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At MS 223, a microcosm of reform's benefits and challenges

MS 223 in the South Bronx was the first school I visited when I started covering the city’s public schools nearly six years ago.Principal Ramon Gonzalez introduced me to the on-the-ground issues that principals face every day — and now he is doing the same thing for readers of the New York Times.

The cover story in Sunday’s magazine, a profile of Gonzalez and MS 223, uses the school to examine how former Chancellor Joel Klein’s school reforms are playing out in corners of the city far from Department of Education headquarters.

Author Jonathan Mahler writes:

In certain respects, 223 is a monument to Klein’s success: empower the right principals to run their own schools and watch them bloom. Thanks to Klein, González has been able to avoid having teachers foisted on him on the basis of seniority. He has been able to create his own curriculums, micromanage his students’ days (within the narrow confines of the teachers’ union contract, anyway) and spend his annual budget of $4 million on the personnel, programs and materials he deems most likely to help his kids.

And yet even as school reform made it possible for González to succeed, as the movement rolls inexorably forward, it also seems in many ways set up to make him fail. The grading system imposed by Klein that has bestowed three consecutive A’s on González also disqualifies him from additional state resources earmarked for failing schools. The ever-growing number of charter schools, often privately subsidized and rarely bound by union rules, that Klein unleashed on the city skims off the neighborhood’s more ambitious, motivated families. And every year, as failing schools are shut down around González, a steady stream of children with poor intellectual habits and little family support continues to arrive at 223. González wouldn’t want it any other way — he takes pride in his school’s duty to educate all comers — but the endless flow of underperforming students drags down test scores, demoralizes teachers and makes the already daunting challenge of transforming 223 into a successful school, not just a relatively successful one, that much more difficult.

Mahler’s story isn’t much affected by the fact that the city got a new schools chancellor between the time the story went online earlier this week and its print publication this weekend. Ex-Chancellor Cathie Black’s name appears in the story just once, in this sentence: “Klein’s successor, Cathleen Black, has made it clear that she plans to continue the bold policies that he started implementing after his appointment by Mayor Bloomberg in 2002.” Swap in the name of Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, whoswore yesterday that as chancellor he would continue Bloomberg’s reforms, and the piece is good to go.

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