Vol. 20,  No. 9 May 3 - 16, 2007


Klein Lays Out Vision for School System Overhaul
Visits Bronx to Promote Plan


Last week, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein parachuted into the northwest Bronx to promote and explain his ambitious overhaul of New York City public schools. Also known as the Children’s First Initiative, the plan has been met with national accolades, local opposition, and often, just plain confusion.

With all the system-wide changes being implemented, it’s difficult for even the most informed parent to keep track, let alone make sense, of it all. In fact, parent groups around the city have called for the chancellor to slow down and take time to listen to what the parents think and incorporate their input.

Despite this, Klein, with strong backing from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is plowing ahead with his plan.

Most changes to the school system, major or minor, only require approval from the city’s Panel for Education Policy, which replaced the Board of Education in 2002. The panel is comprised of 13 members. Each borough president appoints one panelist, while the mayor installs the other eight.

The Final Chapter

The dramatic next step in the Bloomberg/Klein makeover comes July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. That’s when every school in the city will be reorganized by support structures (see sidebar), regions will be disbanded and new evaluation tools will be implemented.

It’s a sort of final chapter in Klein’s epic school system makeover – a risky bid to change what he calls “a culture of failure.” With that as a backdrop, Klein showed up at PS 37 in Kingsbridge last Monday to answer his critics and reiterate the Big Picture.

“We have two options,” Klein said, responding to critics of his plan. “Stay on the same course and pray for a miracle, or we can do the hard work and make changes.”

Buffered by a cadre of handlers, Klein strode to the stage and sat in the middle of a long table. He was flanked by other members from Community District Education Council (CDEC) 10, who were holding their monthly public meeting.

Klein, a product of Queens public schools who took over the country’s largest school system five years ago after gaining notoriety as the Clinton Administration lawyer who beat Microsoft in a landmark anti-trust case, started his pitch at the beginning.

He talked about how the system he inherited a half decade ago was in shambles: graduation rates plummeting, dropout rates skyrocketing and the achievement gap (between whites and minorities) growing.

More than 50 years after Brown versus Board of Education, the historic case that guaranteed equal education for all races, Klein said, minority students in the city were four years behind white students. He called this gap “shameful” and “unacceptable.”

He went on to say that although the gap remains wide, there are signs of progress. The city’s overall four-year graduation rate jumped another 3 percent to 50 percent in 2006, after rising 3.5 percent in 2005. Last year, 15 of the city’s new small high schools (part of Klein’s plan calls for smaller, more intimate academic settings) graduated 73 percent of its students. The Bronx Aerospace Academy, a small school on the Evander Childs campus, graduated an astounding 93 percent of its kids, all of them minority students.

Klein also boasted that New York City was again, for the third consecutive year, named one of the top five most improved urban school districts in the country by the Broad Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on public education.

Points of Emphasis

To continue improving the system, Klein said he’s pushing four points of emphasis:

-Accountability. On every level, from students to teachers to administrators, Klein said, everyone must be held accountable for improving schools. That means tougher and more thorough evaluations of students’ progress and teachers’ and administrators’ effectiveness (see sidebar).

-Empowerment. Klein said this means taking money from the bureaucracy and giving it back to schools. Each school should be able to best determine how to spend extra funds, which will average out to be $170,000 per school next year.

-Equity. Each school should receive equal funding based on the needs of its students. “It’s only fair,” Klein said.

-Good teachers. This is Klein’s bottom line and the reason the city has fought with the teachers union over mandatory tenure and pay raises. “Seniority is the old model,” Klein said. Performance and talent is the new model.

Basically, Klein is making schools responsible for everything – curriculum, parent involvement, professional development for teachers, arts programming – meaning strong leadership and good decision-making will be more crucial than ever.

“I want to make schools the center,” Klein said. “I don’t know any parents who send their kids to a district. They send them to schools.”

Flaws in the Plan

After Klein left the meeting, Council Member Oliver Koppell, a former school board member who represents a big chunk of District 10, said he’s still not convinced. Both he and Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz have recently expressed criticism of Klein’s overall plan.

“The whole re-organization has many flaws,” Koppell said. “The seeds of conflict and confusion are there. The whole system seems doomed to failure.”

Koppell added that he’s worried that arts and extracurricular activities will suffer because schools will choose to spend extra funds on preparing for math and reading exams, which are required by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act and are tied to federal funding.

CDEC 10 President Marvin Shelton, who moderated a question-and-answer session with the chancellor after he outlined his reform plan, has been regularly informed every step of the way and he’s still struggling to make sense of it all.

“There’s a lot up in the air,” Shelton said about all the details and kinks of Klein’s plan. Shelton acknowledged that “something had to be done,” but said the jury’s still out on whether it will all work out.

“The movement is coming fast,” Shelton said. “Hopefully, tomorrow morning we’ll put our kids on the bus and they’ll get a better education.”

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