Minding the Schools?
the time we go to press, elected officials will have hammered
out the details of the NYC school governance legislation. The
big questions, however, remain: What impact will this change have
on our schools, the children and educational outcomes? How will
our roles, responsibilities and professional relationships look
in the future?
career began in 1959 in a red, wood-frame school. My first memory
of that forbidding place was on a hot, August day when my husband
and I drove by, for the first time, to “scout it out.” My mother
and her siblings graduated from that school, and I knew that the
principal was renowned for her autocratic temperament. But I was
unprepared for the terror that gripped me when I saw the dark
structure with its dozens of broken windows. A few weeks later,
I found myself teaching in one of 14 first-grade classes, managing
38 non-English-speaking children. I used orange crates for bookcases.
The school had no library books, and the readers–don’t ask. I
cherished and relied on my teacher guides, gifts from the central
School governance? I knew there was a Board of Education, and
that the Board had a president, but what did the Mayor have to
do with education? For my colleagues and me, education was simply
a matter of day-to-day survival. When the Ocean-Hill Brownsville
crisis ended in a decentralized system in 1969, classes remained
overcrowded. School facilities continued to crumble. Non-existent
supplies crimped lesson plans. And it was to get worse. We were
heading towards the 1975 economic crisis, a financial disaster
from which our schools have yet to recover. School governance
became a popular refrain. NYC mayors came and went, each one castigating
centralized or decentralized systems. While screaming for control
of the schools, those mayors starved them of resources. Governors,
too, came and went, but still NYC public schools were short-changed
year after year. All fingers pointed at the Board of Education
as the one major impediment to educational success. Ultimately,
community school boards took the fall and in the 1990s, we stripped
these elected bodies of most of their power over personnel and
It hasn’t mattered. With all the tinkering, the adjustments, the
finger-pointing, school buildings still continue to deteriorate.
Overcrowding is rampant. The state’s list of failing schools continues
to grow. We still have so much to do. We must attract and retain
certified teachers and supervisors. We used to attract more than
100 candidates for principal and assistant principal positions.
Now, we’re lucky to attract a dozen. We must do much more to encourage
our school professionals to stay in the city system and not take
refuge in the suburbs.
With change, extraordinary opportunities arise. But, if conditions
in the schools remain unchanged, it is unlikely that changing
who’s in charge will result in the widespread educational improvements
we want to see. If principals cannot allocate resources the way
they see fit, if schools do not have a reasonable supervisor–to-staff
ratio, if we cannot attract and retain the best teachers and supervisors,
our schools will continue to struggle. And in that case, who’s
in charge of the Board of Education, who sits at the top of the
heap, will not matter very much at all.#
Levy is the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators
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