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Heckuva Job, Blackie

Incoming Schools Chancellor Cathie Black visited overcrowded Francis Lewis High School a few weeks ago. She came with her entourage from Brooklyn, and was therefore an hour late. She stayed only 40 minutes, as she needed to run off somewhere else. Admittedly, I lack the organizational skills of a publishing executive (let alone someone about to run the largest school system in the country). Yet even I know how long it takes to get from Brooklyn to Queens.

Ms. Black got a good look at the principal’s office. It’s a great office. There’s a desk, a computer, a sitting area, and a full conference room. She didn’t see the trailer. (The trailer is not so great, but after considerable effort, I got it a desk.) She didn’t see our dual-national champion JROTC program, or meet our award-winning science students. She didn’t meet our parent representatives. She didn’t see our kids struggle to get to class at peak time, the half-classrooms we had to create to accommodate the overflow, or the kids who run around in the cold and the dark because we haven’t got sufficient gym space. She didn’t see kids eating lunch at 9 a.m., but she joked to some kids about it.

Cathie Black was there, in fact, because those kids are student activists who got themselves on NY1 and invited her. It was good public relations for her to show up (and PR seems to be the one thing Tweed is good at).

This was a good opportunity for Ms. Black to reach out, as relations between teachers and the DOE grew absolutely toxic under Joel Klein’s tenure. Nonetheless, she didn’t ask to meet me (I was out teaching in the trailer), and she didn’t ask to meet any other teachers either. She did say she opposed tenure for teachers, but it’s unlikely that was her opening salvo at mending fences.

Having missed Ms. Black, I spoke to the kids who met her. One told me she seemed rehearsed, and that her crack about the 9 a.m. lunch period seemed planned. I was told she didn’t answer questions directly, that she gave “politician’s answers,” and that she didn’t have “the sense of an educator.” Another said she seemed sincere about wanting change, but in a business-oriented, and not educational, way. This student felt she was a bad choice for chancellor, and said she could not give one instance in which she had helped a student.

Faced with a question about undocumented students, she had no reply whatsoever. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott answered for her, and the kids felt he was there to rescue her. They seemed to like him very much — one told me he should have been chancellor.

Still, the kids learned a lot. They learned that the incoming chancellor could come to the second largest school in the city, speak to a handful of kids who’d gotten on TV, and not bother with their teachers or parents at all. They learned that an utter lack of qualification makes no difference as long as you go to the same cocktail parties and gala luncheons as Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

On the other hand, they also learned the power of the press. I hope they remember that, because when the richest man in New York City is also mayor, it’s one of their most effective resources. Mayor Bloomberg can defy term-limit laws city voters twice affirmed. He can get fellow billionaires Eli Broad and Bill Gates to finance campaigns promoting what I’ve termed mayoral dictatorship. He can find ways to appoint his buds to jobs for which they are not remotely qualified.

He can downsize the sanitation department and act surprised when snow doesn’t get picked up. But when he and Cathie Black try to do the same to New York City schools next year, having learned nothing from either the snowstorm or the disasters that visited city schools in the 1970s, they’ll have to contend with not only outraged teachers and parents, but also young people like those from our school, who aren’t afraid to get in front of a camera and speak their minds.

We need more brave souls like these kids, and fewer fronts for hedge-funders and billionaires. Thus equipped, New York City could move toward real substantive improvements for not only schools, but also the city as a whole.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.