Education reform has been moving in a new direction in New York City public schools ever since Mayor Michael Bloomberg won mayoral control of the nation’s largest school district on a platform of education reform and accountability in 2002.
But now that the new school season has rolled around, a new report card has come out on the Bloomberg administration’s pledges to reform the school system, in the form of a new poll, and it doesn’t look pretty.
Although many educators and parents have advocated against the signature education reform policies, people are still displeased with the mayor’s management of the public school system, which he repeatedly said stood on the principle of accountability.
The new poll found 49 percent of people unhappy with the mayor’s job under mayoral control, with only 38 percent saying they approved of his management.
The DOE says the mayor has made substantial progress so far and credits him with raising standards and making changes in classrooms. But with the results of test scores dipping dramatically after the tests were recently recalibrated, in essence erasing much of that progress and closing the achievement gap purportedly made, many are still unclear on the mayor’s education reform policies on testing, teacher evaluations tied to exams, and school closings.
The Mayor said when he came into office that the school system was failing “badly. And that means we were failing our children,” he said in a speech in 2007, during “Ceasefire! Bridging the Political Divide,” a conference at the University of Southern California. “Tinkering at the margins for decades had done nothing. In New York, we needed to get at the source of the problem–the inefficient, ineffective and unaccountable Board of Education,” he said then.
For that reason, the Mayor said he wanted to close the lowest 10 percent of underperforming schools by the end of his term as part of his policies aimed at raising graduation rates and improve the quality of education. The DOE has so far closed over 90 schools, and in January the mayor and NYC’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein wanted to close 19 schools, mainly large high schools, for their low graduation rates, and replace some of the large high schools with smaller schools in the same building.
Although closing schools that are failing is a priority for the Mayor and the DOE, a judge ruled in March that closing the 19 schools was in violation of a new state law mandating a detailed impact statement on the effects the closures would have on the community, which was not provided.
Auditoriums were packed with parents who overwhelmingly opposed the closings. The NAACP and the United Federation of Teachers, along with other advocates and groups, filed a lawsuit to stop the closures and won a temporary victory when the schools were allowed to stay open at least for another year. The city appealed the judge’s decision.
James Eterno, a union representative and a social studies teacher at Jamaica High, said some schools could become too big and lose track of its neediest students, but Jamaica High, one of the 19 schools the mayor wanted closed, wasn’t one of them.
“New York is a very big system with over a million students, so there’s a place in a system this big for small schools and large schools,” he said, reasoning that Jamaica should be allowed to continue to exist because it offers a diversified experience with a variety of academic courses that smaller schools couldn’t provide.
Jamaica High had suffered from cuts to its educational operations over the years, which may have contributed to its low graduation rates that put the large historic school on the DOE’s radar, Eterno said.
The money that would go into the new schools could be used to improve Jamaica with lower class sizes and lowering guidance case loads, Eterno continued. These resources, which are lacking, could help boost graduation rates for students who face a multitude of issues, such as being English-language learners or battling societal and economic pressures that could affect a student’s ability to graduate in four years.
“But they have their agenda,” he said, referring to the DOE. “Well, they want everybody graduating as fast as possible within four years, so we have to adapt. We’re trying, but it’s not so easy. They should give us credit for improvement and growth.”
Eterno, who has taught at Jamaica for over 20 years, used an analogy to express the condition of some English-language learners by saying that if you, “Put me in Italy where I don’t know any Italian, and put me in an [Italian high school. It] might take me a little bit longer to learn the language. That shouldn’t be held against those kids or the school because it takes extra time.”
However, Deputy Chancellor Eric Nadelstern, who heads the DOE’s Division of School Support and Instruction, told a group of journalists at an education seminar organized by New York Community Media Alliance, that he believes smaller, themed schools was the solution to fix the city’s graduation rates in public schools instead of “throwing money at large, failing schools.”
However, students in Jamaica High said they enjoyed their experience at Jamaica.
A previous student of Jamaica High who attends New York City College of Technology in downtown Brooklyn for computers information systems said he and his friend, James Simons, had a good learning experience at Jamaica because of the teachers and athletic activities that he credited for building up students’ character alongside academic studies.
Simons, 19, who is enrolled at Delaware State University, said he was attending the university because of the education he received at Jamaica High.
“So, the education they gave me, I was able to take that and go to college with it,” he said. Both students said they wanted the historic high school to stay the way it was, which Eterno called a “comprehensive school.”