Truly involving parents and communities in our public schools and the decisions that affect them is essential to improving our school system. Unfortunately, the Department of Education has consistently failed to meaningfully empower and involve these stakeholders in its decisions about schools. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the DOE’s decisions and proposals regarding the phaseouts and closures of schools.
During the Bloomberg administration, the DOE has closed approximately 100 schools, a practice detrimental to the remaining students in such phaseout schools. While I disagree with their routine use of this extreme policy, the unilateral way they have chosen where to implement it has perhaps had the most damaging effect. It has demoralized and discouraged communities, parents and stakeholders who are most actively involved in our city’s schools by conveying that they lack meaningful influence and input in DOE decisions that affect the trajectory of their schools.
As the DOE has gained more experience in the process of closing and phasing out schools, it has begun to use “early engagement” meetings to superficially address the valid complaints that communities and parents have no say in these decisions. These meetings between central DOE staff and school communities-as defined by the DOE-occur prior to the release of phaseout and closure proposals at schools designated by the department as “struggling.” The stated purpose is to discuss the school’s status, potential options for the school and ways to improve academic performance, as well as receive input from the DOE-chosen stakeholders.
Not only do these meetings disregard other important stakeholders and the larger community where schools reside, but they occur just months before phaseout or closure proposals are issued. If these meetings were truly about helping schools, they would occur years before any decisions were made to close or phase out a school in order to determine the types of supports necessary to improve performance.
However, the feedback provided by even this narrowly defined school community is almost always ignored and rejected by the DOE with boilerplate language that indicates the school “does not have the capacity to improve quickly.” Once phaseout proposals are released, they are almost never rejected or reversed regardless of the circumstances, concerns raised or unanimity of opposition by stakeholders. The DOE has made a mockery of the public hearings and Panel for Educational Policy meetings, which it has used solely to comply with state education law that mandates them.
The DOE’s habitual disregard of community input in its school decisions and perpetuation of an insincere public process is counterproductive and sends a terrible message to parents, students and the general public. Schools are community institutions and, like other institutions within a community, will only be successful with strong community support. By choosing to close and open schools without utilizing the input and involvement of plocal communities, the DOE is not only discouraging the involvement of parents and communities in our schools, but also creating an atmosphere whereby support for new schools is severely compromised.
If the DOE is going to tout a commitment to engaging parents and communities, it must change the way it interacts with these stakeholders. They must be empowered to be partners in decision-making, with their input truly incorporated into school decisions and proposals. Their energy can be constructively channeled to create an unparalleled support for schools that would only benefit our 1.1 million students.
The DOE’s failure to involve and utilize community support during the Bloomberg administration has only hindered the ability to meaningfully and significantly improve our schools. It is past time the DOE transforms its decision-making processes and the way it includes and interacts with parents and local communities.
Councilman Al Vann represents Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, is a member of the Council’s Education Committee and is a former New York City public school teacher and administrator. He also founded the African American Teachers Association and played an integral role in the struggle for community control of public schools during the 1960s.