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Mayor's address comes against evaluations impasse backdrop

When Mayor Bloomberg takes the podium to deliver his annual State of the City address this afternoon, education insiders will be on the edge of their seats to hear his latest take on the fight over new teacher evaluations.

Insiders say the mayor is likely to address the impasse between the city and teachers union on evaluations. That impasse has dominated the news in recent weeks, especially after state officials said cut off some federal funding to schools that were supposed to use the new evaluations this year. In the last week, blame for the standstill has flown from Gov. Cuomo and the state teachers union, but Bloomberg has been relatively quiet. The speech in which he outlines his annual policy agenda would be an opportune time to assert his position and try to move the situation forward.

Whether Bloomberg will tackle the sticky topic during his address today is not assured, and what exactly he could propose to resolve the tension is unclear. Department of Education and City Hall insiders haven’t tipped their hands about the content of today’s speech, and the only news that has leaked out has been about other topics.

In some ways, it’s hard to imagine Bloomberg making a major education policy announcement right now. Several substantial Department of Education initiatives, including ones to reform middle schools and revamp instruction and assessments, are already underway, and the mayor has scant time or money to execute much more. But an immediate solution to the teacher evaluations impasse is seen as crucial.

That Bloomberg is delivering the speech from inside the city’s oldest coeducational high school, Morris in the South Bronx, has heightened speculation about the speech’s education content.

The city’s press advisory for the speech explains that Morris is home to “four successful small high schools,” and it’s likely that the mayor will cite Morris as a success story of the city’s small schools initiative. The building was one of the first to be reconstituted during the mayor’s tenure — in fact, its closure began even before Bloomberg took control of the city schools and handpicked Joel Klein to lead them — and the four schools have higher graduation rates and less violence than the troubled school they replaced.

But the building’s recent history also epitomizes the small schools movement’s shortcomings. The schools in the building have done a miserable job of preparing students for college, according to the city’s own statistics, and their attendance and graduation rates remain stubbornly mediocre. The Coalition for Educational Justice, a group that is leading protest efforts against school closures, has called a rally for just before the speech to argue that Morris is “a poster child for what advocates and parents say is wrong with Bloomberg’s education strategy,” a spokesman told me.

Statistics do little to capture the grandeur of the mammoth building on Boston Road, whose Gothic spires are more redolent of Oxford University than a typical city public school. I will never forget the view I got through a transom — installed to make the building as light-filled as possible — when I descended a staircase in the building perhaps five years ago: A girl in a hijab and a Latino boy building a bridge together in a Bronx International High School science class. The auditorium, which seats 2,500 and made the school an obvious site for a large audience in the South Bronx, is especially impressive.

There’s also a chance, of course, that Bloomberg will focus on other topics and steer clear of education entirely. The last time he delivered his annual address at a school, in 2010 at Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts in Queens, he barely mentioned education at all. In 2009, Bloomberg used the speech to tout parent outreach plans. Last year, he renewed a push to end “last in, first out” layoffs that Gov. Cuomo later quashed. He has said that layoffs are not likely to be on the table this year.

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