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New York City
April 2001

City Schools Showcased to National Educational Leaders

by Sybil Maimin

An extraordinary three-day education conference was recently convened in Brooklyn by the New York City Board of Education. Among the hundreds of education leaders attending were five-member school teams—principal, teacher, parent PTA head, union president and district superintendent—from the 15 largest urban areas in the nation.

Titled “Exemplary Educational Practices,” the conference was designed to showcase to educators from around the country the progress and changes made in New York City schools in the past few years and to encourage dialogue about mutual goals and problems. The conference included visits to selected model public schools in all five boroughs, panel discussions among superintendents about the ways their cities are tackling key problems and numerous workshops and presentations about how particular schools in the city are meeting today’s challenges.

“Educators don’t share well,” commented Randi Weingarten, president of the UFT, New York City’s teacher union. The conference was an “experiment” to see if that culture could be changed, for the benefit of all.

New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy explained that New York City is “super-typical,” with 1.1 million students taught by 78,000 teachers in 1,200 schools; the issues found here are the same ones found everywhere, only magnified. If practices and innovations work in this largest and most difficult of cities, they should work elsewhere.


The issues: Standards and Recruitment

Two panels of superintendents discussed key educational challenges—”Building a Standards Based System” and “Improving Teacher Quality: Recruitment, Retention and Professional Development.” The seven-person panel on standards, moderated by New York Deputy Chancellor for Instruction, Judith A. Rizzo, agreed that time, patience and much fine-tuning will be needed to make standards meaningful and fully integrated. The teacher quality panel discussed methods of recruiting and retaining teachers.

Rizzo advised that standards are not about tests, they are about reducing variability in teaching and learning so that all students have access to a good education. Diana Lam, Superintendent of Providence, RI schools, addressed the equity factor, saying that while in the past, expectations were higher for middle class students than for the poor and minorities, today all pupils are expected to learn and achieve at high levels.

The panel on teacher quality, led by Weingarten, repeatedly came back to the issue of finding and retaining leaders, especially principals and superintendents. On average, superintendents hold their positions for only three years, leading to instability and what Chancellor Levy called, a “hunkering down mentality.”

Levy spoke about a relationship between professional development and management training, explaining that superintendents must take the role of creating a feeling of movement and positive change in order to retain their employees—teachers. So many new hires are required that traditional recruitment methods will not suffice, and because people often have multiple careers, districts should not expect long-term commitments. But once these career-changers have chosen teaching, they can become teaching fellows, along with retirees, and share their varied experiences.


Big City Superintendents Start in New York

New York is a training ground for school superintendents. An “Alumni Superintendent” panel brought together four top New York City educators who left to become superintendents in other urban centers. They discussed the lessons they learned in the trenches of New York.

The participants agreed on the similarities of problems across the nation. Anthony Alvarado, now a superintendent in San Diego, stressed that “instructional capacity” is the key to success on both coasts. “Interaction with teachers is how children learn,” he said.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett brought 45 years of interaction with New York schools (including time spent as a pupil, she emphasized) to her position as head of Cleveland schools. In New York she learned that leadership is political and has layers and multiple definitions, but it always includes the principle of “can”—a positive attitude towards getting things done.

Carmen V. Russo, superintendent in Baltimore, brings pragmatism from New York. She learned about politics, media, collaborations and partnerships, and the need to build cohesion around an education agenda. She learned that “to be a good partner, you have to be a good listener,” and that different neighborhoods see things differently. Personal visits to schools and communities help instill a sense of a group’s needs and priorities. The most important thing she learned in New York was that small learning communities work best, and that huge high schools should be broken down.

While the conference was held in New York and was focusing on its schools, it also underlined the important need for dialogue between urban educators from around the nation. Chancellor Levy exhorted attendees to “shed the negative and be self-indulgent.”

Everyone learned something from everyone. While superintendents from cities around the country were showed how New York addresses issues, New Yorkers were also introduced to new ways of thinking about familiar problems.

“Schools are not the harbingers of social deterioration,” said Levy. He stressed the need to “publicize educational victories and enter the public debate.”


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.