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Michele Somerville

Michele Somerville

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When 'Failing' Schools Close and Whiter, Brighter Schools Open

Posted: 02/ 4/11 10:59 AM ET

Two weeks ago, the NYC DOE PEP (New York City Department of Education Panel for Educational Policy) voted to open Millennium Brooklyn (aka "Apartheid High") a "selective" school in a building (located in my middle-class neighborhood) wherein three so-called "failing" schools currently operate. This week the same panel meets to vote to allow a new charter elementary school (Upper West Success Academy) to open in an affluent middle class neighborhood (the Upper West Side, NYC).

By the end of this week, the PEP will have voted to closed more than 20 "failing" schools.

A glance at the list of schools targeted tells the story:

Jamaica, Bedford Stuyvesant, South Bronx... if you think you see a pattern, it's because you see a pattern. The schools closed this week are attended by primarily black and Latino students and most are located in some of the poorest sections of NYC.

The matter of school closings is complex and polarizing. There is evidence to suggest that the only solution to the problem of "failing" (DOE speak for "black and Latino") schools is to open new, small schools.

There is a(n understandable) disinclination on all sides to pour (good) money (after bad) into "failing" schools. Money without expertise doesn't work any more than expertise without money does.

Large "failing" schools can be turned around, but not when the DOE itself is gunning for them.

"Failing" students need superior intervention in the form of gifted teachers, safe buildings, expert guidance and good after-school programs. "Failing" students do not need small schools nearly so much as they need small classes.

The complexion of school closings would be entirely different if the DOE were offering displaced students spots in the more selective, newly opened schools, but they're not -- because the founding of most of these whiter, brighter schools is driven by institutional racism. These newly "articulated" schools could (and should) be required to enroll students from "failing" schools. A portion of their "start-up" money could be set aside for bringing the students newly opened schools evict and marginalize up to grade level.

But educating "failing" students costs more -- not because "failing" students are less intelligent, but because most have been abandoned by a corrupt system. It is one thing to teach a properly promoted 8th grade student what he or she needs to learn in grade 8, and quite another to introduce 8th grade curricula to a student who needs to be re-taught (prerequisite) skills and content he or she ought to have mastered in grades 4 through 7.

"Social" promotion defrauds students, and these victims of educational malpractice are entitled to reparations in the form of highly expert remediation, but doing the right thing in this is too expensive in the short term. (Not doing it is very costly down the line.) It's easier and cheaper for the educrats in charge to warehouse and dismiss "failing students."

What happens to "failing" students when whiter, brighter schools open?

Every time an elite or selective school opens, black and Latino schools in the same district "take one for the team."

Because the process of forming new schools is not transparent (it should be), searches for the best principals are not conducted and plans for new schools are hatched in secrecy. This is fundamentally corrupt and perpetuates cronyism, mediocrity and racism, as a result of which school communities are blindsided, and new schools are opened not by those who best know how to educate -- but by principals who best know how to game the system.

Once upon time, one had to be a master teacher in order to become a principal. Today, a teacher with scant experience can become a principal in a year or two thanks to the quickie principal academies. Some "Class A" principals come out of these programs, but they are exceptions.

With very little teaching experience and no substantive scholarship, a "founding" principal can identify a population with "elite" demographics, open a school for them, nail down building tenure within three years, and become a success story. There's a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel aspect to catering to the NYC bourgeoisie; their children attend fine pre-schools, can read by age 6, are well-nourished, and live in homes -- not homeless shelters. New school funding bankrolls computers, paint jobs and separate entrances (for safety). Affluent parents donate weekends at their beach houses for the fund-raising auctions and buy test prep and piano lessons to ensure that students remain "elite." Mediocrity and playing politics pay off and no one gets hurt.

No one except the students a racist educational system leaves behind.

NYC public schools neither open nor close in a vacuum. There's always a "ripple" or "see-saw" effect. For years, the NYC DOE has placed new schools in buildings alongside "failing" ones in the hope that their presence would boost -- or (gradual) boot out -- proximate "failing" schools. This strategy is not entirely pernicious, but "separate but equal" educational solutions must never be seen as just.

Many gifted educators are working today in schools that were or will be closed this week. How many new well-funded, high-quality schools for struggling students will open for their students this fall? Most truly gifted educators lack the stomach for the kind of politicking wrangling a new school entails.

I'm not sure, but Eva Moskowitz, who plans to open Upper West Success Academy might be the exception. Part-politician and part-rainmaker, Moskowitz draws a big salary for overseeing four charter schools. Her critics feel she is too closely aligned with the mayor and the push toward privatizing schools. Some disagree on this: her initiatives do not seem to me to bear the taint of customary DOE racism. I think Moskowitz is actually interested in educating students the system has cheated, and that she may be the rare educator who can win the game of "found a school" without playing the race card.

I'm on the fence about Success Academy -- but I have a soft spot for Moskowitz. I have a hunch she's a good teacher. I like that she's smart. (She graduated from the elite Stuyvesant High in NYC and University of Pennsylvania; she earned a doctorate at Johns Hopkins and has worked as a professor.) Most of all, I like that she's not just another doltish Tweed chimp.

 

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