An open letter on behalf of public school parents to Chancellor Dennis Walcott

PUBLIC ADVOCATE BILL DE BLASIO | 5/25/2011, 9:24 a.m.

To Chancellor Walcott:

For the past nine years, our schools have been run by a top-down bureaucracy that too often alienates public school parents. To your great credit, you have said that you want to engage parents and communities more than has been done in the past. But you have also said that you plan to stay the course on the Bloomberg administration's education policies and practices. I believe you have the background and experience to finally bring parents into our school system, but I know you will not be able to do it by maintaining the status quo.

I am a public school parent and I have talked with parents all over our city who are tired of the Department of Education treating them like problems instead of partners. They are looking for a chancellor who has the independence to bring real change to our school system. To accomplish this goal, I believe you must immediately take on three pressing issues facing our schools today: reforming the DOE's closed-off bureaucratic process for closing and co-locating schools; fully supporting the parents of students with disabilities; and, most importantly, saving the over 4,600 teachers who will be fired under Mayor Bloomberg's new budget.

As our growing student population has required more and more schools to share space through co-locations, the DOE has resisted listening to parents' concerns and suggestions at every turn. Last year, my office produced a report exposing how the DOE's top-down policies completely left parents out of the process, an approach that can result in critical school spaces being lost and students being squeezed into disjointed schedules.

The DOE initially agreed to adopt several of our recommended reforms, including engaging more thoroughly with parents and community members when a school is being considered for co-location or closure, but so far they have not fully followed through. The Brandeis complex on the Upper West Side houses four schools, including the Frank McCourt high school, which was brought in by the community this past September. Now the DOE is threatening this progress by forcing a new school into the building, a decision that could cost Frank McCourt students their science labs, classroom space and music programs. Going forward, you should be willing to adjust DOE plans based on legitimate concerns on these grounds, including finding alternate locations when a co-location simply does not work.

Every year, the DOE closes and co-locates dozens of schools, upending educational environments for thousands of students. Far too often these major decisions are made in a vacuum, where the views of parents are treated as an obstacle to implementing policy decisions instead of important feedback worthy of serious consideration. The DOE nearly shut down P.S. 114 in Brooklyn after failing to remove its principal, Maria Penaherrera, who had driven the school into debt and reduced its academic performance. The parents fought back, led by PTA President Crystal King, joining local elected officials and my office, which produced a report tracing the DOE's history of ignoring concerns from parents about Principal Penaherrera for years. At the eleventh hour the school was saved, but this last-minute reversal would never have been necessary if the DOE had just been willing to listen to the P.S. 114 community from the start.