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Teen Activists

Last summer, with a grant from the United Nations, teenagers at the organization Open Road of New York interviewed neighborhood kids to find out what they thought their communities needed.

This summer they're responding to what they found, and it's not only local teens reaping the benefits: Open Road youth leaders are cleaning up parks, organizing block parties to help make the neighborhoods feel safer, and creating community maps that provide information such as the best parks to bring toddlers, which parks are friendly by day but dangerous at night, and which are good hang-outs for teens. The maps will be distributed in community centers.

The workers at Open Road are some of what experts estimate to be several thousand New York City teenagers who spend all or part of their summers working to change the world, or at least their communities. New York City has a particularly rich history of youth activism and organizing, from the Young Lords and underground high school newspapers of the 1960s to the 2002 youth organizing that helped stop the proposed juvenile jail for Brooklyn.

Many of these teens work specifically on behalf of other youth, like Tiffany Chiu, 17, who worked with the HIV Prevention Organizing Project (or H-POP). Chiu surveyed students to determine whether New York City high schools were providing condoms to students who requested them, which is required by the New York City Board of Education. These mandates, explained Chiu, "are really important, but they're not enforced. A lot of high schools aren't following the rule."

Other activist-minded teens take on projects affecting people of all ages in their communities, but tackle them from a youth angle.

Some New York City teens work on broader social or community issues that aren't youth-specific.

Like most of his family, Murad Awawdeh suffers from asthma. The pollution in Sunset Park, where he lives, was making his and his family's condition worse. Awawdeh wanted to do something about it. So seven years ago, when he was just 13, he joined UPROSE, an organization in Sunset Park that tackles youth justice issues in the community.

He and other youth organizers fought to keep a new power plant from being built on the neighborhood's waterfront. They made a short film about pollution in their neighborhood, called Industrial Takeover, which was shown at the United Nations. They alerted community residents by blanketing Sunset Park with fliers, and they organized rallies and met with elected officials.

Now 19, Awawdeh looks back at satisfaction at a fight that ended in victory for his side; the power plant was not built.

Fighting to keep his neighborhood free from more pollutants "gets me all hyped up," said Awawdeh.

This summer, Arab Women Activists in the Arts and Media (AWAAM) organized over 20 young women to develop radio pieces highlighting the issues they saw affecting Arab women in their community. The radio spots will be broadcast at schools and community centers.

AWAAM is one of eight grantees of the North Star Fund receiving funding this summer to hire young people for community organizing. Sophia Silao, program officer of North Fund, said the initiative helps these community groups acquire extra staff while also widening their outreach to youth. Teen interns provide the organizations a perspective that too often goes missing in community organizing -- the youth point of view. "When you have policies or practices and different services in low-income, people-of-color communities, the voices of young people are often left out," said Silao. "But young people are extremely aware of what goes on in their community and often they don't have a means to really propose solutions to problems that are affecting them."

Partly due to the over one hundred New York City groups working with activist-minded young people, that's slowly changing. The notion that youth should have a voice as well as a means to effect change is becoming increasingly common. In the last ten years, even New York City's Administration for Children's Services has begun several initiatives for teens to share their points of view in foster care, including a youth advisory board. And one aspect of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for education reform is getting "report cards" from public school students on how their schools measure up.

Ultimately, said Silao, bringing youth to the table when discussing issues and policies having an impact on them is an investment in the city's future. It nurtures the next generation of activists and organizers. "Grassroots efforts have historically been really important in creating systemic change, so it's important to provide organizing training and leadership training for young people," she said. "They are the ones who will hopefully take up the baton and move forward and make real change in their communities."

Jennifer Morron also contributed to this article. All three write for magazines published by Youth Communication.


The Padlocked Playgrounds

The basketball courts at PS 92 in Harlem, the handball court at MS 44 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the red monkey bars with the spiral slide at PS 41 in Greenwich Village all have been closed to the public this summer. Operated by the Department of Education, these playgrounds are just three of the 746 schoolyards citywide that are padlocked on weekends and during the summer.

“From our point of view, it defies reason when an asset like a playground is sitting idle in a peak playtime for children like weekends and after school,” said Jeffrey Raven, a father of two teenagers and resident of the area around PS 41 in Greenwich Village. He has tried unsuccessfully for years to have the playground open during the summer. "We have a couple of parks that are a bit far away but what is missing is a place where a kid can learn how to ride a bike," Raven said

Now, City Councilmember Gale Brewer of the Upper West Side is campaigning to open schoolyards when school is out of session. She has introduced a resolution in City Council calling for hearings this fall on the feasibility of turning school playgrounds into community recreation centers. Brewer said the 746 playgrounds make up 948 acres of unused public land, an area larger than Central Park. Major barriers to opening the playgrounds are funding, liability and staffing, said Brewer.

The parks department maintains 257 playgrounds adjacent to schools that are open all summer. One way to open the 746 playgrounds that are now closed in the summer would be to have the parks department take over all the schoolyards and maintain them, Brewer said. “There aren’t any problems at the parks department-run school yards,” said Brewer. “The parks department opens and closes the school yards in the evening and it works great.”

The parks department declined to comment on Brewer's suggestion, referring calls to the Department of Education. A spokeswoman for the department, Margie Feinberg, said principals who want their schoolyards available for community use may keep them open on their own.

Tyler Smith, education specialist at Brewer's office, said it is unfair to ask principals to bear the cost of keeping schoolyards open in the summer. “The principals’ key concerns are the students and education,” Smith said. “Public recreation should not be their concern.”

Another model, Brewer said, might be a program of the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit organization. Currently there are 17 schoolyards in the city that were constructed and are operated by the Trust for Public Land through City Spaces, a program aimed at providing recreation areas for city children and communities. The Trust for Public Land works with the education department’s Office of Strategic Planning and private contributors to finance reconstruction of playgrounds for schools with extensive after school programs.

The schoolyards reconstructed through City Spaces stay open for community use after school until dark, on weekends and over the summer. For now, however, the Trust for Public Land has no immediate plans to take part in Brewer’s campaign, in part because of the enormous costs involved.

Brewer said recreation space is badly needed in low-income neighborhoods. “There is a standard in the city where 2.5 acres of open space is supposed to be available for every 1,000 residents but most of the low-income communities don’t even have that,” Brewer said. According to the Department of City Planning, 90 percent of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods fail to meet that standard.

"For the kids, there is no other ample recreation space unless you count the streets,” said Kareen Muhammad, a child counselor who lives near PS 92 and PS 175 in Harlem, both of which keep their yards open after school but closed when school is not in session. “Sometimes kids will slip through the fence or find a way to get inside just to play basketball,” he added. “When the schoolyard is open, the kids are playing ball and use the place. Now the kids are on the street,” said Muhammad.

This topic page has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Inside Schools, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.


How Will Power Shift To The Principals?

The idea behind Chancellor Joel Klein's latest reorganization of schools is this: Principals -- not superintendents -- should run schools and control the lion's share of the budget. It is a simple idea, but carrying it out is going to be tricky.

The Department of Education has named 331 schools, including 10 charter schools, as empowerment schools. Starting this fall, these schools will not be part of any district or region and will not be supervised by a superintendent, but will operate autonomously. Their principals will be responsible for many functions that had previously been carried out by the districts, such as training teachers, designing special education programs and classes for English language learners, and offering sex and health education. In exchange for assuming this responsibility, the principals will get extra money in their school budgets, perhaps $150,000 a year. Principals will form "networks" of about 20 schools and hire their own "network teams" to provide services now offered by the regional offices. However, the regions will remain responsible for student placement, including middle school choice and gifted and talented programs, even as their budgets are cut.

The empowerment schools represent a wide range of schools. Some -- like Brooklyn Tech, PS 321 in Park Slope, PS 199 on the Upper West Side and PS 183 on the Upper East Side -- are well-established, well-regarded schools with seasoned teachers and administrators and high-achieving children. But others face problems of uneven discipline and low levels of attendance or serve a challenging student body. Some of the principals are inexperienced, and some of the empowerment schools haven't even opened yet. "I think a lot of schools are going to fail miserably," said one regional official who asked not to be identified. "The principals don't know what they don't know."

But Kristen Kane, Klein's chief of staff, is optimistic that the inexperienced principals will get the guidance they need from the new CEO for the empowerment schools, Eric Nadelstern, and from their colleagues. "Eric will be supporting principals and helping them solve problems," Kane said. She cited the success of the “autonomy zone”, the pilot project for the latest initiative, in which several dozen principals were given substantial autonomy. "Some of the less experienced principals have sought out the opportunity to network with more experienced principals," Kane said.

Parents and Principals

There are a lot of unanswered questions about how the new initiative will work. In the past, parents who had difficulties with their principal could call the regional office and speak to the principal's supervisor, the local instructional superintendent. Now, parents of children in the empowerment schools won't have that option -- because the regions will no longer supervise the schools. "Parents call all the time when they have a conflict with the principal over a suspension, or discipline, or safety," said a regional official who asked not to be identified. "Parents will still come to the district or region and say, 'What do you mean you are not in charge of my school?'"

A Queens mother, speaking on WNYC radio's Brian Lehrer Show July 17, said she was concerned that she would "voice a complaint and it would go nowhere" and that principals in the empowerment schools will "have the opportunity to be autocratic." Responding to the caller, Klein said, "Good principals know how to work well with parents. That will be true regardless" of the organizational structure.

At the July meeting of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, Nadelstern invited parents to call or e-mail him directly with their concerns. “I take calls from parents and I respond,” he said.

Cutting Jobs and Budgets

To pay for this initiative, the education department is cutting $80 million from the budgets of the central education department and its 10 regional offices. Many staffers in the regional offices are wary -- partly because they fear they will lose their jobs and partly because they worry that their responsibilities will remain even as their budgets are slashed. All of the staff members of the regional offices of Student Placement, Youth and Family Support Services -- who handle attendance, drug abuse prevention, homeless family services, suspensions, gifted and talented programs and middle school choice -- have been told they will lose their jobs when those offices close August 18. Many of these employees will be rehired by five new borough offices called the Office of Youth Development, designed to handle guidance services. Others may be rehired by other divisions of the education department, including a new office of student placement that will handle all admissions, from kindergarten through high school.

Department of Education officials acknowledge that many unanswered questions remain but express confidence that they will be resolved by September. “It’s July. We’ll have much more clarity before school starts,” said Liz Sciabarra, chief executive of the Office of Student Enrollment Planning and Operations.

Clara Hemphill, is project director of InsideSchools.org project director and author of “New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools: a Parents' Guide,” “Public Middle Schools: New York City's Best,” and “New York City's Best Public High Schools.” This topic page has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.

Parents Grading Schools

Taking the Public Pulse
--Gail Robinson
Beyond 311: Listening to New Yorkers
--Diana Fortuna
What Residents Can Tell Government
--Douglas Muzzio
The Web Site, 311, Surveys and Focus Groups
--Jeffrey Kay
The Way in San Jose
--Brooke Myhre

The Department of Education is just getting started with surveys. We see this effort as handing the school system back to parents so that they have information to voice their concerns about their schools or move from one school to another.

We are putting into place five new measures. We are going to take periodic assessments of where the kids are during the year. We are going to do an on-site quality review of every school. And we are going to look at school environment. The key to the school environment measure is going to be surveys of parents, students and teachers starting about 10 months from now. From middle school up, students will be included. At all schools, parents and teachers will be included.

We are going to ask them about a number of things. First, do parents feel that their children are safe at school and on the way to school? Do children feel that they are safe?

Secondly what about engagement? This affects everyone -- teacher, student and parent. Do they understand what the mission of that school is and what their role is in that mission? Students and parents are going to be asked about this in a very focused way: Imagine your child’s – or your -- third period class, and answer these questions about that class. Do know what’s taking place there? If you feel your child has problems in that class, do you know who you should go to?

Very shortly, we are going to put out a request for proposals and ask people both to help us design those surveys and conduct then. It is very important that the designers of the surveys work not only with us but with parents, teachers and students. We want to be learning what people think of the system even before the surveys are built so we can build them the right way.

James Liebman is chief accountability officer for the New York City Department of Education


Giving Principals More Control

This spring, the city's 1,400 principals got a choice: Do you want to stay with your current boss? Or do you think you could run your school better on your own, without supervision?

In a far-reaching experiment that represents the second radical reorganization of the school system since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, nearly one-fifth of the city's principals have been invited to have their school leave their current districts and become what are called "empowerment schools." Starting this fall, if all goes as planned, these 331 schools will be able to decide everything from the starting time of the school day to the vendors from whom they will buy books -- as long as they follow state laws and existing union contracts.

More Money, More Accountability

What this means for parents, teachers and students is still unclear. In theory, the principal will have more discretionary money -- roughly $150,000 per year -- to spend on projects that the school community deems important, such as a new music teacher or extra library books. Principals will no longer be required to attend meetings at their district or regional office, potentially freeing up time to work directly with students and teachers. In exchange for the new freedom, schools must prove that their students are making progress. Empowerment schools will be required to conduct "interim assessments" of all students every six to eight weeks. They will undergo annual "quality reviews" and receive grades of A to F from inspectors who spend two or three days evaluating them. (For more on the new assessment program, see “Grading Students, Grading Schools.”)

"We believe schools are most effective when decisions are made by people closest to the children," principals and teachers, rather than regional administrators, said Eric Nadelstern, a seasoned and respected school leader who has been named chief executive officer of the empowerment schools. "Principals will no longer be able to say 'my hands are tied,’'' he said.

The Department of Education hopes the number of empowerment schools will grow each year, Nadelstern said. And, according to its plan, by the 2007-2008 school – whether or not they become empowerment schools -- will be required to conduct interim assessments every six to eight weeks and undergo quality reviews.

The Response

The initiative has created lots of controversy. The leadership of the principals' union, which has been without a contract for three years, is livid. The union, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, plans to sue the city for violating state law that governs school districts, its president Jill Levy said in a telephone interview. In a memo sent to principals, she said the initiative is "an attempt to break the back of this union."

Recently, three well-respected senior administrators -- Carmen Farina, deputy chancellor for instruction, Lori Mei, chief accountability officer, and Michelle Fratti, superintendent of Region 7 in Brooklyn and Staten Island -- have announced their retirements. While they have not publicly criticized the initiative, some colleagues speculate that the three did not want to stay on to carry it out.

Teachers are divided, particularly on the issue of interim assessments. While one Manhattan kindergarten teacher told Inside Schools that interim assessments, or frequent testing, will help her gauge how her students are doing, a fifth grade teacher said "It will drive me bonkers." The teachers' union seems cautiously supportive. "For many schools, the greater flexibility may be a good deal since it will allow educators to get away from some of the micromanaging that has been the bane of teachers for the last few years," according to New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers.

Some parents are opposed, while some are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "People believe it's just going to result in even more testing," Sam Greenberg, a Queens parent, told The New York Post. But Tim Johnson, chair of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council, a panel of parent leaders, said the new assessments are "potentially a good thing" that may prove to be as benign as a weekly spelling quiz and be a useful way to learn how a child is doing before the end of the semester or year. "I want to know how my daughter is doing and I don't want to wait for three months," he said.

A 180-Degree Turn

But for better or worse, the initiative does represent a dramatic shift in the way the Department of Education has done business since Bloomberg took office in 2002. Some are calling this latest change a mid-course correction.

After Bloomberg persuaded the state legislature to give him control of the schools in 2002, he dismantled the discredited Board of Education and consolidated 32 districts into 10 regions. In Bloomberg's highly centralized system, most decisions about curriculum were made at the top. Some principals and teachers complained that every detail of school life -- from the placement of a rocking chair in a kindergarten class to displays on bulletin boards -- was dictated from on high.

But now he empowerment schools seem to represent a move from radical centralization to radical decentralization. "It's a complete 180, a correction of the top-down stuff," said Johnson of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council,. "But you won't get them to admit that centralization didn't work."

Nadelstern, who opened several dozen small high schools in the Bronx, said the empowerment schools merely expand on the "autonomy zone," a network of schools that have operated outside the control of the regional offices for several years. He said centralization was necessary in the early days of the Bloomberg administration to bring order to a chaotic and unequal system, but that greater autonomy will liberate principals and teachers to do their best work.

Principals are divided. Some agree with Nadelstern, while others fear the new system will leave them worse off than before.

Why It Might Work

Carol Stock, an experienced principal of the successful PS 199 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said she decided 199 should become an empowerment school in part because she believed the "staff development" or training she was able to offer her teachers in-house was superior to that offered by her region. She said the fewer meetings she had to attend outside the school, the better. And Stock said she believes the interim assessments and the quality review (the annual report card in which schools are graded from A to F) will be useful for teachers, parents and administrators.

Empowerment schools will be able to design their own interim assessments she said, as long as they can show students are making progress. The assessments may take the form of computerized bubble tests. But they could also include a one-on-one interview of the child by the teacher, or a test, similar to a pop quiz, devised by teachers. With the help of such assessments, Stock says, teachers will be able to how their students are doing as the year progresses and will be able to adjust their techniques before it's too late,

PS 199 was one of a small group of schools selected this past year for a pilot quality review. Inspectors contracted by the education department spent two and a half days in the school, talking to everyone from cafeteria workers to parents. Their report included descriptions of the school's tone and climate that went far beyond a recitation of test scores, citing, for example, the school's dance program for children in wheelchairs. "I think it is a good faith effort to measure how schools are doing," Stock said. "How it will actually play out, I don't know."

And What the Risks Are

For principals who have chosen to stay within their regions, however, the risks outweigh the possible benefits. For them, their current supervisors, called "local instructional superintendents,” are not oppressive bureaucrats but trusted colleagues; their regional offices are a source of support and good advice.

Sharon Hill, principal of the well-regarded Manhattan New School, who chose not to become an empowerment school, said her local instructional superintendent, Anna Marie Carillo, is “fabulous….She used to be a principal. She understands instruction, and she understands the rules and regulations. I take care of the school, and she takes care of me. She is a shoulder to lean on. I have a great support system at the regional office. Why would I give that up?"

Hill also suggested that the amount of money offered, which varies according to the size of the school, might not be enough to compensate for the services the empowerment schools would have to take on, such as staff development.

Levy, of the principals' union, said the new initiative is part of a "corporate model" of education. She predicted that principals of empowerment schools would spend an excessive amount of time "concentrating on the management and business [aspects] of schools" and would have less time to focus on instruction. She said details are now handled by the regional offices, such as negotiating with vendors, would now be handled by principals.

The 10 regional education department offices still have some authority over empowerment schools. They will continue to determine student placement for special education, gifted and talented programs, and services for English language learners, Nadelstern said. But Nadelstern's office -- not the regional office – will have the power to hire principals.

-- Clara Hemphill, is project director of InsideSchools.org project director and author of “New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools: a Parents' Guide,” “Public Middle Schools: New York City's Best, “ and “New York City's Best Public High Schools.” This topic page has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.


Grading Students, Grading Schools

Sixteen-year-old Kiri Davis took a black doll and a white doll to a Harlem daycare center and asked the children there, all of whom were black, which doll they liked better. Fifteen of the 21 children picked the white doll.

Davis' experiment, which echoes the work of Kenneth Clarke that led to the famous Supreme Court desegregation ruling of 1954, is part of her film, entitled "A Girl Like Me," which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was also screened at the Urban Academy, a New York City public school, to fulfill Davis’s requirements for graduation.

Later this month, thousands of other New York City high school students will also try to move toward graduation. They will take state Regents examinations, answering multiple-choice questions and writing brief essays. Unlike most New York students, who have to pass five Regents exams, Davis and students at Urban Academy and other schools in the Performance Assessment Consortium do projects instead of some of the tests in history, art, science, math and literature.

The difference between Davis and the students filling in their bubble sheets points up a central dispute in the debate over how to judge students. Should standardized, quantitative measures be key, or should teachers, parents and others rely more on observations and judgments on the quality of work being done and instruction being offered?

A new approach to government accountability -- officially called "performance assessment" but more colloquially, compstatmania -- compiles, analyzes and interprets statistics in order to spot trends, gaps and overlaps in city services. It's not magic -- it's hard work, and follow-up. In this series, Gotham Gazette looks at this approach to improving city services.

Now this debate has extended to how to judge schools and the entire New York City public school system. Since the advent of mayoral control in 2002, the Department of Education has increasingly relied on standardized exams as an indication of a school’s performance and of the state of the nation’s largest school system. And it has sought to find other measures to gauge school strengths and weaknesses.

Starting next school year, the Department of Education will conduct more tests (or “assessments”) of students and offer new ways to report results of the existing annual tests. The city’s new plan, dubbed the Accountability Initiative, will add more measures of school performance, incorporating visits to schools and parent surveys. The department says it will use the results to improve instruction and determine the future of schools and their principals.

“We hold our students accountable everyday. Starting now, we are holding our schools and ourselves more accountable as well,” Chancellor Joel Klein said in announcing the move.

But critics say the new program will make students slaves to testing, adept at filling in answer sheets but deficient in reasoning, writing and the arts.


New York City's new Accountability Initiative comes during a national boom in school testing and other measurements of government services, from police to child welfare. The $25 million program, set to go into effect in September, includes a number of new ways to assess schools and use those measurements. “What we’re trying to do,” said James Liebman, the education department’s chief accountability officer, “is create an integrated, comprehensive accountability system for measuring the contribution that schools make to the learning of children.”

Comparing Scores

Now, when educators look at test scores, they consider how the scores of fourth graders in a given school this year compare with fourth graders in that same school last year. Such an analysis does not consider differences among fourth grade classes – any teacher will tell you that, by the luck of the draw, some classes are smarter than other.

To address that, the new program calls for tracking how the same student’s scores change from one year to another. Even a low score could be good news – if it shows improvement. Explaining the system, Klein told reporters, “No longer will you get a snapshot....You’ll get a moving picture.”

Robert Tobias, a former director of assessment for the city schools who is now a professor at the NYU education school, said, “Principals have been asking for this for years.” But he said, like all test data, the “value added” results, as they are called, have to be evaluated carefully. For example, he said one year’s test might be far easier than the test given the same student the previous year.

High school students do not take annual achievement rates. To evaluate them, the department will look at other factors such as Regents tests and graduation rates, and is considering administering the PSAT, now a voluntary test for college-bound students, to all high school kids.

More Testing

In addition to yearly tests, starting next year, elementary and middle school students will also be given assessments every marking period.

Liebman said these tests will not determine promotion or be used to evaluate a school. Instead teachers, principals and parents will look at the results to see whether a student has mastered a certain skill – comprehension, say, or recognizing words. The teacher can use that information to zero in on the areas where students need help. “The best way to get improvement is to focus on each child,” Leibman said. “So what you want to do is figure out how each child is doing and where the strengths and weaknesses of each lie and then you want to come up with a plan for how to get that child to where he or she needs to be.”

Liebman said such tests boost achievement and cites statistics on so-called Beat the Odds schools -- schools that perform far better than those with similar student bodies. A study (in pdf format) of predominantly Latino schools in Arizona singles out frequent assessments as one of the factors that helped some schools do better than others.

But Tobias expresses skepticism as to whether such tests provide useful information. ”Everything we need to know about student levels of achievement in English language arts, you can get from the annual assessments,” he said.

School visits

Department officials plan to visit schools to evaluate how they address student needs. To accomplish this, the district has hired Cambridge Education, a British consulting firm, at a cost of $500,000, mostly from private donors. Cambridge is develop evaluations called Quality Reviews that will consider such issues as how well the school tailors its curriculum and teaching methods to the needs of every child in the schools.


Parents, teachers and students will be asked to rate their schools on Satisfaction Surveys. The surveys will also pose such questions as, Do you feel safe at this school? Do you feel your child is safe at this school? How engaged are you in the school? And so on.

Report cards

Following all these evaluations, schools will receive a letter grade (A, B, C, etc.). The school's report card will incorporate statistics on safety, and attendance, information from the surveys and the analysis of the scores on yearly tests.

Schools that do poorly could be restructured or closed. And the principals in charge of those schools could find themselves out of a job, although that would require changes in the principals' contract. (The contract expired almost three years ago, and talks are deadlocked.) In return for these sticks, Klein says, principals would gain increased autonomy and schools that do well could get more money.

The school will also be judged in their performance on the Quality Reviews, given a score of “well developed,” “proficient,” or underdeveloped.”


The Accountability Initiative is only the latest in a series of other programs at the federal, state and city level that have increased the emphasis on testing. Some of this has been spurred by the U.S. No Child Left Behind Law. It requires that all students meet proficiency levels in reading, language arts, math and science by 2014. And schools must make progress toward that goal every year. That progress is determined by standardized tests.

The federal effort is administered by the states. And even before No Child Left Behind, New York set standards for what students should master in every grade, tested to determine whether students met those standards and published lists of schools that were not succeeding.

At the beginning of this academic year, the state found 331 city schools to be “in need of improvement” and another 93 “requiring academic progress,” a similar designation. It placed 40 New York City schools on its list of most troubled schools: Schools Under Registration Review.

Students in failing schools are eligible for outside help and can even transfer out. At the same time, the schools receive additional aid in the hopes that they can improve. But if that does not work, the school might be restructured or even closed.

The emphasis on testing underlying all this has dismayed some experts. “The substance of education -- history, science, literature, art, music -- is being sacrificed to narrowly focused demands to produce high test scores in reading and math,” educators Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, who disagree on many education issues, wrote in Education Week.

Pther critics questions whether the tests are the most reliable indicator of how a student is doing. ‘The best assessor of a student's progress is the classroom teacher. Anything else is just a waste of taxpayer's money,” a reader wrote to a dissident education blog.

But Klein dismisses such arguments. “Our teachers should teach students the ideas and skills they must master in order to pass their tests,” he said in a recent speech.

Reflecting that attitude, Klein has upped the ante on the tests. Students need to score above a certain level to be promoted. Their performance on fourth grade tests helps determine what middle school they will attend, and the seventh grade test is key to high school admissions. And a new test will figure out admission to elementary school gifted and talented programs.

The test scores carry high stakes for individual schools and the Department of Education as well. Parents use the scores to help them select schools for their children.

The scores play a role in the department’s evaluations of principals. In extreme cases, bad test scores can mean death to a school. Low Regents test scores helped convince Klein to shut down some of the city’s large high schools, such as William H. Taft and Martin Luther King.

And voters use test scores to judge politicians. When Bloomberg took control of the city schools, he told voters to hold him accountable for the results. And so last spring’s increase in test scores for city fourth graders probably played a role in Bloomberg’s landslide victory.

Some wondered about the validity of the rise. “It’s anyone’s guess why the fourth-grade scores rose so sharply this year at the same time that eighth-grade reading and social studies scores went from bad to worse,” wrote the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern. “No reputable researcher would rely on a one-year bump in some test scores to judge the efficacy of a new program.”

But voters are not necessarily researchers. ''The spike in fourth-grade test scores immunized the mayor against criticism from his opponents and has taken the education issue off the table,'' Diane Ravitch told the New York Times during the campaign.


There is a pervasive sense among those concerned about testing that it has taken the joy out of learning. “What do kids need to go out into the world, participate in a democratic society?” Ann Cook of the Performance Standards Consortium asked a meeting of parents concerned about testing. “What do they need to have some excitement, interests and curiosity so when they get to be 30, they have something to be passionate about and sustain them as human beings?”

Certainly the type of assessments done at the Urban Academy, where Cook is co-director, generate more enthusiasm than a Regents test.

The work that students do to indicate proficiency springs from something that came up during class and sparked the students' interest. In his science class, Bobby Haas became interested in the mechanics of hearing. So, to prove proficiency in science, he devised an experiment to find out whether people can determine what direction a sound is coming from. He tested 40 subjects but then used a statistical method known as a chi square to evaluate his results.

And Xiomara Pedraza’s work in history sprung from her strong feelings about Latin America. “I thought countries were being exploited,” she says.

But the people assessing her work, including a Queen College professor, press her to examine her conclusions. What has the neo-liberal model meant for Bolivia, asks one. Where does land reform fit in to President Ivo Morales’ plan for his country? Will Morales’ policies drive corporations away, leaving Bolivia even poorer than it is now?

Critics say, as appealing as such projects might be, they can be subjective and hide shortcomings in basic knowledge and skills. The program of tests, says State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who has spearheaded New York’s standards and testing program, came out of a real need. “The people of this state demanded we raise standards, create a reliable way to measure and help more students to succeed,” he has written. The state responded and now, he says, “students who used to be neglected got help. Student achievement improved.”


But beyond the testing, lies the issue of what, if anything, parents and students can do with all the data. The city’s experience with No Child Left Behind is sobering.

Many city students attend failing schools and so, under the rules, can seek transfers. But in many neighborhoods there are not enough good schools to accommodate all the students eligible for transfers. Parents seeking new schools for their childen learned they could send them to another failing school nearby -- or a better school an hour or so away. Similarly, parents reviewing possible middle or high schools for their children often find the schools reports and scores tell them one thing: Decent schools are scarce.

Liebman says the information is valuable nonetheless. “What we are dong here is a very potentially risky thing,” he said. “We are going to make transparent to the public how well the schools where their children go are doing and we are doing that with full recognition and indeed a hope that where the results are not satisfactory to parents, in particular, they will use either their voices or their choices to change what’s taking place.”

But some parents wonder. Learning about plans to provide more data, Lisa Donlan of the District 1 Education Council told the Times, “The reaction of parents right away was, ‘Do you understand that we go to zoned schools...and this is not a competitive market?’”

Hanging Up on Parents?

Nothing that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done on education in the last four years has drawn as much protest as the enforcement of the ban on cell phones in schools. It has spawned demonstrations, petitions and bills in the New York City Council and New York State legislature, and threatens to overshadow every other issue in education.

Many of those opposing the ban have focused on the safety of students who travel long distances to and from school. But for some, the cell phone issue is emblematic of a deeper issue -- the Department of Education’s reluctance to involve parents in decision-making in the schools. “The cell phone policy is not an isolated incident,” Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum told the City Council. “The Department of Education routinely changes things without keeping parents in the loop.”

At a recent City Council hearing, witness after witness said that parents had little opportunity to influence innumerable actions that Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have taken, such as shutting some schools and moving others; refusing to promote students who have low scores on standardized tests; and changing rules for gifted and talented programs. The system of mayoral control adopted in 2002, they said, had shut parents and others out of any meaningful involvement in school decision-making.

"There is no place to have your voice heard beyond your local school, " Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian, told a meeting of parents and educators in 2004.

“There is no true consultation. It’s more, 'We will brief you,’” said Council Education Committee Chairman Robert Jackson.

And that, Klein might say, is just as it should be. Consulting with parents can create “gridlock,” the chancellor once said. "For every issue in which you think there is parent agreement ... there are wide ranges of very different views."

Even many of Bloomberg’s critics concede that the school system he inherited had failed many city children for decades. Dramatic change has been essential. But is it possible to make sweeping reforms, and still consult parents along the way?


Almost everyone gives lip service to encouraging parental involvement. But while “the easy response” is to agree that parents should play a great role “practically speaking it gets very difficult,” said Elena Silva of Education Sector, an independent think tank.

For some, involvement means little more than helping parents make sure their kids get to school on time and are prepared every day. Even this can be difficult in a city with many single parents, parents who work multiple jobs or parents who do not speak English. To help them, the city translates report cards, registration forms and major notices into eight languages. Earlier this year, following a mayoral veto, the City Council and Bloomberg worked out an agreement to expand such services so immigrant parents could be more involved in their children’s education.

Staff can be reluctant to engage parents, said Silva, and conflicts may arise among parents – between the “ins” and the “outs” in the parents' association, for example, or among different racial and economic groups.

To encourage involvement in individual schools, the Department of Education has placed full-time paid parent coordinators in all but the smallest city schools. Last year, according to Jemima Bernard, executive director of the Office of Parent Engagement, parent coordinators had more than 2 million contacts with parents – including at least 630,000 face-to-face meetings. Parents, Bernard said, were generally pleased – giving 96 percent of the coordinators a favorable rating.

The parent coordinators help parents with paperwork, field questions and do other things that help parents support academic success, said John Beam, executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University. “These are important things but they are not at all about power-sharing,” he said.

Critics charge that, since parent coordinators are hired by the principal, they sometimes are not responsive to parents' needs. “Parent coordinators are looking over their shoulders constantly, being concerned about what the principal is going to say,” Sherri Donders, president of the Staten Island federation of PTAs, told the City Council.

If there are problems in individual schools, there are even more complications on the level of the Community School District or the Department of Education as a whole. While parents are involved at many individual schools, Don Holly, an active parent, told the City Council “at the next level up, parents do not have a seat at the decision making table.”


When they took over the school system, Klein and Bloomberg repeatedly explained why they believed consulting with parents –- and with unions and others as well -– could derail education reform. “There’s just a limit to how much you can consult,” Bloomberg said on “60 Minutes” in 2003. “The way to stop progress is to say, ‘Yes, I love it, but’ – and there’s always a but. And society can't focus that way. If you ever saw a system that was broken, it was our public school system.... [W]e consulted an awful lot but we never did anything.”

But others argue that, as sloppy as it may be, democracy – and particularly parental involvement – is simply the right thing to do. “One of the fundamental human rights is participation of parents and students in decisions that affect them, ” said Ellen Raider, co-founder of Independent Commission on Public Education, an advocacy group.

And there are practical benefits as well. A raft of studies indicates that children whose parents play an active role in their educations – from helping with homework to going to PTA meetings – do better in school than other kids.

Parents who are involved are more likely to insist schools deliver the kind of education their children need. Some schools, of course, might see that as a mixed blessing. When schools shut out low-income parents from the school, it limits their ability of those parents “to hold schools accountable for educational failure,” Elizabeth Sullivan wrote in a report on parent participation.

When parents are involved, they are more likely to support the school system. “Anything that distances public education from society is not a good thing,” said John Beam of Fordham University.

This goes beyond supporting more school spending to becoming vested in educational programs and reforms. Without the help of parents, Silva said, “We're not going to see a real improvement in what’s happening in the classroom.”


“You don’t get good decisions if you alienate people,” said Raider of the Independent Commission on Public Education. “This is not even a good corporate model."

To many, the cell phone controversy is a case in point. The announcement that the Department of Education would begin enforcing the long-standing but often ignored ban on cell phones came as school was about to close for spring vacation. Parents had not been consulted -- and many were not even around to learn about the change.

When they did hear about it, many reacted angrily, saying the school system seemed unaware of the need for parents to contact students traveling around the city.

Klein and Bloomberg say cell phones make it easier for kids to cheat on tests, take pictures in locker room and bathrooms, arrange drug deals or call in reinforcements for schoolyard fights. In a radio address, the mayor likened cell phones to guns and knives.

With parents' views seemingly ignored, the incident has revived the picture of an autocratic mayor, out of touch with people who send their kids to Department of Education schools. “I don’t know who [Bloomberg’s] constituency is. I suspect they’re private school parents,” said Councilmember Letitia James, who has introduced a resolution to overturn the ban. “My constituents are public school parents and a lot of them are single female parents who need to be in touch with their child.”

To other parents, the issue went gone beyond the phones to a question of parental -– and student -– involvement in decision-making. “The people who picked this up early on are people who think they have helped build a certain school culture that didn’t involve metal detectors,” said Beam. “It wasn’t just a violation of parent involvement in terms of consulting but in terms of creating a school culture.”

With bills to overturn the ban in both the City Council and the state legislature, the council has scheduled a hearing for June 14.

But Public Advocate Gotbaum, for one, thinks parents and school officials should try to work out a compromise. In a similar vein a city education advocacy group has launched a contest to find a solution. (For a student perspective on the controversy, see related story.)


The cell phone conflict is straightforward. But many issues present a more complicated view of how parental involvement can help – or hurt.

As an example, one could go back to the early 1990s and school chancellor Joseph Fernandez’s efforts to institute the “Rainbow Curriculum,” a course of study designed to address all cultures including gays and lesbians. The move met harsh criticism. More than 1,000 parents attended a district meeting in Staten Island to express their opposition. Parents protested elsewhere as well, forcing Fernandez to back down on part of the curriculum. The uproar led to his ouster as chancellor.


Disagreements among parents present a particular challenge as the chancellor has learned on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Affluent parents, most of them white, prized the neighborhood's elementary school gifted and talented programs. But black and Latino parents charged the selection process for the program left their children out. To address this concern, the Department of Education made changes, saying it would no longer give preferences to children who live in a school’s immediate vicinity or who have a sibling in the program. This enraged another group of parents, who felt their wishes have been ignored.

“The protesting parents are treated like stage mothers, and the educrats’ defenses are swallowed whole,” wrote Henry Stern. “The West Side parents are relatively powerless. Their only remedy appears to be a lawsuit.”


Not surprisingly in a city with a perennial space crunch, city parents become particularly wrought on issues involving which school should be located where. This issue has become increasingly heated, as the city struggles to find space to house all of its new small schools and charter schools. Parents have charged that they are not consulted about– or even informed of -- Department of Education decisions.

Parents at P.S. 137on the Lower East Side have protested plans to move that school from its building on Cherry Street to make way for the Shuang Wen Academy, a small school with classes in English and Mandarin. “All these changes happened in secret,” one parent of two PS 137 students has said.

And parent consultation might have made a difference. Lisa Donlan, a parent member of the local Community Education Council, told the Times, “We should have been able to come around a table and say, ‘How can we make this a win-win situation for everybody?’ But there was no table.”

Parents and the principal at NEST+m – New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math – reacted with outrage when Klein announced he wanted it to share space with Ross Global Academy, a new charter school, until the academy finds a permanent home. Charging that it had not been adequately informed of the decision, the PTA said it "is riled, frustrated and demanding action." Parents worry that having the Ross School in its midst will force NEST+m to admit fewer students or face overcrowding that could jeopardize its academic success.

Similarly, parents and teachers at P.S. 154 in Harlem have protested plans to move a charter school, Harlem Success, into PS 154’s building on West 127th Street. The parents worry about overcrowding but, the Amsterdam News reported, are "equally upset about being kept in the dark about their new neighbor. "


No one would argue that it is easy to create meaningful parental involvement in a system as huge as New York City’s. The pendulum in New York City has swung back and forth between a decentralized system designed to give parents power and a more centralized approach.

When Bloomberg became mayor, he saw a system with 32 elected community school boards. Some had been accused of corruption; others handed out jobs to political cronies. Few New Yorkers would be willing to hold these elected bodies up as exemplars of democracy.

But when the community boards worked, said Kavitha Mediratta of the Community Involvement Program at NYU’s school of education, “they were a real avenue for participation…There was a structured way for people to have a role.”

Voter turnout was always low, but thousands of people did participate in school board elections. And because parents who were not citizens could vote, it gave a voice to people who often struggled to have their views heard. It was “one of the few places where Asians have gotten their votes heard and their candidates in," attorney Khin Mai Aung told Newsday.

Bloomberg decided to eliminate the boards and focus on parents. “Because of the mayor’s conviction that parent views are fundamental to our reforms, he advocated for parent-dominated bodies to replace the community school boards,” Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott testified before the City Council.

As a result, a number of groups exist:

Community Education Councils
Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council
School Leadership Teams
Parent’s Advisory Councils for Title 1, the program for low-income students
Citywide Council on High Schools
Citywide Council on Special Education

Some think this works. “I have nothing but accolades for the Department of Education” on parent involvement, a parent from the Highbridge section of the Bronx said. “This administration has done more for parent involvement and outreach than I can ever remember being done,” City Councilmember James Vacca said, although he added, ”Some parents may feel that on policy issues they may not be involved.”

But many people active in these groups – a number of whom testified at the City Council hearing this month -- say they have no clear role and little real authority or even advisory ability. “This chancellor views parents as the enemy rather than partner in education,” Tim Johnson, chair of the Chancellor’ Parent Advisory Panel, testified. And, said Kavitha Mediratta of NYU, many of these structures give parents the “authority to advise and to be ignored.”

People have not exactly flocked to their ranks. According to Carmen Colon, president of the Association of New York City Education Councils, 37 percent of community education council members did not return for a second term. In December, the Times reported that there were 70 vacancies on councils across the city.

Some advisory council members, though, say they have had successes. "I've been empowered to a degree I wouldn't have thought possible," Jeffrey Guyton, a council member from District 30 in Long Island City, said in a letter to the New York Times.


The current system does little to involve people who are not parents – and active parents at that. It tends to ignore students, and there is no role for people who do not have children. While in other communities all voters can chose school board members or vote on school budgets, in New York about all most citizens can do to express their opinions on schools is vote in the mayoral election.

While this is not necessarily integral to a system of mayoral control, it is part of New York City’s model, which features “a particularly high level of mayoral control,” said Silva.

The law creating this system expires in 2009, and so the issue will go before the state legislature again. With that in mind, many education advocates are looking ahead to how to change the system.

How extensive should the parents and community role be? “There is a role for parents and the community in education,” said Fritz Edelstein, a senior consultant to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Is there a role for them to run the system? No, that’s not their job.”

But what is?

For More Information


Association of New York City Education Councils
Created by parents and other activist to provide support to the councils.

Community Involvement Program, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University
Provides training support, organizing strategy, data analysis, and policy research to support community-based action for school improvement in urban areas.

Independent Commission on Public Education
Seeks to create a “human rights vision” for New York City schools, including greater parents and student participation in decision-making.

National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University
Works to strengthen grassroots support for school reform. The site recently conducted an on-line poll on cell phones in schools.

Articles and Reports

Report on Civil Society and School Accountability: A Human Rights Approach to Parent and Community Participation in New York City Schools

From Governance To Accountability: Building Relationships That Make Schools Work (in pdf format)
This report concludes that "developing a new community accountability system that anchors the essential relationships between schools and communities in ongoing efforts to improve schools is one of the most critical tasks before us."

The Underside of Bloomberg's School Reform How the Mayor's Top-Down Revolution Locks Out Communities


Cell Phone Ban Angers Students

On April 26, New York City police officers set up mobile security scanners at the Acorn High School for Social Justice in Brooklyn. They seized 129 cell phones, 10 CD players, two iPods, a box cutter and a knife. Such searches and the ban on cell phones have prompted protests by high school students across the city.

Cell phones have long been banned in the city's public schools, but principals at schools without metal detectors, such as ACORN High School, often ignored the policy, and students got away with carrying cell phones, as long as the phones did not make noise in class.

Now all students have to obey the rules because of a new Department of Education security policy. City police officers have started randomly showing up at schools that don't have metal detectors and using mobile scanners to keep weapons out of the schools, according to a department press release. But the police are also confiscating cell phones, iPods and other banned electronic devices. If cell phones are seized during a scan at school, school officials decide when to return the phones.

Petitions and Protests

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein says the ban is necessary because students use the phones to cheat on exams, take pictures in locker rooms and call friends to help in a fight. But students and their parents say they count on cell phones to stay in touch before and after school. Some city public high school students have been using various tactics to protest the ban, with some students threatening to walk out of class if the metal detectors appear at their schools.

Sharon Weisberg, a freshman at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, organized a petition drive demanding that students be allowed to keep their phones at school for safety reasons. She has collected signatures from more than 700 of the 4,000 students who attend the school.

She said she plans to send her petition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office when she gets at least 1,000 signatures. She's also working with students at Fort Hamilton, Franklin Roosevelt, Stuyvesant, LaGuardia and Port Richmond High Schools who are circulating their own petitions.

"I was enraged at the stupidity of the mayor. His decisions are idiotic and somebody needed to tell him that," Sharon said.

New Youth Connections writer Dorena Belovet Ruff, 17, understands Sharon's anger. Two years ago, she attended night school at Canarsie High School, which has permanent metal detectors. Her mother worried about her commuting home at 10 p.m. without a phone. "She's like, 'If something happens, I want you to be able to call home,'" Dorena said. "She didn't like it."

So Dorena, and other students at Canarsie, snuck their cell phones into school -- some wrapped phones in tinfoil and pretended it was a sandwich, she said. Dorena would walk through the metal detector and when it beeped, quickly slip the phone in her bag that had already made it safely to the other side.

But with all students -- not just those at schools with metal detectors-- facing the loss of their cell phones, more people are speaking against the policy. Judith List, assistant principal of Murrow's Communication Arts Department, said she's unhappy with the mayor's decision. She has a son in the ninth grade. "I need communication with my child, just like any other parent," said List. "I feel that as long as the student doesn't take it out in class, there should be no problem in carrying them." All students will suffer because of students who abused this privilege, she said.

Staying Home

Parents with children attending the New York City Lab School in Manhattan have suggested that children go home when scanners come to their school, according to comments posted on a Yahoo discussion group.

One Lab School parent told her son: "If you see them at school, just turn around and go home."

"Cell phones are essential for communication," said Alex Rich, 16, a Lab School student. If they try to take away my electronic devices, I just won't go into school."

Ilya Arbit and David Schmutzer are writers for the teen-written magazine New Youth Connections, published by Youth Communication.  

A Laptop For Every Student?

New York City has begun a pilot project to provide laptop computers for every student in seven middle schools on the Upper West Side. During this pilot phase, which will be completed in the fall, students will only have access to their laptops at school. But this could change as the program evolves. Indeed, the goal is eventually to have enough laptops for each and every student in every public middle school throughout New York City.

How much will this experiment cost?

The projected budget for launching it this year is $1,300,000.

Who’s paying for it?

The city’s taxpayers are footing about a third of the bill, but Apple Computer, Intel and other corporations have donated equipment, training and funds, and Mouse, a New York City non-profit that specializes in technology in schools, is coordinating further fundraising efforts.

What will providing a laptop for every student achieve?

Councilmember Gale Brewer, who spearheaded this experiment, lists five ambitious goals:

  • Increased technology literacy
  • Increased engagement of students in their schoolwork
  • Lowered rates of absenteeism
  • Decreased disciplinary problems
  • Improved student achievement in all core curriculum areas

What proof is there that it works?

Maine now supports such a program throughout the entire state, and has studied the effects on teaching habits and educational outcomes.

Teachers in Maine have successfully integrated technology into their interactions with students, with such approaches as appending “electronic sticky notes” on student papers. Students have developed sophisticated Web sites to document their research efforts, which are often about an aspect of life in their home communities. Overall, teachers observe in their students a higher level of engagement and lower level of absenteeism (in pdf format), particularly among students who were struggling in school before.

Educational researcher Saul Rockman, who has studied the effects of laptop programs throughout the country, says that Maine’s experience is not unusual. Rockman has seen that use of laptops leads to greater collaboration among students, a higher level of productivity, and even a greater interest in writing.

There is still no proof, though, that increased use of laptops boosts achievement on standardized tests. Therefore, it is fair to say that the goal of “improved student achievement in all core curriculum areas” for the city schools is theoretical.

Still, enough evidence has emerged to turn around such initially skeptical educational leaders as Mark Gura. “I’m a convert,” says Gura, who was formerly the head of the New York City Board of Education’s Office of Instructional Technology, and is now in the employ of Fordham University. He is a consultant to the pilot project, which is officially called “One-to-One in Ten” (because it establishes a ratio of one-to-one laptop to student, and because it’s taking place in School Region Ten).

Gura views the project as a “laboratory model” and hopes to help gather data -- such as what lesson plans worked and which didn’t – that can translate into “guidance and support,” to assist other middle schools throughout the city that may choose to establish their own 1-to-1 laptop programs. Such a program is likely to remain optional, but, Gura notes, a laptop in every student lap is becoming the “international norm” – and why, he asks, shouldn’t it be the norm in a world-class city like New York?

The City's Resistance to Cutting Class Size

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have made sweeping changes in the city's schools, but the administration has ignored the number one concern of many parents, teachers and advocates: class size. A Newsday poll taken before the election found that class size remained the top education concern of voters. More recently, a Fordham online survey(in pdf format) of more than 500 parents and education advocates found that only 4 percent supported the mayor's education initiatives, while the overwhelming majority replied that his highest priority should be reducing class size.

This should come as no surprise. Smaller classes have repeatedly been shown to improve student achievement, cut down on teacher attrition, reduce disciplinary problems and increase parent involvement. While much of the focus on cutting class size has been on elementary grades, the overcrowded classrooms in many of our high schools have contributed to a state of perpetual crisis with rising drop out rates.

Today New York City’s classes remain the largest in the state by far. Though the Court of Appeals in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case found that class sizes in New York City public schools were too large to provide children with their constitutional right to an adequate education, the mayor plans to spend only 2 percent of any money received as a result of the CFE suit to reduce class size. Instead, he intends to spend ten times as much on more administrators and specialists. On April 26, we will be in State Supreme Court to fight for the right of all New Yorkers to ensure that these funds are spent as the court intended.

This administration is undercutting the drive for smaller class size in six major ways.


On March 16, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who has supported more state money for city schools, released his audit(in pdf format) of the city's use of over $500 million it has received from the state to cut class size since 1999. It found that as of last year, there were only 20 extra classes in kindergarten through third grade - not the 1,586 additional classes that education department officials claimed to have formed with state dollars. The comptroller also found that the city had sharply cut back the number of classes provided in grades K to 3 by almost 900 over the last four years.

If the Department of Education had actually formed the classes for which they had received state funding, the average class in the early grades would have 19.1 students. Instead, , despite declining enrollment, 65 percent of children in these grades remain in classes with 21 students or more, and 26 percent are in classes of 25 students or more.

The comptroller concluded that the city was illegally charging the state for teachers who should have been paid for by the city.

Though the findings of the audit were completed in July, its release was delayed for many months until the city provided a formal response. In a reply, dated November 7, 2005, the day before the mayoral election, Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor of finance and administration disputed the audit's methodology and conclusions, calling them overly "quantitative" and said the department would not change its practices.

While the state comptroller found there were schools with little room to form additional classes, he also found many that had the capacity, but had not received funds to add new classes or were not using the money appropriately. Moreover, there were elementary schools sitting only a few blocks away from each other, one overcrowded and with large class sizes, the other with plenty of room. But Grimm said there was no reason to change school boundary lines to address this.


Last year over 100,000 New Yorkers signed petitionsto put an amendment on the ballot that would require a minimum of 25 percent of the funds owed our schools as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case be spent on reducing class size to the levels elsewhere in the state, where classes are 10 to 60 percent smaller. This would allow voters to decide whether smaller classes should be required by law. But the administration has decided that this proposal is "improper" and should never appear on the ballot.

Why? The city makes the curious argument that the Department of Education is officially a state entity, and thus New York City voters can have no say when it comes to our public schools.

Taking this argument even further, the administration claims that Chancellor Joel Klein derives his authority over schools directly from the state, and thus no city law has any power over his actions. So the Department of Education refuses to comply with the anti-gay bullying lawpassed by the City Council or with regulations that require city agencies to use recycled paper.

In a recent case in which a parent sued the city for a slashing her child received at Evander Childs High School, the corporation counsel contended the city was not legally responsible, since the Department of Education was still under state control. The judge rejectedthe argument: "The Department of Education is a mayoral agency, just as are all the other city departments.” The city has appealed the decision.

Our coalition, New Yorkers for Smaller Classes, is contesting the administration's attempt to keep the charter amendment for smaller classes off the ballot. We are arguing that the chancellor and the Department of Education cannot be exempt from city law. A hearingis scheduled for April 26 in State Supreme Court.

Among the organizations submitting amicus briefs in support of the right of city voters to have a voice on this question are Citizen's Union (whose sister organization, Citizens Union Foundation, publishes Gotham Gazette), the NAACP, the Alliance for Quality Education, the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council, and many other parent groups. Councilmember Robert Jackson and the Hispanic Federation are also intervening in support of our position and will be represented in court by Randy Mastro, former deputy mayor and head of a Charter Revision Commission under Giuliani.


The following is the School Construction Authority's record of new seats created over the past four years, according to the Mayor's Management Report:

Fiscal year 2003 -- 22,267
2004 -- 12,921
2005 -- 8,631
2006 -- 4,287

There are fewer each year. (For a visual, see Class Size Matters.)

How many new seats were formed in the first four months of this fiscal year? Only 204. We are in danger of creating more seats in new stadiums than in schools during this administration.

And yet neighborhoods in all the five boroughs are experiencing a development boom, and it is now predictedthat the city's population will expand to more than nine million people by 2020.

In communities from Staten Island to the Bronx, large-scale housing and mixed-use projects are springing up - with no provision for all the additional students who will live in them.

In his State of the City speech, the Mayor bragged about the massive new developments, and boasted of a "sweeping inter-agency, five-borough Strategic Land Use plan that examines all of our city's neighborhoods and their needs for the 21st century, focusing particularly on housing, transportation, energy, and infrastructure – including parks." He made no mention of schools, the most chronically under-funded aspect of our infrastructure.

Many of these projects would never be built without large tax breaks to the developers. We are about to give the Mets nearly $300 million in subsidies and tax exemptions, according to the Independent Budget Office, without asking that a single school be included in the project -- this in a neighborhood with some of the most overcrowded schools in the city.

But in other cities, developers of projects have to provide schools and other community projects. In school districts from Texas to California, developers are obligated to pay impact fees, to ensure that sufficient school space is provided to accommodate any increase in school enrollment because of their projects. In Miami, 20,000 new school seats have been created this year, with another 20,000 planned for next, in part by placing schools in new office buildings. This has enabled Superintendent Rudy Crew, who formerly headed the New York City system, to reduce class size in all grades. Unfortunately, in New York City, education is the forgotten stepchild of economic development.

Now that the city is expected to receive more than $9.2 billion for school facilities over the next five years, the capital plan needs to be amended so that it does what this specific figure was calculated by the court to achieve -- provide enough space to reduce class sizes in all grades through 12. In the current capital plan, the administration spends only one third of these funds on new capacity, with more money devoted to "restructuring" schools than building new ones.

The City Council should hold hearings to explore whether we can harness the development boom to our advantage, or whether our elected officials will stand on the sidelines as schools become even more overcrowded and another generation of students is doomed to failure.


When Michael Bloomberg first ran for mayor in 2001, he pledged to put high schools on Governors Island.

"We should build a major high school and university complex on Governors Island in partnership with one or more of our great private universities, he said on October 17, 2001. "The room is there for athletic facilities, laboratories, workshops, classrooms, etc. This would also free up many existing buildings in all boroughs for junior high school, elementary school and special education uses. "

Almost five years later, according to the mayor’s office, the city and state are “working on a plan to develop educational facilities on the site.” But no one in the administration seems to be talking about public school or CUNY classrooms on the island anymore. Instead, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, a joint city/state corporation, has been told to maximize the island's profit-making potential.

The facilities on Governors Island could have a significant impact on the city’s severely overcrowded high schools. According to the lease agreement, at least 20 acres of Governors Island have to be employed for education. Buildings that once held classrooms and would be perfect for high schools sit vacant, with sports fields adjacent, waiting to be used.


The mayor and his allies in the business world propose to create up to 100 new charter schools. Chancellor Klein has assured members of the City Council that he would not allow any new charter school to be created before it had an appropriate home. But the department's capital plancalls for 74 percent of them to be put in existing school buildings.

These actions will likely further overcrowd current public schools and raise their class sizes. Each new school gobbles up valuable classroom space for administrative and specialty purposes -- space that could be used to reduce class size instead. Already, a public school in Harlemand another on the lower East Side face the threat of larger classes as a result of the administration's intention to put charter schools into their buildings.

Of the 22 New York City public schools that currently share space with charter schools, only two did not see a significant increasein class size in at least one grade and usually many grades after a charter school was placed in its building.

The City Council ought to take the $100 million the mayor put into next year's budget for charter schools, and instead use it to improve outcomes for all our students, by reducing class size in our middle schools where test scores are flat or declining, and where children sit in classes of 28 or more.


There has been an explosion of out-of-classroom positions in our schools since the beginning of the Bloomberg administration. The headcount of bureaucrats at Tweed has mushroomed by 64 percent since 2003, only partly offset by a decline of administrators at the district level. Meanwhile, in 2005, the city comptroller found that there was a net loss of over 2,000 teachers in two years. "If dollars that are going directly to the classroom are not being invested in teachers, it begs the question: how was the money spent?" asked Comptroller William Thompson.

More recently, the Educational Priorities Panel (in pdf format) discovered that the percentage of spending devoted to instruction steadily declined during the first four years of the Bloomberg administration.

What are all of these people doing, what are they costing, and are they worth it? Would it be better to invest these funds on hiring more classroom teachers, so that class size could be reduced?

The City Council should take a serious look at these issues and take appropriate action to ensure that our children get the smaller classes they deserve.

Leonie Haimson is executive director of Class Size Matters.  

Predicting The Unpredictable -- Planning Future Hospital Beds, Classrooms, Jail Cells Etc.

There were almost 900 patients waiting for care in hospital hallways or emergency rooms at one point in 1990 because the city's hospitals had more patients than they had beds for. Doctors said that hundreds more people avoided treatment altogether, knowing there was no room for them.

This was medical care during the height of the AIDS and crack epidemics.

Just four years earlier, though, the experts were saying that New York City's health care system was far too large. In 1986 a federally appointed panel said one in every seven hospital beds was unnecessary, and described any plan to expand or renovate a hospital as "outdated and probably unacceptable, whether it had been approved or not."

Obviously, the members did not know what lay ahead. But could they have? Should hospitals have planned differently? For that matter, how does anyone prepare for a future that is impossible to predict with certainty?

Strange, sometimes inexplicable, things are happening across the city. Crime rates are falling, yet the number of prisoners in city jails goes up. Public school enrollment has been dropping for years, yet many schools are increasingly overcrowded. “New York Is Losing People At Fastest Pace in America”, a newspaper headline screamed last week. But the city's population is at an all-time high.

There are different techniques for making sense of all this. To determine where to build or close fire stations, the city employs its own “complicated” but “non-mathematical” (and, critics charge, blatantly political) formula. To determine where it needs to build schools, it employs Eunice and George Grier, a husband-and-wife demography team working out of their home in suburban Maryland.

Those who run jails and hospitals have their own methods for predicting future needs, but their actions show how much faith they have in them. For years, the city has kept two empty jails around, just in case, and hospitals get nervous whenever more than 80 percent of their beds are full.

"You have to be respectful of the unforeseen," said Jim Tallon of the United Hospital Fund, acknowledging that the crack and AIDS epidemics developed "right under our noses" when he was head of the state assembly's health committee in the 1980s. "Things can occur that [you] didn't see coming."


Between 1991 and 2004, the number of inmates in New York City jails dropped from 22,600 to 14,500, reflecting the monumental drop in crime throughout the city. The city, which was also facing budget problems, decided that it could get by with fewer jails.

"It didn't make financial sense to run your smaller operations at less than full strength when you have the ability to absorb that population into your main component," said Tom Antenen, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections.

So the city closed three jails – one each in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens – and concentrated prisoners on Rikers Island. (A jail in downtown Manhattan and another in a barge docked in the Bronx remained open). Today almost nine of every ten inmates in the city are locked up on Rikers.

Keeping inmates together in one place allows for economies of scale, the city says. Also, because Rikers Island is so isolated, some of the inevitable conflicts with neighbors unhappy about living near a jail are avoided.

But there are costs as well. People generally appear in court in the borough where they were arrested. In addition, some attorneys are reluctant to make inconvenient trips to Rikers, so the city also brings inmates to courthouses to meet with them. Every year, city vans carry inmates to court dates and other appointments around the city. The cost, said the city's Department of Corrections, has gotten significant.

"We achieved some gains," said Antenen, but now the city makes tens of thousands of trips between Rikers and courthouses around the city. "That is an extra load we have to carry because we don’t have the borough jails."

There is some flexibility built into the jail system to account for predictable seasonal shifts (more people get arrested in good weather than bad, when they tend to stay inside and out of trouble). The city's Department of Corrections also predicts trends from year to year by examining crime rates, police arrest strategies, and the balance of felonies to misdemeanors (felonies take longer to process, so more felonies translates into a greater need for space) to predict its need for future space.

Crime rates are staying low, but lately there has been a spike in the number of inmates in city jails. Experts say the weather, while quite nice, cannot be completely to blame. Like many criminal justice-related trends, the spike in inmates is somewhat of a mystery.

Planning for such an event, the city has kept space in several empty jails warehoused, the largest being the 800-person Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue. Keepign reserve jail space is common for cities "hedging their bets", said Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York State, a prisoner advocacy group.

But doing so isn't popular. Even though the city bore little direct financial cost from keeping the Brooklyn jail empty, community activists and local elected officials protested throughout its hibernation. They complained that the city was wasting money by renovating it, and depriving the community of a potentially valuable piece of real estate.

Now the Brooklyn jail may be reopened, as part of a plan that Mayor Bloomberg has described as a way to "share the pain", shifting back away from the supposed efficiency of keeping almost everyone at Rikers. People may not like it, but the city says the only thing that needs to be done to prepare the empty jail is to give it a good cleaning.


From their home in suburban Maryland, Eunice and George Grier examine birth statistics from the city's Department of Health, analyze immigration trends, and track school enrollment for several different ethnic groups in each school district. For well over a decade, the city has contracted the husband-and-wife demography team to track long-term enrollment trends. The journal School Planning and Management recently praised the Griers for being "extraordinarily accurate."

Due to the end of the "baby boom echo" and a slowdown in immigration, New York City schools will have 110,000 fewer students by 2014, predict the Griers (in pdf format). The slowdown, which has been going on for several years, is only the latest turn in a series of rises and falls throughout the history of the city's schools.

New students poured into the system as the baby boomers began attending school in the 1950s, but enrollment then dropped for most of the 1970s and early 1980s as many parents moved out of the struggling city. After hitting a low in the early eighties, there was sustained growth until 2000, spurred first by the children of baby boomers, and then by those of new immigrants.

While the broad outlines of these trends are identifiable, predicting their twists and turns is hardly an exact science. In the late 1990s, the Griers were predicting that enrollment would begin dropping, but not until 2002. Between 2000 and 2002, they said, enrollment would increase by 6,000 students. But the downturn came in 2000, and over the next two years school rolls shrank by 10,000 students.

The New York City schools are particularly challenging for demographers, say the Griers, because of its size and because enrollment is tied closely to immigration, which is hard to project because it is affected by future federal policies and turmoil in foreign countries. The city's new focus on charter schools, which don't have to report demographic data as thoroughly, they say, is an added challenge.

But effective planning depends not only on what is happening in the school system as a whole, but what is happening in individual neighborhoods around the city. While enrollment numbers are dropping citywide, some areas – like Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side – are actually expected to see their numbers rise.

For obvious reasons, neighborhoods don't want to hear they are losing students. Some local public officials criticize the Griers predictions of decline in neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, citing plans for large-scale residential development. The Griers respond by saying that the impact of developments like the Atlantic Yards project are too uncertain to be taken into account today because they are still subject to major changes due to the political process. Until more is known about such developments, they say, it is unclear how many of the new developments' residents will attend public school.

Planning and Politics

"We don't get involved with policy, and we shouldn't," said George Grier. "That's for the politicians."

Of course, officials take more into account than the sober predictions of demographers when forming school policy.

To date, say experts, New York City has failed to provide adequate capacity in its school system. Three out of four high school students attended overcrowded schools in the 2002/2003 school year, according to a report by the Independent Budget Office. The city's recent focus on small schools exacerbates this problem, some say, because it means using scarce space in public school buildings to serve a relatively small number of students.

Lowered enrollment gives the city the opportunity to catch up, said the Independent Budget Office.

Noreen Connell of the Education Priorities Panel says the city has a series of tools at its disposal to confront overcrowding. Most obviously, it could build new schools. But shifting the borders of school districts or lease existing space could be cheaper ways to do the same thing.

The failure to implement such solutions, say city officials and education advocates, is based largely on the lack of funding from Albany. This has been the subject of the long-running Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. In February, the mayor said that the goals of the current capital plan would not be met if Albany didn't pitch in.

The state has been resistant to increasing funding to city schools, even after courts have ruled that it must. But as part of this year's budget, Albany laid out a five-year plan to dedicate $11 billion for school construction, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's estimated amount of how much it would cost for New York City to build the schools it needs.

With the resources suddenly available, the city has the freedom to make decisions on planning based more on what the system actually needs, say advocates, but it needs to step up and do so.

"They need a long term plan to create the capacity so that all the kids in New York City can go to uncrowded schools with smaller classes," said said Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters. "They actually have the potential to do this." [Read this week's Commentary, "Keeping Classes Large" by Leonie Haimson for more]


Facing a budget squeeze in 2003, the mayor's office used a "complex" but "not mathematical" formula that took into account response times to fires, population density, and the locations of firehouses around the city. It determined that it could close six firehouses – four in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan, and one in Queens – without harming fire department's ability to do its job.

Three years later, the time it takes the department to respond to fires has increased, even as the closings have not allowed the department to cut costs (in pdf format). But even many critics of the closings agreed that the fire department needed to be restructured accordingly. So what went wrong?

It is true that in some ways the job of the fire department is getting easier. Despite a growing population, New York has fewer fires (in pdf format). Sprinklers and better fireproofing have made buildings safer. And the city has developed more efficient ways to deploy fire trucks to emergencies around the city.

What has changed is what kinds of emergencies those trucks are being sent to, and critics say that the city failed to take into account what the fire department actually does. While the fire department may respond to fewer fires, it has an increasing amount of other duties, including providing emergency medical services, clearing sites of hazardous materials, and investigating carbon monoxide alerts.

But when the city studies its capacity, it relies on data collected in the 1970s when fighting fires was still the major task of the department, said Vincent Dunn, a retired deputy fire chief. It doesn't look at the department's other tasks. Dunn and others, like the Citizens Budget Commission, which studied the department extensively in the 1990s, say the city needs to review the way it looks at response times in a way that takes the changing nature of firefighting into account.

"It's not your grandfather's fire department anymore," said Charles Brecher of the Citizens Budget Commission.

The city's approach has allowed it to improve its performance in some places. Rapidly growing Staten Island was suffering from the biggest slowdown in fire response until 2004, when a new fire station and emergency medical service station was built. Since then, Staten Island has been the only borough to see reduced fire response times.

Woodlawn firehouse (photo by Susan Sipprelle)

Meanwhile, the city recently announced plans to close another fire station – the Woodlawn firehouse in the Bronx. Jeff Klein, the local state senator who has studied how closings have affected response times citywide (in pdf format), complains that the city continues to use flawed analysis to determine which areas can get by with fewer fire stations.

"The money saved means nothing compared to the lives lost," he said.


There is currently a good deal of momentum to restructure the health care system in New York State, a process that state officials and hospital industry groups agree may include closing hospitals. A state commission has been appointed to look into "right-sizing" the health care system, which is seen to be in bad shape financially.

Some worry, however, that these discussions are neglecting the health care system's ability to respond to future disasters.

"I don't think it's a different situation now [than in the mid-1980s]," said Judy Wessler of the Commission on the Public Health System, a group opposing hospital closings. Shutting down hospitals, she said, "will totally throw out our ability to deal with any surge capacity or need."

Surge capacity refers to a hospital's ability to respond to sudden increases in the need for medical attention. It may include quickly providing extra bed space, bringing on extra staff, discharging current patients to accommodate new ones, or even setting up temporary wards to handle large numbers of ill or injured people. Plans generally include cooperation between competing hospitals.

Some surges, like flu season, are somewhat predictable. For day-to-day planning said Tallon of the United Hospital Fund, hospitals try to stay between 75 and 80 percent capacity. New York hospitals operate within that range he said, but they are running significantly closer to capacity now than they were two years ago.

Other surges, like hurricanes or terrorist attacks, are not predictable.

Concerns about dealing with these kinds of disasters have always been around, but have been increased by 9/11, the failure of the response to Hurricane Katrina, and continued fears about bio-terrorism and bird flu. Some see surge capacity around the country as inadequate.

New York's health care system does have plans for future disasters. In order to get federal funding, the state meets requirements to be prepared to accommodate a surge of 500 patients for every million in population within three hours. About 75 percent of the state's hospitals say they have specific plans to deal with bio-terrorism (in pdf format).

Reserving the capability to respond to large-scale disasters is expensive, and the financial viability of the health care system in its current form in question. Currently, there is a debate among the Commission on Health Care Facilities, the panel looking to "right size" the state's health care, and health care advocates about how much extra space the system has – and how to reserve the surge capacity it needs.

"It is not possible to have the beds, staff and equipment in place at all times to meet the most extraordinary demands that are every likely to face the system," the commission wrote in a report published in February.

It is unclear how the commission is considering surge capacity among its priorities, but groups like the Healthcare Association of New York State have expressed concern.

"How can we balance our ability to deal with the potential disaster versus the state's ability financially to run the system on a daily basis," said William Van Slyke of the Healthcare Association of New York State. "That's a tough thing."

Susan Sipprelle contributed to this article. 




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