First Person

No Neighborhood Schools For You!

In New York City, schools live and die by statistics. If statistics take a nosedive, schools are closed, no ifs, ands or buts. Of course, everyone knows the old saying about liars, damned liars, and statisticians. So you’d think before taking the draconian step of closing a school, statistics would be checked with great care.

You’d be wrong, of course. But if you were relying on the local papers to inform you, you’d never know it. In fact, it appears Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gets his info straight from Mayor Bloomberg’s PR machine, and that appears good enough for President Barack Obama as well. Amusing though it is to watch politicians jump like trained seals, doing whatever it takes to grab the money Obama and Duncan dangle before them, their utter lack of vision and common sense is unsettling, to say the least.

One of the most vexing aspects of this administration’s frenzy to close schools is its absolute willingness to accept and propagate explanations like this one. While the much-ballyhooed statistics are outrageous and inaccurate, it appears true that no one’s actually planning to bulldoze Jamaica High School, as far as I know. Of course, that’s only as far as I know.

Still, even if the building will remain, does that mean residents will still get what they’ve always gotten?  Right now, if you live in Jamaica, you have the option of attending Jamaica High School. That would certainly change once Chancellor Klein places new schools in the building and stops admitting new kids to Jamaica High School.

This probably doesn’t much worry politicians. For one thing, highly publicized school closings tend to take the spotlight away from the spectacular failures of administration. Queens high schools are short 33,000 seats, and Jamaica’s neighbor, Francis Lewis High School, is already massively overcrowded. While the state and city make grand public gestures about school closings, they’re doing nothing of substance to address the space issue.

If new schools were truly the panacea they’re made out to be, they’d embrace troublesome, learning disabled and non-English speaking students, and magically make them graduate in four years no matter what. In practice, such students are far more likely to be sent to endangered comprehensive high schools. In the case of Beach Channel, it seems to have been sent the toughest of Far Rockaway’s kids even before Far Rockaway closed. After its closure, the trend continued, leading many to ask whether Beach Channel was set up for failure. Does anyone really believe newly created schools will embrace these kids? More likely, they’ll load up remaining neighborhood schools with them, causing even more closures.

School closing plans call for new specialized schools. But what if, for example, you live in a neighborhood with no neighborhood school, and your teenager informs you he does not wish to attend, say, the new Michael Bloomberg School of Basket Weaving? For one thing, he may not be interested in basket weaving. And even if he is, what happens if the basket-weaving expert they’ve located to run the school, after a particularly successful vision quest, decides she wants to go back to the commune and study Zen? Or what if she’s reassigned by Chancellor Klein after the New York Post determines she’s misused a word like “jihad”?  Who’s gonna show your kid how to weave that basket?

Sure, there might be another school. Maybe that one teaches social justice. Or quantum physics. Maybe it’s a language academy that allows kids to brush up on their Sanskrit. That’s almost the same as basket weaving. And there may even be another basket weaving academy, perhaps in another borough. They say travel is broadening, and this could be your kid’s opportunity to learn that firsthand.

That’s what we call “school choice” here in New York City. Fundamentally, it means Mayor Bloomberg can choose to close your neighborhood school whenever he damn well pleases, and you can choose to like it or lump it. After all, that’s what mayoral control is all about, despite the prattling of a few fringe lunatics who oppose it.

It’s true there are hearings before school closings. I’ve been to a couple recently. At the most recent Jamaica hearing, Deputy Chancellor John White got up and recited several false and discredited statistics. He had to pause several times and threaten to stop the proceedings altogether in order to do that. Then he settled down in a chair and spent a good deal of time playing with a Blackberry (or perhaps with Super Mario) under the table. A student stood up and chided him for not paying attention to the proceedings.

I found that very curious. I, a lowly teacher, keep my phone on vibrate and do not take it out during classes. Part of my job is to model behavior for teenagers, and therefore they have my full attention when I work with them. I find it amazing the DoE has determined that local parents, students, teachers, clerics, and others don’t merit the same respect I give my kids as a matter of course. Even more amazing, of course, is that they can’t be bothered to actually listen to objections to their “proposals,” not one of which has yet been voted down by the rubber-stamp PEP.

It is indeed convenient to have a neighborhood school. Kids are going to learn that the hard way over the next few years, as New York City can be a very big place when you don’t get into a school in your neighborhood. It’s kind of a perfect storm, as their free or subsidized Metrocards go the way of the dodo (or the neighborhood school). Parents may miss the neighborhood schools too, when they reach into their pockets to pay full price for public transport. And there’s nothing that increases property values more than a good neighborhood school — so why not fix them instead of trashing them?

But that’s neither here nor there. DOE bigshots ride around in Town Cars, send important messages on their Blackberries, and go to gala luncheons. They can’t be bothered with such things. And if the rabble wants to voice contrary opinions on school closings, they get a chance on January 26th at Brooklyn Tech.

Of course, Tweed has pretty much got its ducks in a row there, as it appears working people may have to stay all night in order to make comments. School closings represent the most contentious issue they’re facing, and they’ve now delayed a few votes on Chancellor’s regulations designed to take even more power away from those pernicious, meddling public school parents — you know, the ones who have the audacity to want a say about whether or not charter schools get to chop off pieces of the schools their kids attend.

Still, they’ve left a bunch of contract votes beforehand, to make sure everyone sits through hours of nonsense before getting to what they came for. That’s problematic for those who have to work. It’s one thing to roll into Tweed and do whatever it is they do there all day, but it’s unwise, for example, to face 5 groups of 34 teenagers after 8 minutes of sleep.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has called for the meeting to be devoted to school closures only. If the DOE denies that request, they’ll be acknowledging publicly what many of us already know to be true-that under mayoral control in New York City, there’s only one opinion that counts. It’s beginning to appear they can’t be bothered even to pretend to listen to anyone else’s.

Can Jamaica, for example, be improved? Of course it can, and the fix is easy. Deliver the class sizes NYC has taken hundreds of millions to provide. Modernize — offer technology that represents 2010 instead of 1950. Go ahead with the JROTC already planned for Jamaica — a magnet program that’s proven wildly successful in my school, Francis Lewis. Institute other magnet programs. But there’s no such plan for Jamaica, and no such plan for any other school under the gun.

Under this administration, we shoot first and ask questions later. The result is neighborhoods without schools in which local kids grow, play, and learn together — hardly neighborhoods at all.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.