Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Attention Drawn to Overcrowding at Francis Lewis a Tribute to Chapter Leader, REVISED

Updated, Sept. 30, 10AM
Since my column was due today for Friday's edition of The Wave, the Rockaway community newspaper, I rewrote this piece with that audience in mind. It should be easier to follow.

The NY Times Continues to Tilt Toward BloomKlein on Education

When Arthur Goldstein, an ESL teacher with almost a quarter century experience, took the giant step of running for chapter leader at Francis Lewis HS in Queens, one of the largest and most overcrowded schools in the city with 4600 students and 300 union members, he promised to focus his attention on the severe overcrowding at the school.

Goldstein has had first hand experience, having to teach in a dilapidated trailer for years. He has drawn attention to the shameful record of Tweed (for new readers, the headquarters, full of dungeons and dragons, of the NYC Department of Education) and the Bloomberg administration in short changing schools with good reputations like Francis Lewis through editorials at the Gotham Schools blog and the Daily News. Tuesday’s front page article in the NY Times focused on the situation at Francis Lewis. But as usual, the Times only told half the story. Or less.

Goldstein, in a recent Daily News editorial (My school is bursting with students, and Tweed is to blame), clearly places the blame where it is due.

His article closes with: ….the experts at Tweed are like doctors who diagnose a disease, then inject the patient with more toxins just to make certain they're right. No one can criticize their diagnostic skills. But if anyone's due a malpractice suit, it's the Department of Education.

The usual NY Times tilt towards the BloomKlein administration on education made no mention of the trailers or any of the dilapidated conditions of the school. Nor did it tie in with the Bloomberg claims to educational excellence and the ridiculous attacks on Bill Thompson over the conditions in the schools when Thompson held the almost powerless position as head of the old Board of Education in the 90’s. (If they want to play that game, speaking of conditions, I bet Francis Lewis was not nearly as overcrowded when Bill Thompson headed the Board of Education).

The Times' article had nary a mention of the conditions Goldstein describes, nor does it mention Goldstein who has used his bully pulpit as UFT chapter leader so effectively. My goodness, the union rep fighting as much for the safety of kids as for teachers? And to the usual charge that the union is only concerned with jobs, doesn’t Goldstein’s campaign to reduce the overcrowding mean less staff? Would reporting that the actions of the union teachers at Francis Lewis in standing up to BloomKlein on a situation that is dangerous for kids counter the anti-teacher and anti-teacher union propaganda that is so rampant? The Times doesn’t want to go there as it executes the Times Tilt toward BloomKlein.

I once challenged the Times reporter who wrote the article at a symposium that the rank and file teacher point of view is rarely presented (union bureaucrats don’t count). Her response was that teachers are afraid to talk, which I found pretty funny. There is not one quote from a teacher in her article, only from students, the principal and a school secretary. Yet there are over 200 teachers at the school, more than a few I have encountered who have no fear. Certainly Arthur Goldstein is one.

Before I go on, I want to mention my favorite whipping crew at the UFT, which only got involved when Goldstein, who ran with the Independent Community of Educators (ICE) in the last UFT election and will be running with them again in this year’s election, started agitating. (Full disclosure: I am also a member of ICE.) Francis Lewis has been under the control of Unity Caucus, which has ruled the UFT for 45 years, for decades and some of the Unity supporters did what they could to stop Goldstein from getting elected as chapter leader.

Getting back to the Times as whipping boy, the article made no mention of the insane conditions teachers must work under, focusing only on student travails. TILT

Goldstein has written that Francis Lewis was built to hold 1800 students instead of the Times’ figure of 2400, allowing Tweed to claim, "You see, the school is not even at 200% capacity." TILT

The Times’ article bias toward the DOE line is further revealed here:

Not far from Francis Lewis, two schools with lesser reputations, Jamaica and John Bowne High Schools, are below capacity. But education officials, wary of alienating middle-class parents, have been reluctant to shift students to even out the load.

The Times did not ask the DOE why these schools have lesser reputations and are underutilized. In fact, John Bowne is at capacity, but the DOE plays games with the numbers.

Jamaica HS is a different story altogether. Chapter leader James Eterno, who is running for UFT president on the ICE/TJC slate against Unity Caucus' Michael Mulgrew, has written repeatedly about the intentional policies of Tweed in trying to force Jamaica's closing so it could be prime meat for future charter schools, even steering kids who want to attend away. James Eterno wrote a powerful letter to the State Education Commissioner pointing to the educational apartheid BloomKlein were perpetuating at Jamaica HS. (Read James' letter at the ICE blog: Letter to State Ed Commissioner: Stop Academic Apartheid)

The Times didn’t do any digging at all, just accepting the DOE line, as evidenced here:

Education officials say they are creating more schools that could eventually absorb some of the demand. Elizabeth Sciabarra, the director of the Department of Education’s office of enrollment, said that Francis Lewis had done a "pretty terrific job" of dealing with the overcrowding but that she could not say how many more students it could handle. "You have people who deliberately choose that school and live in the neighborhood because of that," she said, adding that the city had never capped enrollment at a high school. "Once you start to put a cap on, then where do you send those kids? I don’t see how we would be able to do that in a way that would be fair."

The Times neglected to ask Sciabarra why Tweed doesn't pour enough resources into Jamaica and Bowne to make them attractive enough so kids will want to go there. (For those who think that wouldn't work, look up the 1970's case of Mark Twain MS in Coney Island which went from worst to best in a blink, with pretty much the same teaching staff.)

The Times also neglected to read Arthur Goldstein's powerful piece at Gotham Schools, A Tale of Two Queens High Schools, where he compared the Jamaica and Francis Lewis situation and points to the Tweed complicity in turning people away from Jamaica. This is an important piece and example of real journalistic excellence.

For the times to make no connection to the Eterno and Goldstein pieces amounts to journalistic malpractice that rivals Tweed's educational malpractice. But then again, the Times and BloomKlein are on the same side.


The Arthur Goldstein article at Gotham

A Tale of Two Queens High Schools

Imagine there are two high schools in the same borough. One school can’t enroll enough kids to stay open, and the other is filled to 250% of capacity. What would you do? It might seem logical to even out the population of both schools, but that is not how New York City operates.

I’m in one of the most overcrowded schools in the city, Francis Lewis High School. Our building is designed for 1,800 kids, and last year we were up to 4,450. This year we hit 4,700, and the sky’s the limit. Where the extra kids will go I have no idea. I teach in a trailer out back, and you wouldn’t use it to house your dog if you had a choice.

In the trailers, you never can tell if there will be heat on cold days or AC on hot ones (and don’t buy a used car from anyone who tells you tin keeps you cool). The bathrooms are an abomination. Though school trailers are all the rage in New York City, you never see them on the news. If I didn’t visit one every working day of my life, I probably wouldn’t believe they existed.

On the other hand, James Eterno, chapter leader at Jamaica High School, has a completely different problem. Not enough kids are enrolling in his school. Could we help one another? That way, if, God forbid, there were ever a fire or something, perhaps more of us could make it out alive. How did things get to this point?

It’s complicated. Longtime teachers know that a lot of incidents routinely go unreported. The Bloomberg administration, early on, declared all incidents would be reported, and some administrators took those words to heart — as did those at Jamaica. The consequences are highly unlikely to encourage other administrators to do the same.

The city labeled Jamaica a “priority” school, and then an “impact” school. Ultimately, the state labeled the school “persistently dangerous.” Under NCLB, this triggered a letter home to all Jamaica parents, offering them an opportunity to transfer their kids to another school. Understandably, the school population dropped precipitously. Was Jamaica persistently dangerous, or was it just reporting more incidents than its neighbors?

Administration then began to move in the opposite direction. This resulted in the disastrous policy (by no means unique to Jamaica) of not allowing staff to call 911 without administrative approval. This was widely covered in the media, and likely resulted in even lower enrollment at Jamaica.

The DoE’s position was that Jamaica needed surveillance cameras, police, and metal detectors to improve. Eterno felt it would’ve benefited more from additional counselors, teachers, and social workers. But that was not to be the case. In fact, in 2008 Jamaica had over a dozen teachers, excessed due to declining enrollment, sitting in the school day after day, sometimes working as subs.

Why couldn’t these teachers have been used to decrease class sizes, and consequently give more attention to kids at Jamaica? The answer may be that the DoE had other plans for the space created by the exodus of local kids.

In 2008, Queens Collegiate, a school co-sponsored by the College Board, was placed in what used to be the social studies wing of Jamaica High. Jamaica’s social studies department was banished to an office in which they shared a single electrical outlet. Meanwhile, according to Eterno, Queens Collegiate rooms got paint, computers, smartboards, and everything else private-public ventures are entitled to in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York.

Additional schools create additional levels of administration and eat up classroom space, worsening overcrowding. Eterno asks, “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to fix a place like Jamaica?” At overcrowded Francis Lewis High School, I wonder the same thing. Why couldn’t the free space in Jamaica be used to help us, rather than a privately-sponsored school? Why doesn’t the city invest in technology, magnet programs, and better conditions to draw kids to Jamaica?

In fact, why don’t they offer prospective Jamaica students lower class sizes (which parents declared their number one priority on a DoE-sponsored survey)? Hasn’t Mayor Bloomberg accepted hundreds of millions of CFE lawsuit funds for that very purpose? Isn’t fixing schools for our kids, whether or not they win charter lotteries, whether or not they’re accepted into elite schools, worth a try?

Eterno says of the DoE, “If they perceive you as troubled, they don’t throw you a lifeline. They seem to say, ‘Good, you’re drowning. We hope you go under.’” But is that attitude unique to Jamaica? It doesn’t appear so. Our school is just a variation on a theme. They perceive us as successful, and seem to want to overcrowd us until we reach a breaking point — which is nothing short of inevitable.

It’s sort of a Catch 22 — struggle and you’re in danger of closing, but excel and you’re packed to the rafters and beyond. Why not give Lewis kids a real incentive to attend Jamaica, or any nearby school for that matter? Any time it felt like it, this administration could wake up and help me and James Eterno.

More importantly, it could help the thousands of kids we serve.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Zero comments in nearly 19 hours, could it be that everyone mentioned in this piece is a fanatical hack? Me thinks so.