Volume 20, Number 38 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 2 — 8, 2011
Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds
Paul Hovitz asks a question at last week’s meeting with U.F.T. President Michael Mulgrew about the emphasis placed on standardized tests in NYC public schools.
Downtown is epicenter of crisis, says union prez
BY Aline Reynolds
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew is just as fed up with the city’s Department of Education as are some Downtown education activists. School overcrowding, standardized testing and student-teacher evaluations were among the union president’s main talking points at a special forum Community Board 1 held last Wednesday evening at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The D.O.E., Mulgrew said, has created and perpetuated many of the problems that are plaguing public schools Downtown and around the city.
“We cannot allow this really unscrupulous, disgusting behavior to stop us [from being] a part of the work that might help us help children in the long run,” Mulgrew told the local parents and activists at the forum.
Mulgrew took the helm as union president in August 2009. He previously taught English for several years at a public high school in Brooklyn and has a master’s degree in special education from the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York.
C.B. 1 Chair Julie Menin reiterated her criticism of the D.O.E. for failing to plan ahead to avoid overcrowding in Downtown K-12 schools.
“We’ve organized this town hall because of the number of important issues that have arisen in our district recently,” Menin said, citing the rise in population and other factors that have contributed to overcrowding in the area.
Schools are bursting at the seams all around the city, according to Mulgrew, who said he hears “nothing but frustration and anger” from the public school teachers he represents.
“Congratulations. You’re the epicenter of overcrowding,” Mulgrew told the audience.
The problem, Mulgrew explained, lies in the fact that the city lacks a systematic urban planning process. It doesn’t require developers, for example, to outline the potential impacts their projects could have on local neighborhoods, such as a population boom.
The board passed a resolution last March urging the city’s charter revision commission to enforce standards for developers seeking to build in a community, such as the effect a proposed development would have on schools and other local infrastructure.
Instead, Menin said, new developments in the area are routinely approved without attention to school capacity. The city, she said, has “an attendant duty to provide the [estimated] number of school seats” when approving Downtown construction projects.
Mulgrew said he would be pushing City Council to pass legislation that would modify the planning process as it pertains to new developments.
“We’re always looking for better ideas, to [figure out] how to move education forward,” he said. “We can no longer go to the D.O.E. for that. That’s really sad.”
Mulgrew accused the D.O.E. for misleading the Downtown community by making false promises about new classroom space that was supposed to be reserved for neigborhood children.
Downtown parents were dismayed by the D.O.E.’s recent decision to designate two unused classroom floors at 26 Broadway to an unscreened, nonselective Upper East Side high school rather than open up a second Millennium high school there. The department also granted six vacant classrooms at the Tweed Courthouse to a charter school rather than to a district elementary school the community said it badly needs.
Menin pointed out that, even with the new schools Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s overcrowding task force helped found, the area faces severe seat shortages in the coming years. The Tweed Courthouse and 26 Broadway, she said, are spaces Lower Manhattan cannot afford to lose.
“It broke my heart that we lost the space at 26 Broadway,” said Erica Weldon, a Millennium High School parent.
Menin told her and the other distraught parents to rest assured that the community board would not remain “silent” on the D.O.E.’s recent decisions.
Mulgrew said the D.O.E. should focus on finding district seats for all public school students before worrying about screened versus unscreened schools. The U.F.T. president took a more neutral stance on charter schools. While the fundamental concept is sound, he said, many of them are not working, and some are wrongly casting aside special needs students who underperform on standardized tests.
“You can’t just open charter schools and not give them support and help in instruction,” said Mulgrew.
Growing class sizes have become widespread across the city, Mulgrew reported, and the U.F.T. has taken legal action to try to mitigate the problem. It sued the D.O.E. early last year for failing to allocate more than $760 million the department purportedly secured from the state since 2007 to reduce class sizes and the case is currently pending in state supreme court.
“The class size at every grade in every level has increased dramatically since the money was sent here,” Mulgrew said. “It’s inexcusable.”
Mulgrew also noted that larger classes are making it more difficult for public school teachers to do their jobs effectively. The D.O.E. did away with its teaching and learning division, thereby no longer offering teachers the structure and support they need.
“Teaching and learning in the classroom is the fundamental main piece we should all be concentrating on,” said Mulgrew. “It saddens me – it makes me feel the administration is getting to the point where it’s pathetic.”
C.B. 1 Youth and Education Committee Chair Paul Hovitz remarked that teachers spend “inordinate” amounts of time on test preparation. “How can we recreate a well-balanced education for our children?” he asked Mulgrew.
The solution in part, Mulgrew said, is to modify the city’s student progress report system, which now hinges on English and Math test score results. Harvard University recently audited the state’s system, he said, and concluded that the progress reports are useless.
Mulgrew worked successfully with NYS Education Department Commissioner David Steiner to craft the state’s application for the federal Race to the Top program with the aim to use the funds to focus on a more well-rounded curriculum rather than merely teach to standardized tests.
Mulgrew said “real learning” doesn’t happen when teachers simply try and drill students to memorize facts for a test.