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Imagining themselves chancellor, top students offer sage advice

If Joel Klein handed over the reins of the Department of Education to its top graduates, we’d soon see stronger arts offerings, less tracking, and an end to the policy of assigning schools a letter grade.

The suggestions came from a panel of students who won scholarships available at schools managed by the nonprofit New Visions. Asked what they would do if they became chancellor, the students, and a few of their teachers, offered this advice:

“You should totally let us have cell phones in school,” said Karina Melendez, the cancer survivor who aspires to the Supreme Court. But then she got serious, saying she’d do away with the letter grades that schools are assigned annually. She described feeling disappointed at first when she learned that her school, the Bronx School of Law and Finance, fell from an A in 2008 to a B in 2009. (The school’s raw score actually rose by one point over that time.)

“It’s the same school to me. I still come here and I’m still getting a really great education, and I still have really great teachers. I don’t see why our grade would change,” Melendez said. “I don’t see how somebody who has never attended our school or worked in our school or seen how our school works can tell us what our worth is or what our value is.”

Teachers on the panel, who had been selected by the scholarship winners, also weighed in. Ellen Siegel, the American history teacher at the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science, said she’d never want to be chancellor. But she said he should seek out more teacher voices as he creates policy.

“Often times the situation is so adversarial that the voices are not heard above the din of the shouting and the accusations,” Siegel said. “There’s actually really meaningful information that could help children, could help teachers, could help everyone’s future.”