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Joel Klein's Business Model and the Drowning of Nicole Suriel

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With Joel Klein out the door of the Tweed Courthouse, having deployed his golden parachute successfully over Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp headquarters, a little bomblet was dropped by the Department of Education.

For those of you with short memories, the news release resurrected the tragic drowning of Nicole Suriel that occurred during the last week of school this past June.

It seems that the principal of Nicole's school has been fired. He was not relieved of his job because of the poor judgment he exercised in the events that led up to her drowning, however.

That wasn't deemed of sufficient import. He did lose his job because he had hired his daughter's "babysitter" as the parent coordinator of his school.

In the corporatist mind of Bloomberg's Department of Education, this conflict of interest was just too much to tolerate.

Culture matters, in education as well as everywhere else. When mayoral control of New York's public schools was granted to Mike Bloomberg by the state legislature, he vowed to transform a culture of failure and bring the successful business model that had made him one of America's wealthiest entrepreneurs to the running of the schools.

Joel Klein, his pick to run the schools, quickly staffed his education headquarters with MBA's, and established a training academy for principals headed by none other than Jack Welch, former CEO of GE.

Their ideal candidates to lead schools would come from outside the field of education and have limited classroom experience. This would demonstrate that management, not education, was the key to running a school.

Accountability would be measured by student test performance, with data the key determiner of student and teacher performance.

But when it comes to a school, a higher level of responsibility is required by law and demanded by the common sense concerns of parents. It is enshrined in law under the Latin term "in loco parentis" (in the place of a parent).

Run a school like a business and you quickly lose sight of that essential responsibility. After all, what business acts in place of a parent when it comes to overseeing either its clients or employees?

The awful consequences of this flawed business ethos was in evidence with the accidental drowning of Nicole Suriel, a sixth grader at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering, in Manhattan, on a class outing on June 22.

The class traveled to Long Beach, New York, where no lifeguards were on duty. Only a teacher, her boyfriend, and a volunteer intern accompanied the class.

Nicole's school was one of the new "small schools" that had an enrollment of only 350 pupils. It promised increased attention and educational enrichment that only an intimate environment could provide.

In record time, the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation completed its investigation and issued a report on the incident. Blame was assigned to all levels of administration in the school and the teacher in charge of the trip.

Joel Klein summarily fired the teacher, who had only one year on the job. The assistant principal was demoted to teacher and the principal placed on a two-year probation period.

The New York Times reported that teachers in the school vigorously protested Klein's decision. Their view was that the principal had created a climate within the school that made this tragedy an accident waiting to happen.

No guidelines for trips were given. In this case there were no signed parental consent slips. Insufficient numbers of chaperones were assigned to this trip and countless other excursions, according to faculty members.

A former faculty member said one of the reasons she left the school in February was because of the pressure of taking field trips in June. "I feared having to go through that again," she said. "This is not a one time-event; this is a pattern. I always thought something could happen, though I never imagined it being this awful."

Writing in his New York Times column "About New York," Jim Dwyer attributed the tragedy to the "shadow world of private fundraising... that is now part of public school budgets."

It seems that the school was under enormous pressure to raise funds utilizing all their entrepreneurial wiles to fund activities that the Department of Education doesn't provide for.

We were told that the assistant principal decided not to accompany the class in order to attend to his pressing budgetary duties. He was under the gun to utilize funds ($26, 000) that had gone unspent before the close of the school year.

He quickly consulted with the principal and decided on a trip to Long Beach for the class as a reward for their fundraising efforts. He left the first year teacher to supervise the trip.

The common thread that runs through all the reports appears to be the aggressive, high-pressure management style that permeates the school culture.

The immediate reaction among faculty members in my school was, "How the hell did this happen?" We never take trips in June in our school.

Here are the written and unwritten rules that were either ignored or never learned:

Rule one: No trips in June. The year is winding down. You have to prepare for exams, and the warm weather tends to make the kids more active and rambunctious.

The second rule is that nobody goes without a consent slip signed by the parents and all of the students' teachers.

The third rule is that you never allow an untenured teacher to run a trip by him or herself.

And finally, no teacher would take kids to an unguarded beach in bathing suits, and no administrator would approve or suggest it.

The problem with this: The new sort of thinking should be obvious. As much as our new "Masters of The Universe" would like to bring a post-industrial, computer age order to our schools, teaching remains a labor-intensive endeavor.

That means that years of experience teaching kids, along with years experiencing the myriad of life's problems, should remain a prerequisite for school administrators, rather than a disqualifying entry on their resume. All of that is either held in contempt or has been lost in this newly minted educational culture.

The swift response of the chancellor in assigning blame managed to put the matter to rest once school recessed for the summer. By firing the principal in the midst of a tumultuous transition to a new school's chancellor now, the massive PR machine at the Tweed Court House is attempting to cover over the life and death of Nicole Suriel almost as quickly as the waters off of Long Beach did.