Vol. 19,  No.  13 June 29 - July 12,  2006


Mayor Slackens Local Schools' Tether toTweed


Beginning this fall, more than a dozen northwest Bronx public schools will be granted a greater degree of autonomy as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious new Empowerment Program.

Though it remains unclear exactly how the program will work, in theory, principals at empowerment schools will receive additional funding and be free to make most school decisions — on everything from hiring teachers to buying textbooks — as long as they don’t violate union contracts or state laws. Along with this new freedom comes a new set of performance standards.

Bloomberg announced the launch of the program on June 12 at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, which has participated in the district’s empowerment program since it began two years ago when it was called the “autonomy zone” program.

Of the 350 schools (far more than anticipated) that applied to the program, 331 were chosen to participate.

The application process was actually very simple, said PS 340 principal Deirdre Burke. The seventh-year principal said she filled out a questionnaire and then what amounted to a job application. A couple of months later, Burke received a letter from the city saying PS 340, located across from the Kingsbridge Armory, on East 195th Street, had been accepted into the program.

Burke signed up because she liked the idea of more flexibility and more money, she said.

Forty-eight of the schools chosen, including PS 280 on Mosholu Parkway, have been operating under the new autonomy program for at least a year.

PS 280 is already realizing the benefits of the program after just one year of relative freedom, PS 280 Principal Gary LaMotta said.

“We’ve had more autonomy, just to a lesser extent [than what schools will experience starting in the fall],” LaMotta said. “It’s allowed us to really take ownership of what we’re doing here.”

For example, instead of following the city’s guidelines for summer school during the next three months, LaMotta has designed a “summer institute” that he says will benefit his students.

Tailoring curriculum to the specific needs of a school community is something Scott Goldner, the principal of Discovery High School, located on the Walton campus, is most looking forward to.

“It’s an amazing challenge,” Goldner said in a phone interview. “There’s no more excuses. I can run my school how I want to.”

The administration is essentially saying, “Good leaders make or break schools,” he said.

In exchange for more autonomy and flexibility, schools will sign performance agreements that “lay out principals’ new powers, resources, and responsibilities,” according to an Education Department press release.

Details of these performance standards will be hashed out over the summer, but principals were given a loose definition of how they might work.

According to Goldner, under the Empowerment Program, students will be tested every six to eight weeks rather than once at the end of the year. It will give teachers more data and help them pinpoint an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses.

The other piece of the evaluation process will be qualitative, which will take the form of reviews from outside observers, who will be looking at all aspects of the educational environment, including student makeup, teacher evaluations and family support mechanisms.

Burke is “skeptically optimistic” in general about the new program, but likes the idea of the new performance standards because it measures kids against themselves rather than another set of kids.

The plan, according to Bloomberg, is for all 1,500 New York public schools to run under the new evaluation process by fall 2007.

Carlsen, principal of PS 20, said the evaluation data will be helpful to teachers. “This will be a very sophisticated system of information and we’ll be using it in a very expedient way,” she said.

Along with a broad set of performance standards, empowerment schools will receive $250,000. Goldner, Burke, Carlsen and LaMotta all say they will primarily spend the money on professional development for teachers. The rest of the funding, the principals said, will be used for new materials, student programs and curriculum development.

Each school will be able to share its empowerment experiences with a “network” of 19 other schools. Burke, Carlsen and LaMotta will join forces in a network of other District 10 schools, while Goldner wants to join a network of New Visions (a non-profit education reform organization) schools. Each network will elect a “network leader” who will coordinate information-sharing efforts and provide support for their network schools.

The new District 10 network has already elected Jackie Young, a former Local Instructional Superintendent (LIS) in the area, as their network leader. As part of the program, many of the LIS positions will be phased out.

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