for phaseout in 2011 — said the city did nothing to help Jamaica in the years before the DOE decided to close it and has done nothing for the school since. He also questioned the policy of collocations and phaseouts, noting the situation at the Campus Magnet — formerly Andrew Jackson High School — which was closed in the 1990s and replaced with four schools.
“If phaseouts were such a success, why are we here discussing closing two of the four schools located there?” he asked.
The PEP also debated a resolution drafted by Queens member Dmytro Fedkowskyj that would place a moratorium on school closures and collocations, but discussions about the proposal turned to criticism of mayoral control, which allows the mayor to appoint a majority of the members of the PEP.
“In 10 years, no one’s raised a hand against the mayor, because you know you’ll get fired if you do,” Patrick Sullivan, Manhattan representative on the PEP, said to the members appointed by the mayor. He accused them of not being involved in policy discussion, amidst chants of “Puppets!” from members of the audience.
“Did it ever occur to you that we’re here because we believe in what’s being done?” responded Judy Bergtraum, one of Bloomberg’s appointees.
Fedkowskyj responded by suggesting the DOE should have gotten involved in the troubled schools earlier.
“If these policies were put in place before phaseout, we wouldn’t have to phase these schools out,” he said to thunderous applause from the audience.
The resolution was supported by a number of mayoral candidates, but only former Comptroller Bill Thompson was at the meeting to speak in favor of it. However, one teacher yelling across the room at Thompson called for the mayoral candidate to support ending mayoral control.
“No to mayoral control, for you too Thompson!” she screamed, letting him know that she did not support having him in control of schools as mayor, even if he was opposed to Bloomberg’s policies.
The board voted down Fedkowskyj’s proposal by a tally of 8-3-1, with the lone abstention coming from Brooklyn’s representative, Kelvin Diamond. A contingent of teachers from Brooklyn booed Diamond’s vote, accusing him and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who appointed him, of being sellouts.
The PEP will meet again next Wednesday night, March 20, in the same location to vote on another list of closures and collocations, including collocations of new schools in August Martin High School; PS 156 in Laurelton, which is also proposed to be truncated from a K-8 to a K-5; IS 8 in South Jamaica, IS 204 in Long Island City and JHS 226 in South Ozone Park.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Janine Sopp: Listen to Our Voices

Issue #184
As a parent of a child in a New York City public school, I had no idea my 7-year-old daughter would be subjected to high stakes standardized testing. After Kya came home in a panic after being informed about “The Test,” I immediately confronted her teacher and asked how and why my daughter was even remotely aware of this unreliable test. I was told this was a way to begin to prepare second graders for what they would face in third grade. What they would face? I asked. Why was her education being treated like a sentence with consequences for being a child in public school?

This was the beginning of my activism as a public school parent.
Later that year, in the spring of 2011, I helped lead parent opposition at my daughter’s school to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s threats to implement budget cuts that would cause the layoffs of thousands of teachers citywide. All the parents I spoke with agreed this was a damaging proposal. Over time we began to understand how budget cuts, high stakes testing, Annual Yearly Progress reports that slap a grade on our schools, school closures and charter school co-locations inside public school buildings were all part of an accelerating drive by corporate elites to dismantle and privatize public education.

The amount of time and money spent on test prep while average class sizes grow and classroom resources dwindle is scandalous. During third grade parent orientation, there was mention of a “test prep class” on Friday mornings which sent me into a rage. With budget cuts forcing us to lose teachers across the city, limited amounts of the arts, sciences and gym, the loss of the library and the constant PTA fundraising for anything that would enrich the curriculum, why would we dedicate an entire period each week over the next eight months to test prep?
The thought of my dyslexia-diagnosed daughter sitting through an annual battery of tests that lasts for six days made me squirm with unease. I knew how she was doing in school. Every teacher she had was able to assess her strengths and weaknesses and was more than happy to discuss ways to take on the challenges she was facing. So why should I place her in a situation that I felt was not healthy or supportive of her education?

During the second month of third grade, Kya transferred to a more progressive public school — one that did not “teach to the test” but focused on teaching to the whole child. Kya’s self confidence soared; her daily sharing was alive with enthusiasm and her desire to go back for more each day was delightful. She grew both intellectually and socially, and I watched her flourish as a human being. How she performed was not as important as how she experienced the information. I could see actual learning taking place because she was intrinsically involved with the process and not just learning how to take a test. This assessment of learning cannot be gathered on a bubble test or through a reading passage.

Kya’s school was still required to administer standardized Math and English Language Arts exams even if they did minimal test prep for them. I refused to have Kya participate in this and instead arranged with the school for her to have a portfolio review and a pair of 45-minute exams which would be used to assess her for promotion. We found a wonderful and enriching way for her to spend the testing hours in the school and she rejoined her class each day after the testing period, feeling a bit like a celebrity. She assisted in one of the kindergarten classrooms where her hands-on skills and desire to read aloud to the younger children proved to be a much more valuable experience. She did not come home feeling afraid or stressed and did not question her abilities or intelligence. We agreed that if these tests required an “Opt In” rather than an “Opt Out,” a whole lot more children would have been with her during those six days of testing.

Now in fourth grade, Kya faces an additional high stake as this year’s test scores will be used to place children in the city’s best middle schools. I plan to contact any of the schools we are considering applying to before the testing season to find out how they will handle her application if it does not include these scores. My hope is they would recognize the value of a portfolio review over the use of these tests, which would actually tell them much more about Kya’s true qualities. It’s a hard decision but when the tests are conducted in April she will likely sit them out as well.

The solution to the pervasive misuse of high stakes tests lies not just in individual acts of conscience but in the collective organizing and action of educators, parents and students. That is why there has been an outpouring of support for the Seattle teachers (see page 8) and why parent-led groups like Change the Stakes in New York and United Opt Out nationally have formed in the past few years to provide information and support for parents who wish to withdraw their children from high stakes standardized testing.
The corporate school “reformers” who have stoked the mania for high stakes standardized testing in the past decade have failed (and manipulated) us. In New York, where Mayor Bloomberg has been given dictatorial control over our school system since 2002, only 21 percent of high school graduates are college ready, including only 13 percent of graduates of color, according to the City University of New York.

These self-styled reformers still have tremendous resources at their disposal. But now they are up against growing ranks of outraged parents. To turn the tide against high stakes standardized testing would save the millions of dollars handed over annually to test prep companies and reclaim the possibility of a curriculum that meets the needs of the whole child. Instead of being test prep factories, our public schools can be places where we support the love of learning, socialize children and welcome differences as we prepare our children for ever-changing, expanding realities of life in a diverse and interconnected world.

For more, see or

Friday, March 15, 2013

Who Killed John Dewey High?

Gail Robinson won a journalism award for this piece.

Pearl Gabel/City Limits Documentary >> View Slideshow >> Photos by Pearl Gabel

Who Killed John Dewey High?

In the '60s it was an ambitious experiment in progressive education. Today John Dewey High graduates its final class after being closed as a failing high school. What led the Gravesend facility from success to shut-down?Printer-friendly version
By Gail Robinson | Monday, Jun 25, 2012
On April 26, 1963, a dozen New York City principals went into seclusion in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They emerged 10 days later with a plan for what was to be one of the boldest experiments undertaken by the city's public schools, a blueprint for a high school that would foster independent study, replace the letter grade system, extend the school day and encourage students to take charge of their own educations.
On June 26, that experiment—tattered and eroded over more than 40 years—will come to an end as John Dewey High School in Gravesend graduates its final class. Earlier this month, all Dewey teachers received letters telling them their jobs no longer exist. Barring action by an arbitrator, when school reopens in September, the building on Avenue X will house a new school dubbed Shorefront High School of Arts and Sciences at John Dewey Campus.
Few in Dewey's early days would have expected this denouement. For years, Dewey's program attracted press coverage and visitors from across the country. "It is looked upon by school officials as a model for the future and by others as an island of hope in a sea of trouble," Paul Montgomery wrote in The Times in 1971. As recently as 2000, the U.S. Department of Education selected Dewey as a showcase high school, and in 2008 US News and World Report awarded Dewey a silver medal in its ranking of American high schools.
"Dewey should go down as the greatest experiment on the secondary level in the 20th century," says Bob DeSena, founder of the Council for Unity, a group started at Dewey that works to reduce violence in schools and communities.
So what happened? Who killed John Dewey High School?
Shut and open
John Dewey High School, of course, is not alone. Since 2002, the Bloomberg administration has shut or begun phasing out about 140 schools, many of them, like Dewey, large high schools. The administration says that as of September, it will have opened 589 new schools. About 200 are high schools, most of them small.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and officials at the Department of Education (DOE) staunchly defend the policy. The mayor crowed about the openings of new schools at a press conference in April, calling the results "really amazing," and adding, "It is an achievement that nobody, nobody, would have thought possible.”
There's little doubt that many of the shuttered schools deserved to close, and that some of the new schools have excelled. But the school closings have proved wrenching for many New Yorkers, sparking passionate protests from students, parents and teachers. Critics have charged that the DOE is so eager to close schools that it has ignored other, less-draconian solutions. "They are using schools closings totally inappropriately. School closings should be a last resort," says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at NYU.
In some cases, critics say, the DOE has--under the banner of improving a facility—actually abetted a school's decline. "DOE has a list of schools they think are not going to make it … and they insure that their predictions come true," says Norm Fruchter, senior scholar at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The department may place more troubled students, students with special needs and English language learners at the shaky school—moves that can further bring down its graduation rate and test results.
The closings have become an annual ritual. This February, the city approved closing all or part of 23 schools. In addition, when the administration and the United Federation of Teachers failed to reach agreement on a plan to evaluate teachers, Bloomberg announced he would designate 33 struggling schools as "turnaround" schools. Under a federal program, this meant DOE would shut the schools and replace up to half their staffs.
Initially, many saw Bloomberg's move as a bluff designed to win concessions from the teachers union and sharply criticized it. "There's a fight going on here that has nothing to do with what's going on at the school," state Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch, usually a Bloomberg ally, said last winter of the mayor's closure plans. “It’s a labor dispute between labor and management.”
Bloomberg eventually spared several "turnaround" schools. But on April 26, the Panel for Education Policy, a body controlled by the mayor, voted to close 24 schools on the original list of 33 and reopen them in new guises and with many new teachers in September. One of those schools was Dewey.
Education reform, '60s style
In the 1960s city officials saw Dewey not as a problem but as a solution. "There has been an increasing dissatisfaction with the goals, methods and results of high school education,'" the group of principals wrote after the Hershey meeting. "How can our high schools do an even better job? What changes must be made in philosophy, organization, curriculum and teaching methods if they are to meet the imperatives of our times."
The school that opened with 1,000 students in September 1969 tried to answer those questions. Named for the American philosopher whose theories form the basis for much of progressive education, it featured a longer day, with students spending 25 percent of their time in independent study or other activities. Resource centers, equipped with books and other materials, were set up as places where students could work on their own or get extra help. The school also had science labs, music practice rooms and art studios as well as a large outside campus that students could use freely. Dewey became home to theatrical productions, various publications and a marine biology program whose students took samples from Jamaica Bay and then pressed the federal government for stricter regulation of discharges into the wetland's waters.
The school offered a plethora of novel courses--on such subjects as the crime and punishment, the emerging city, the Holocaust and the American Dream --and independent study allowed students an even broader selection. Underscoring it all was a belief, as a 1982 documentary on Dewey put it, that youngsters should "be responsible for their education and approach it with zest and concern."
Dewey upended the standard building blocks of high school. Instead of semesters it offered courses in seven-week cycles. Students could graduate after two to six years. Letter grades did not exist. Dewey, an early teacher recalled in the documentary, "freed me to let go of every shibboleth … I had about public education"
Because the school's approach might not suit all teenagers, students had to apply. The school selected students through a process aimed at guaranteeing those accepted would have a range of abilities and reflect the diversity of Brooklyn.
Today many look back fondly on those early days. Naomi Berger graduated in 1975 and some 30 years later helped form the John Dewey Alumni Association to keep the Dewey model alive. "The opportunities were endless," she recalled. "By virtue of getting a rich experience you were prepared for college or the workforce or beyond when you went to Dewey."
Decline and fall
Dewey's descent was slow.
"There wasn't any one thing that brought Dewey down. There was a multiplicity of things," DeSena says.
Even in the early days, he added, there was "a dark side … There were a lot of kids bringing conflict from the neighborhood into the school." And of course there were budget cuts as the fiscal crisis hit in the 1970s.
By most accounts, though, the major changes came during the 1990s, a decade not kind to the city's schools as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani clashed with chancellors, lashed out at teachers and cut spending.
Marianne Stephan, who is active in the Dewey alumni association, attended Dewey at that time. "When I went to Dewey, I met people who brought me out into the type of person I became," says Stephan, who went on to get a master's degree in public administration. "I would not have done that without people at Dewey who care."
When she started high school, many key elements of the Dewey program remained. But she says, "The late '90s were when things started to change for the worse and they continued to go downhill." According to Stephan, "new teachers came in, new administrators came in that didn’t necessarily understand the ideas of the old administration, the old teachers, even the students … Things just weren't the same and it was very depressing being there."
Indeed, the leadership of the school changed several times, with at least eight principals (one acting) in 35 years. Michael Drillinger, who graduated in 1974, now heads the Dewey alumni association. If an innovative school like Dewey is to succeed, he believes, it must have "the energy of a single person or small group of people." For the first couple of decades, he says, Dewey had that "very strong leadership from the top."
Meanwhile, one strong leader, former assistant principal Saul Bruckner, had replicated much of Dewey at Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, an arguably safer and, for many prospective students more convenient neighborhood. Many students who once would have gone to Dewey opted for Murrow instead, says Clara Hemphill, founder and senior editor of Inside Schools
The final decade
Bloomberg came to office promising to be the education mayor. But the renewed interest in city schools did nothing to help Dewey and many other large high schools. The dismantling of the Dewey experiment continued.
As Bloomberg instituted his choice system for high schools—requiring most students in the city to apply to high school rather than being able to attend a neighborhood school— 100 or 200 students a year who were not matched with any of their chosen schools" were dumped into Dewey." according to a former teacher, now retired. Multiply that by four grades, and that left Dewey with "800 kids who could not handle the concept," she says.
The culinary and dance programs ceased to exist, reportedly victims of budget cuts. Publications stopped publishing. "It became like a Jenga game," says Berger. "Their answer to every problem is to remove another piece until the tower falls down."
Some thought the principal at the time, Barry Fried, was not up to the challenge. "He did not have a strong, solid commitment to the Dewey model," Drillinger says, and was "not the person to wage battles with the Board of Ed or the Department of Ed."
By most accounts, problems increased at Dewey as the city started closing large high schools in Brooklyn in 2003. The demise of nearby Lafayette High School, sent more students with little interest in Dewey to Dewey. Overcrowding and discipline problems followed, Samuel Freedman reported in The Times. "Since Lafayette began to close down, we've had an influx of students who are unprepared. It's destroying our entire school," Chung Chan, a social studies teacher, told Freedman.
The longtime teacher agrees. There were problems in the cafeteria, she says, and it became difficult to determine who was cutting class and who was on independent study. "It was very hard. It was very sad," she says.
In 2007-2008, the first year of the Lafayette phase out, Dewey had 78 more ninth graders—more than two classes worth --than it had the previous September. Also in 2007, the number of suspensions at Dewey rose sharply—from 153 to 250 Attendance dipped from 87 percent to 84 percent. Both numbers, though, improved the following year.
The graduation rate declined from 71 percent in 2003 to 63 percent in 2007-08, according to a 2009 report by the Center for New York City Affairs. It found that after Lafayette closed, Dewey attracted fewer high-achieving students and more "poorly prepared for high school," including recent immigrants with little formal education.
In 2008, a student brought a gun to Dewey, sparking a lockdown at the school. Later the school installed scanners. Students had to spend the school day inside the building, leaving the surrounding campus largely unused.
Eventually fewer students opted to attend Dewey. Between 2003-04 and 2010, enrollment dropped by 19 percent.
Dewey's woes mirrored those that have afflicted many other large schools during the Bloomberg era—in the Bronx where a succession of closings led to the shutting of Lehman High School this year and along the Brooklyn/Queens shore, where Rockaway, South Shore, Beach Channel High School and now Sheepshead Bay and John Adams have all tumbled.
"The prevailing philosophy under 10 years of Bloomberg is small schools are the answer to high school problems," says Hemphill, an author of the center's report. "What DOE hasn't come up with is a strategy for big schools, which still serve many thousands of New York City teens.”
As big schools close and small ones open, many of the remaining large schools find themselves unable to attract the top applicants a school needs to succeed. And so, Hemphill says, "the stronger schools get stronger, the weaker schools get weaker."
Meanwhile, Dewey, like all schools, grappled with cuts in funding. "When you cut somebody's budget and then dump a lot of kids there that no one wants to deal with, they're setting you up to fail," DeSena says. (Spending for school rose sharply during the first years of the Bloomberg administration. Since the recession, spending continued to increase to cover pension costs and debt service, but classroom programs were cut across the city. At Dewey, per pupil spending has inched up slightly, but an analyst with the Independent Budget Office, said that rise has been more than offset by an increase in teacher salaries.)
By all accounts, Dewey began to show signs of stress. The state targeted it as a persistently low achieving school.
In 2010, the United Federation of Teacher found that 135 classes at Dewey had more students than the number allowed by the teacher contract—the third highest of any school on the city.
Students lagged behind their counterparts in similar schools in accumulating credits. In 2008-09, 32 percent of students responding to a DOE survey said they did not feel safe in Dewey's halls and bathrooms. (This number declined to 23 percent in 2010-11.)
Visitors to the campus saw little evidence of the original Dewey program. "For an ostensibly progressive institution, Dewey has many classrooms that are traditional," Inside Schools reported in 2007. "Most rooms were near-barren of student-made work or art, and hallways, lined by disused lockers, had bulletin boards filled largely by generic or pre-fab graphics."
"There was a lot of room for improvement," says Noguera, who met with faculty and alumni. "The data showed it, and the teachers were aware of it."
Alumni, faculty and others tried to turn things around. City Councilmember Domenic Recchia, who graduated from Dewey in 1977, tried repeatedly—and without success—to get DOE to replace the principal. In November 2010, Friends of Dewey, including Berger and DeSena, issued a plan calling for curriculum changes, revitalization of the Resource Centers, restoration of the dance program and the development of new programs in a number of areas.
There was, though, only so much the group could do, says Noguera. "No one was providing leadership," he says.
The state education department identified Dewey as a persistently-low achieving school and, in 2011, put it on a list of schools the state believed should be replaced. In May 2011, the city announced it would seek a management change for Dewey and 21 other schools and a federal grant to help fund the process. In September, that money was approved. But then, in January 2012, Bloomberg announced his plan to shut the 33 struggling schools. Two months later, DOE did what many Dewey advocates had sought for years. It removed Fried, replacing him with Kathleen Elvin.
Elvin's work at Dewey has garnered considerable praise, but many wonder why it took the department so long to act. For years, the department "fiddled as Rome burned," says Tom Bennett, a Brooklyn representative for the UFT, "Why wouldn't you have taken the obvious first step to replace the principal?" Bennett continued. "I resist conspiracy theories, [but] it does appear that they did not want the school to improve."
(The department in its written response to questions about Dewey did not answer questions regarding Fried. It also did not respond to similar questions from Recchia and others at an April hearing. An attempt to reach Fried was not successful.)
With Dewey's days apparently numbered, student, staff and other in the community took the steps that have become hallmarks of school closing season in New York. They staged protests and spoke out at hearings, arguing that whatever shortcomings Dewey had, DOE should fix the school rather than shut it.
The school still has fans. Deion Harrington, who is graduating from Dewey this year, says, "It's breathtaking being at Dewey." Dewey let him explore his interests. Teachers provided extra help and if that wasn't enough, he says, they called in another faculty member: "No matter where you were sent, it was like family."
Christopher Reyes, then a 10th grader, told of similar experiences when he spoke at the April hearing on Dewey's future. "I walked into this school and became interested in a subject which I actually hated before, and that was history, and now I love history, I can't get enough of it. I walked into my math class and I actually liked it, because in ninth grade I had a teacher who would spend his entire lunch break with me just talking about math, history and math … because he just cared that much."
Dewey's supporters say the efforts to fix the school had already begun to bear fruit. The four-year graduation increased from 51.2 percent for the class of 2009 to 66.0 percent for the class of 2011. The percentage of Dewey graduates deemed "college" ready—23.3 in 2011—exceeded the city average of 20.7 percent, although that number represented a decline from 2010.
Responding to arguments from Dewey supporters at the hearing, deputy chancellor Marc Sternberg said Dewey's graduation rate still lagged when the school was compared to schools with similar student populations. Sternberg also noted the sharp declines in enrollment at Dewey "suggest a decline in parent and student satisfaction with the services rendered here."
The new Dewey
Shorefront High School will open as a single large high school with eight so-called small learning communities—clusters of 400 or so students with 25 teachers. Five will be based on current programs at Dewey. The school will have three new communities: visual and media arts, theater arts and dance and robotic and space science.
Counselors will be assigned to each learning community. The new school, DOE has said, will build upon "elements of the existing school that support rigorous learning and help students attain higher levels of confidence and achievement."
The resource centers seem all but certain to fade into history, although Vincent Brevetti of the Institute for Student Achievement, Dewey's educational partnership organization, says the small learning communities may provide the kind of support for students that the resource centers once did.
The scanners, though, will remain in place for the time being. And, unlike in the past when people had to apply to Dewey, the new school will take “over-the-counter” students, the often challenging teenagers who show up midyear, many having had trouble in their previous schools.
The biggest question-marks concern who will attend Shorefront and who will teach there. While the department did not provide figures on applications to Dewey, many ninth graders do not apply to schools with uncertain futures. Brevetti says he hopes any shortfall in students will be temporary. "If we do well by the school, it will be a very attractive option," he says.
The school, he says, should be able to meet the needs of even low-performing students. "If you engage a student you can bring out the best in them," he says. "It's the responsibility of the school to spark that kind of engagement if the student doesn't come in with it."
All teachers at Dewey have lost their jobs. Those wishing to remain must apply and face interviews. By all accounts, this has been stressful and upsetting for almost all faculty. Senior teachers in particular worry the process will hurt them. "Principals have a vested interest in hiring the least experienced teachers because they're the least expensive," Bennett says. (The UFT filed suit to stop the personnel changes, and an arbitrator is expected to rule soon.)
Teachers not finding work at Shorefront would enter the Absent Teacher Reserve pool. Many would probably eventually find jobs at other schools.
Despite the upheaval, DeSena, for one, sees some hope in the plan. "There are very positive things in it that will be attractive to kids," he says. "They've tried to diversify it, and I think it might work."
Drillnger also expressed optimism. "What they're planning to offer in the fall is, in fact, better than the program as it exists today and as it has existed for the last five years," he says.
There are, of course, no guarantees. In the past few years, DOE has shut down some small schools that once opened to much fanfare. Some buildings, such as John Jay in Park Slope and Erasmus in Flatbush, have gone through many permutations.
The department, though, remains strongly committed to its program of closings and openings. Officials cite a report by MDRC, which concluded, "It is possible, in a relatively short span of time, to replace a large number of underperforming public high schools in a poor urban community and, in the process, achieve significant gains in students’ academic achievement and attainment."
A policy brief released by MRDC this year seems to back this up. It found that all groups of students—black, Hispanic, low performing, male, female, low income—in one of the small schools was more likely to graduate from high school than similar students not attending one of the small schools.
Critics, though, charge that while many small schools have had good results, their student bodies do not reflect the complexity of the city's student population. A study by the Annenberg Institute concluded that, when compared to the schools they replaced, the new small schools were likely to have more students who were proficient in reading and math and less likely to have over-age or special education students and English language learners.
And earlier this year, the Coalition for Education Justice found that the new small schools at many campuses had fewer special education students in self-contained classes than the big schools that formerly occupied the same buildings. (Students in these self-contained classes are far less likely to graduate than other students.) While 10 percent of those attending South Shore High School were in self-contained classes, for example, only 1 percent of the schools now on the site are.
DOE denies the small schools have cherry-picked their students. "Our new small schools on the whole are serving more black, Hispanic, and students with disabilities than the schools they replaced, and than the citywide average. We feel very strongly about this because people often claim otherwise, and it’s absolutely not true," a spokesman wrote in an email.
As each side cites numbers to bolster its case, the puzzle remains whether a high school with many very challenging high school students—people who enter over-age, those not speaking English, those emerging from the criminal justice system—can meet DOE's standards for success and survival.
If more than 40 percent of students entering a high school have low test scores, Fruchter says, "you substantially reduce the graduation rates of the total school. … You have to control your school composition so you don't concentrate kids with low skills"
Whatever happens at Dewey, parts of this story seem certain to be repeated next school year. Bloomberg has dismissed a rumor that he would close 75 schools during his last year in office, but he told reporters he certainly would shut some. How many? ”Pick a number," he says. "It's less than the total number of schools that are in this city and greater than zero."

Friday, March 08, 2013

David Sirota on Demise of Democracy in Education

Michelle Rhee: Wrong again

Her education "reform" movement sends the lovely message that communities should stay out of their schools

Michelle Rhee: Wrong againFormer DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee
Most who are reading these words will probably agree that our country is facing a democracy crisis, thanks, in part, to the dominance of money in our political process. Many who read these words will also probably insist that our country is facing an education crisis (though many try to deny the actual cause of that crisis).
Getting past the denial stage and acknowledging both of these problems is certainly a step toward one day fixing them. However, there’s another more subtle and self-reinforcing form of denial that makes getting to those solutions more difficult. That denial — or perhaps cognitive dissonance — evinces itself in an American psyche that tends to perceive the democracy and education emergencies as separate and distinct.
Essentially, we see the cause of voting-rights activists, get-out-the-vote pushes and same-day registration crusades (among others) as divorced from the concurrent education policy fight between public school advocates, teachers’ unions and corporate education “reformers.” We see them as disconnected from one another even though the two battles are fundamentally fused by a simple truism: Basically, you can never hope to have a functioning democracy over the long haul if your education system is trying to convince students and parents to abhor democracy.
That, of course, is exactly what is happening right now thanks to a scorched-earth campaign by the corporate interests that see big potential profits in privatizing public schools.
Like so many other industries currently waging a war on democratic institutions that get in the way of bottom-line concerns, this Wall Street-backed education industry sees democratic forces — elections, collective bargaining, local control, etc.— as obstacles to private profit. Thus, the industry, through financing the crusades of education “reform” advocates, is trying to maximize its bottom line by reducing democratic control of the most local of local institutions: the schoolhouse. In the process, the “reform” movement is forwarding an extremist message to kids and parents that runs counter to the most foundational ideals of American democracy and self-governance.
You can see that message in myriad actions over the last few years.
For instance, at the behest of corporate education “reformers,” more and more cities are moving to eliminate the democratic process of electing school boards, effectively telling students, parents and the larger community that republican democracy cannot be trusted to manage fundamentally public institutions. Similarly, corporate “reformers” are constantly demonizing teachers’ unions, effectively telling students and parents that the major vestige of workplace democracy in schools must be crushed.
Then there is corporate “reformers’” push to replace publicly run schools with privately run charter schools, even though the charter schools typically perform worse than the public ones. That tells students that a public institution with some modicum of democratic control is inherently less ideal than a private, undemocratic tyranny.
Likewise, as shown most recently in this recent Reuters investigation, those charter schools often “screen student applicants, assessing their academic records, parental support, disciplinary history, motivation, special needs and even their citizenship” — and then hand-pick only the students the school administrators want. That tells students and the community at large that the core democratic notion of equal opportunity for all shouldn’t be honored even in public education. Just as problematic, as Andrew Hartman noted in his incisive Jacobin magazine report on Teach for America, many of the most hyped charter schools force families to “sign contracts committing (their children) to a rigorous program of surveillance,” thus sending the additional message to low-income kids that to succeed in America, they must be willing to submit to “institutionalization” and give up their most personal democratic freedoms.
Taken together, the education “reform” movement is waging a comprehensive war on the most basic notions of democracy — and not a secret war, either. It is quite explicit, as evidenced by the comments of the most famous and politically renowned leader of that movement, Michelle Rhee.
During her tenure as the head of the Washington, D.C., public schools, Rhee engaged in mass firings and school closings; helped private testing companies impose a strict standardized testing regime on students; did nothing about a massive cheating scandal in her midst; and, as PBS Frontline notes, produced an academic achievement record that leaves “Washington still among the worst in the nation and D.C.’s high school graduation rate dead last.”
That’s where Rhee’s little-noticed but incredibly revealing comments come in. As grass-roots opposition in the local community understandably rose up to oppose her destructive policies, Rhee made quite clear what she and her movement thinks of the notion of local control of schools and community involvement in education policy:
MICHELLE RHEE: People said, “Well, you didn’t listen to us.” And I said, “No, I listened to you. I’m not running this district by consensus or by committee. We’re not running this school district through the democratic process.”
FRONTLINE: [on camera] It’s not a democracy.
MICHELLE RHEE: No, it’s not a democracy.
If a statement like that about public schools isn’t offensive enough unto itself, remember that Rhee made it not as some outside observer. She made it while she was holding public office. Yes, that’s right: A person who held a democratically accountable office was making clear that the national “reform” movement she leads believes that schools are no longer and should no longer be controlled by any kind of democracy.
In one sense, Rhee subsequently became an encouraging lesson in the resilience of democracy: In a 2011 election that became a direct referendum on Rhee’s policies, D.C. voters took the extraordinary step of tossing her and her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, out of office after just one term.
However, in another sense, Rhee has also become a discouraging lesson in the persistence of the corporate crusade against democracy. Rather than being ostracized for her obvious failure she has been rewarded. Indeed, for coupling both education policy failure with such a brazen assault on democratic ideals, Rhee has been employed as an education expert by political leaders of both parties, seen the coffers of her book-hawking political front group expand and been rewarded with fawning coverage from the political and media elite.
That’s, in part, because that elite genuflects to the same corporate forces that see profit potential both specifically in education “reform” and generally in the larger effort to curtail democratic power. It is an elite that openly praises the “great advantages” of China’s dictatorial government and derides the concept of local control if it gets in the way of profit. In similar fashion, that same elite so loyally supports ever more extreme efforts to corporatize schools that it is willing to try to portray a failed extremist like Rhee as a national hero.
Considering the breadth and scope of this whole education “reform” propaganda campaign, it is a good bet that at both the media and the local schoolhouse level, parents are being stealthily influenced to see democracy as at least unnecessary and more likely altogether negative. Even worse, so are kids.
As anyone with a child well knows, young people — and especially teenagers — absorb what’s happening around them, and that obviously goes for the schools in which they are spending much of their days. They may not know the granular details of education policy, but they absorb the meta messages in which we are all immersed. And right now, that means that at some level, many are no doubt absorbing the education agitprop’s anti-democratic messages. Sure, they may be taught in civics class about the supposed supremacy of democracy in the Greatest Country on Earth, but increasingly, those civics lessons are being contradicted by far more powerful messages they see emanating from the concrete actions of the adults running their schools.
In a perverse way, that means our education system is actually starting to live up to the dream of so many American politicians, business leaders and pundits who want America’s schools to emulate China’s.
In that Asian nation, a dictatorial government — motivated by obvious self-interest — has rigged its education system to downplay the whole concept of democratic control and democratic freedom so as to create a culture that disdains the very notion of self determination. While more subtle in its tactics, America’s education system is working to create much the same thing. In doing so, the plutocrats and apparatchiks who run the education “reform” movement understand exactly what the Chinese dictators understand: that school policy and democratic ideals cannot be separated, and that the best way for a cadre of elites to squelch those ideals in the future is to eliminate them from the schoolhouse as quickly as possible.
David Sirota David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at