Volume 20 Issue 6 | June 22 - 28, 2007

School change plans confuse parents, drain principals, as summer approaches

By Skye H. McFarlane

An uncertain summer will begin next week for Downtown educators and parents. This fall, a sweeping set of structural and policy changes will take effect across New York City public schools.

Though they are unsure what to expect from the Department of Education’s latest restructuring, many Downtown parents are vowing to roll with the punches. The changes include an overhaul of school support systems and a new battery of standardized tests. This fall will also mark the first phase of a revamped funding system that will provide all schools with more money in the short term, but may bring sharp budget cuts to some local schools two years from now.

“This is all an unknown for everyone. It’s a leap of faith,” said Sandy Van der Zwan Katz, P.T.A. co-president of P.S. 150, which will face a 13 percent budget cut in two years. “Hopefully this is going to be great for the school. Hopefully they’ll be able to hold on to [the new setup] and not get rid of it.”

The current restructuring is the latest in a series of changes put into place since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the city school system in 2002. In the last five years, there have been large systematic shifts, like the elimination of social promotion, the addition of extra tutoring time to the school day, the negotiation of new contracts for teachers and principals, and a movement to create small, non-zoned schools. A few of the department’s smaller initiatives — such as the ban on cell phones and the mid-winter axing of dozens of bus routes — have sparked widespread outrage from parents.

Citywide, parents protested that the latest changes have been pushed forward too fast, with little consultation from parents or teachers. P.T.A.s and Community Education Councils, including those in District 2, passed resolutions asking the D.O.E. to hold off on its reforms. However, now that the initiative is moving forward, parents are crossing their fingers that it will succeed.

“My take is that something’s better than nothing,” Dennis Gault, who teaches at P.S. 19 and serves as P.T.A. co-president at P.S. 89, said of the changes. “With the dropout rates and the failure rates around the city, I think it’s important that we be people of action.”

All that action has consumed vast amounts of time and energy from parents, teachers and especially principals. The two principals who agreed to be interviewed for this article, P.S. 150’s Maggie Siena and Millennium High School’s Robert Rhodes, said that the restructuring process was time-consuming and draining. They were glad it was over with for the time being. Come fall, they said, they will finally be able to focus completely on the task of educating students.

Principals at P.S. 89, P.S. 234 and I.S. 89 declined to comment.

This spring, principals across the city were required to work with their School Leadership Teams (groups of parents, teachers and administrators who collaborate on internal school policies) to choose new administrative support structures.

While the D.O.E. will still hire and evaluate principals using in-house superintendents, schools had to choose to receive staff training, budget support and curriculum assistance from one of three new structures: Learning Support Organizations, which are closest to the current system; Partnership Support Organizations, in which private non-profits provide the support; or Empowerment Support Organizations, in which schools form their own networks and have the freedom to hire their own support staff.

Battery Park City’s P.S. 89, I.S. 89 and P.S. 150 in Tribeca all chose to become empowerment schools. Gault said that since P.S. 89 has a well-established staff and involved parent body, the school will benefit from having more freedom and control over how it spends its money. Principal Siena said that P.S. 150 would benefit from being in a group of like-minded schools. The fact that the empowerment program costs approximately $18,000 less than most of the other plans, Siena said, was also a big consideration.

Millennium High School, which was an empowerment school last year, chose to switch to a private partnership. The move will allow Millennium to work more closely with New Visions, the non-profit that helped to found Millennium. At P.S. 234, new principal Lisa Ripperger chose to stick with the D.O.E. veterans, choosing one of the four L.S.O.s. According to P.S. 234 P.T.A. president Liat Silberman, Ripperger felt that in a new, untried system, it would be worth the extra money to have an experienced, structured support team.
While the choice of support organization is not likely to have an immediate effect on the day-to-day lives of the students, the new testing regimen will certainly be noticed. Students in grades 3-8 will be tested five more times per year in both reading and math, while high school students will take four assessments in each subject. Although the D.O.E. says that the tests will not affect student or teacher placements, many parents worry that testing younger students up to 12 times a year will disrupt the collaborative and project-based curricula that have helped to make many Downtown schools successful.

Schools can opt out of the standard tests and create their own assessments. As an empowerment school last year, Millennium High School has already experienced the new battery of tests. After growing frustrated with a lack of specificity in the standard exams, the school chose to customize its tests. The process was extremely arduous, Rhodes said, but ultimately worthwhile. At P.S. 150 Siena plans to use the standard tests for now, and reevaluate the process at the end of the year.

“Tests don’t make kids smarter. But they are useful — part of process,” said Siena. “We plan to maximize the good parts, the information that we can get from them, and minimize any distractions they might cause.”

In two years time, Siena may also be forced to minimize the impact of the 13 percent budget cut at her small school, the result of a new “Fair Student Funding” formula. The formula funds each school based on its student population, with special needs students such as English Language Learners carrying more weight. The D.O.E. has said that the new formula will even out historic inequalities and send more funds to the neediest schools.

For the first two years of the program, the schools that would suffer under the new system will be “held harmless” and receive the same funding that they would have gotten using the old formula. In addition, every school will receive supplemental funds from both the city and the state this year. Under the new system, P.S. 89 will essentially stand pat, gaining $78. I.S. 89 will get a $64,000 boost, but P.S. 234, P.S. 150 and Millennium would suffer budget cuts of $17,000, $130,000 and $250,000, respectively, if not for the “held harmless” provision.

“Obviously, I never want anything to harm our school, but I strongly believe that every public school should be as good as 234,” Silberman said. “If other schools are truly in need of that extra money, then I suppose that’s fair.”

Others are not as sanguine about the funding plan as Silberman. Opponents of the measure say that the new formula punishes choice schools for being successful and attracting high-performing students. The formula also puts pressure on schools with experienced teaching staffs, since long-standing teachers have higher salaries than newcomers. Small schools take an additional hit since fixed costs make up a higher percentage of their budgets.

“I have to say that I haven’t felt 10 percent overfunded,” Rhodes said, adding that the budget system might force Millennium to either cut programs or alter its admissions standards to bring in more special-needs students. “$250,000 is not, ‘We’ll nip and tuck here’…There’s no way to work around that money. It may mean tough choices in the future.”

Both Rhodes and Siena stressed that two years is a long time in D.O.E. terms. In that span, the department may find a way to tweak the system — using more state money, for example — to ensure that paying Paul does not involve robbing Peter of necessary dollars.

As much as parents worry about the changes proposed by the restructuring plan, many parents are just as worried about what is not included in the plan — namely, a set of guidelines for special education and a concrete program to reduce class size. The D.O.E. has said it is working to restructure its special ed services. On the topic of class size, the department continues to insist that better teachers, not smaller classes, are the fastest and most economical way to achieve better results. Many Downtown parents disagree.

“You can have as great a teacher as you like, but they are always going to be more effective in a class of 23 versus a class of 32,” Silberman said. “The way it is now, the teachers can only focus on the very high achievers and the kids who really need help. The vast middle just go along. It’s like we have to train all of our children to be squeaky wheels.”

Silberman thinks that parents should learn to “squeak more” too, staying involved and informed on the issues they care about. Given the D.O.E.’s penchant for change, she said, a vocal parent body can make a real difference.

“It seems that there’s a huge restructuring every second year,” she said. “So at least if it’s awful, you know that it will probably change soon.”

Also read: Math numbers high for Downtown schools

Downtown Express is published by Community Media LLC. 145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 229-1890 | Fax: (212) 229-2790 | Advertising: 646-452-2465 | © 2007 Community Media, LLC

Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.