Council of School Supervisors & Administrators

local 1: american federation of school administrators, afl-cio

Struggling Schools Need More Than Just Life Support


 By Ernest A. Logan

Ed-in-the-Apple’s Peter Goodman said that current Tweed leadership wasn’t throwing around a lot of bad ideas.  But that isn’t saying much. Where are the good ideas? With a great educator sitting in the chancellor’s office, many are saying they expected more by now, especially when it comes to struggling schools. 

 Some say give the chancellor a pass on those schools; she hasn’t been in power a year. Others say hundreds of kids don’t have a year and may have lost their chance for a minimally decent life while they were waiting. As a supporter of Chancellor Carmen Farina, I’m reserving judgment till she presents the plan we expected in July.

What’s taking so long? My guess is the chancellor knows exactly what she wants to do and has been struggling for the autonomy to do it. It’s true there’s been no clear plan for resuscitating hundreds of schools. The delayed plan the chancellor promised this month hopefully reflects what’s educationally sound and defies politics.

For starters, she has to stop over-the-counter admissions procedures. Especially at the high school level, the DOE dumps the highest-needs students – immigrants, overage, homeless, previously incarcerated – into the highest-needs schools. This practice dooms the whole school. Not one single over-the-counter child should be assigned to a struggling school ever again.

Corollary to this: She should use the mayor’s admirable Middle School After School program to stop the nonsense around the eighth-grade high school application process. Requiring these kids to fill out complicated applications or else get thrown into school “over the counter” doesn’t work for disadvantaged kids. Often, parents are holding multiple jobs, don’t speak English or are in crisis. Making sure those applications get done should become the responsibility of the CBOs running the after-school programs.

Another must-do: Without good school Principals, a school doesn’t have a chance. In schools that are barely on life-support, even good Principals need immediate shoring up with an unimpeachably experienced mentor. The chancellor actually has launched a program that starts addressing this. 

For leaders in challenged schools, she’s creating a new support structure that sends in mentors. However, we want to know these mentors are not uninitiated kids steeped in Ivy League theory, that the best of them will be sent to the most challenged schools, and that the Principals will have a reliable line to the chancellor, through their superintendents, if they’re not allowed to collaborate in this effort.  

I say the most challenged schools first.  Anyone who pretends that hundreds of schools can be turned around all at once doesn’t understand reality. The chancellor will have to group these schools by “most challenged” and start improving one group at a time. The media might try to slay her for not waving a magic wand and transforming everything at once, but she has to stand up to that fairy tale view.  

 She also must start using her clout to see that financial resources are rushed where needed most. New schools tend to get more money than those in danger of being closed. Presum-ably, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott wanted to showcase their own new schools at the expense of the others.  So today’s administration, voted in as champions of the “have-nots,” has to disrupt the status quo.

These endangered schools need the resources to analyze data like dismal school attendance and then bring on the necessary licensed professionals to deal with the homelessness, dysfunctional families and health crisis that are keeping these children away. The chancellor should also make sure the city stops pulling kids out for capricious reasons like demanding that they appear with their guardians at city agency hearings.  

Some large schools will also require funding to be broken down into small learning communities, using Principal Deirdre deAngelis’ model at New Dorp High School. This is more effective than closing a large school, often cutting the heart out of a whole community. But this all costs money. 

Finally, it’s time the chancellor calls upon her charm and stature to rally the support of business for the schools identified as in need of improvement. Don’t leave that up to the beleaguered leaders of embattled schools. A committee of proven corporate citizens, such as IBM,  would gladly enlist their peers to partner with each and every school identified as struggling.

I’m impressed with Mayor de Blasio’s UPK initiative, the hope of tomorrow, and I wish he’d give the chancellor more of a hand in it. But I’m more concerned about today: Hundreds of kids may already be past hope. I suspect the chancellor has summoned the gumption to stand up to both politicians and the media and remind them that she went to work for a city that asked her to end educational neglect. Chances are those good ideas that people have been wondering about are right in her head.

 This column was printed in the November 2014 CSA News.