Thursday, January 4, 2007

Tilden Teacher John Lawhead

Here is a posting from Leonie Haimson’s list followed by Tilden teacher John Lawhead’s excellent analysis.

“See message from John Lawhead of Tilden HS below; John makes lots of excellent observations, among them the generally good performance of the principal (a Leadership Academy graduate!) and the unique nature of this school for ELL students and esp. Haitian Creole students.

“Tilden's recent quality review points out that at the school, for "English language learners...[their] 2005 Regents passing rate was 25.3 percentage points above similar schools and 16.8 percentage points above schools across the City."

“These results, if accurate, are nothing to sneeze at; moreover this quality review had many other positive things to say about the school, and though the Chancellor cited its low graduation rate, there are many high schools in the city have similar rates, according to SED – and the principal never got a real chance to turn this around.

The quality review report is posted here:

“One potential danger that John and others might try to keep their eyes on, if the school is indeed phased out, is what will happen to the students still enrolled -- w/ no one taking responsibility for them, there is a real threat that many of them will be discharged and/or drop out, as many of the credits they need to graduate may no longer be offered and they will be barred from taking courses at whatever small schools open up in the building. This apparently has happened before at many of the so-called failing schools that are "restructured" or phased out, and may be one of the reasons that the no. of discharged students have risen over the last few years.

“Also, whether the ELL students will be excluded from the new smaller schools that open up in its place, as has happened elsewhere as well.

“The way the administration manipulates enrollment at schools to make some look good and others bad -- while claiming that principals completely control and are thus accountable for the outcomes at their schools -- is another subject ripe for further investigation.”

Leonie Haimson
Class Size Matters

Here is some background and observations from inside the school
by John Lawhead

There were rumors and some ominous signs at the start of the school year, but the announcement of our closing still came as a big surprise. It's now clear at least to me that Tilden was selected as a “target” school for phase-out months before the actual announcement. There was a sudden drop in enrollment and that led to a budget reduction of several hundred thousand dollars. There were many cuts, including most of the after-school programs and the school is bracing for deep excessing of teachers in February.

A major factor in the decline in enrollment was the loss of new 9th graders. List notice transfers from the feeder schools fell by half. The principal explained to the UFT consultation committee in mid-October that she believed ninth graders had been steered away from the school. She said she had heard reports of students applying to Tilden as their first choice and being assigned elsewhere. I later confirmed this for myself by asking my students if they knew of anything similar. For instance, a girl in one of my classes mentioned to me that a cousin of hers had put Tilden as first choice but was sent to John Dewey. They both live on East 32nd Street in East Flatbush.

It also seemed apparent to the principal that the high school enrollment office was deliberately sending kids who were long-term absent or could not be tracked down. In October there were nearly 400 out of the building not accounted for. To make matters worse, in September all the families of Tilden's students were sent a letter declaring the school to be “persistently dangerous” and giving them the opportunity to transfer their children. Of the responses sent back about 140 were granted. Families that were not happy with their transfer were told they had to wait until February to return to Tilden.

It would be interesting and useful to have more information about the enrollment process and other schools' experiences. I think the sudden decline in list notice transfers was engineered, not simply a matter of students' preferences, even given the bad publicity Tilden has had because
of gun incidents and its being on the list of Impact schools. Such a drop was much too sudden.

Joel Klein likes to say that students' preferences expressed on high school applications are a sign that the zoned schools are failing. However, this is not public data and so anyone can say anything they want. The fact that 8th graders -- or the counselors who typically complete the form for them -- must name twelve schools before the applications are complete makes a
mockery of the claim that students really get to exercise choice. As the “push-back” against closing Tilden continues to gather steam it's likely that the enrollment drop may become more prominent as an official “explanation.”

And there's obviously a need to have more convincing reasons. One doesn't have to dig very far to see that the decision to close Tilden is not well grounded in publicly available data. You posted results from New York State's 2001 cohort analysis showing Tilden to be in the middle of a pack of other schools with regard to graduation and dropout rates. Almost everything said by the DOE and Region 6 administrators about Tilden could also be said about a dozen or so and in some aspects several dozen city high schools. The closings create drama but what escapes notice by the major media is the stark similarity of a vast number of schools with similar demographic profiles.

The explanations from Region 6 were very vague. According to Superintendent
Jean-Claude Brizard in a letter to parents of December 12 the major problem was that Tilden was “not on track” to meet the city's goal of “raising the city-wide 4-year graduation rate to 70% and the 6-year graduation rate to 80%.” As you know, the claim that New York City is actual anywhere near these levels for graduation is far fetched. The city's graduation figures have been heavily padded (by counting GEDs and not counting an enormous contingent of mysterious transfers) and are way off from what the state's statistics show.

During the faculty meeting of December 11 where the closing was announced I was amazed at the detachment they expressed. Jean-Claude Brizard declared that he wouldn't want to have his daughter attending Tilden. We were supposed to think he would favor a school only because its data and ignore that it was 96 percent black and 20 minutes from any subway line. I asked
Brizard to name a school in NYC with a demographic similar to Tilden that was doing significantly better. He named Transit Tech as a positive comparison. I asked if he could name a school more similiar to us than that one and he declined. According to the schools' report cards (showing figures for 2004-05) , at Transit Tech 15.5 percent of incoming 9th and 10th
graders were overaged. For Tilden it was 50.5 percent. Three percent of Transit Tech's student were classified as recent immigrants compared with 22.9 for Tilden. In other words, the demographic similarities are rather elusive, aside from the bare fact that most of the students are minority. (And one should add it's not likely that Superintendent Brizard's daughter will be going to Transit Tech either.)

The detachment from our reality is no surprise. The attitude from the top administrators is one of blanket condemnation. Mayor Bloomberg has suggested large schools are inherently unmanageable. There's such a indifference toward the specific challenges that schools face and it amounts to disownership. Yet this stands in sharp contrast to the close scrutinity, the walkthroughs and reviews which schools must devote extensive time to preparing for. The Quality School Review which required three days of visits created the illusion that the evaluation would mean something.

I think it's significant that the data was ignored but I wouldn't suggest that schools with worse evaluations should be closed instead of Tilden. Nothing good and a whole lot of damage has come from this targeting and condemnation of high schools. After the publicity of Tilden's positive rating on the School Quality Review, the UFT leadership appears to be coming around to a position that Tilden looks better on paper than they thought. If they decide to defend us that's fine but I'm afraid they will continue to take a 'devil take the hindmost' perspective without
questioning why the wholesale closings are taking place and what the impact is.

As an ESL teacher I see it as mainly an effort to slash educational services that the neediest kids require. There won't be any replacement of the Haitian Creole bilingual program which students travel from other parts of Brooklyn for. Recently arriving immigrants benefit by learning new subject content and skills in their native language while also learning English for a substantial part of the day. It's also crucial that they have the opportunity to socialize and participate in activities like sports and clubs with "mainstream" students. I'd hate to see them further segregated in a small school only for English Language Learners.

I just want to also mention a couple other reasons why the closing of Tilden was surprising. First, the timing of the announcement and then our new principal. The announcement of which five schools would begin phasing out in September 2007 came on December 11. By this time the deadline for proposals for the new schools to replace the phasing out schools had already passed on December 1. The New Century Initiative for new high schools was once touted as a way to create “community partnerships” for the schools. While New Vision declares that such partnerships are “essential” for effective schools, it's fairly apparent that local partnerships are not being anticipated.

The lack of notice was an outrage for the local politicians, especially the state officeholders like Kevin Parker and Nick Perry. I know Parker has been in the building often and is familiar with the school. I would hope to see the issue of Tilden framed as an indictment of mayor control and the exclusion of community imput from the decisionmaking.

Joel Klein has really offered the big schools only one thing for improvement: newly trained principals (with enhanced powers). That raises the issue of closing a school when a new principal had arrived only the year before and was just beginning to make changes.

Diana Varano is generally well respected, and I find her much more honest and approachable than the typical high school principal. She made efforts to solicit teachers' views about the school and act on them. Some of her initiatives such as expanding elective classes to encompass teachers' suggestions fell by the wayside. But she succeeded in addressing other major concerns, notably the programming of students' schedules which was horrendous in the years before she came.

Naturally, I don't think she's done everything right. I have still have an oversized size that's been grieved for several weeks. But the school is in a budget crisis and it's important that she thinks it's worth saving.

John Lawhead
ESL Teacher
Tilden HS

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