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Merryl Tisch: Turnaround plan “has nothing to do with the kids”

Breaking her silence on the city’s plan to overhaul 33 struggling schools, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said late Wednesday that she believes “turnaround” is a political strategy, not an educational one.

“There’s a fight going on here that has nothing to do with what’s going on at the school,” she said. “It’s a labor dispute between labor and management and has nothing to do with the kids.”

Tisch was referring to the stalemate between the Bloomberg administration and the teachers union that gave rise to the city’s turnaround plans. Bloomberg announced the plans in January as a way to get federal funds for the schools even though the city and union had not been able to agree on new teacher evaluations, a requirement of less aggressive strategies already in place. The turnaround strategy, which require the schools to be closed and reopened after changing their names and half of their teachers, has only deepened enmity between the city and UFT.

On Wednesday, Tisch visited one of the schools, William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School, and said she was impressed by the changes underway, which she attributed to its principal, Geraldine Maione. The school received millions of federal dollars in the last two years while undergoing “transformation,” which funded extra tutoring, additional programs, and new technology.

“This is a school that is moving in a really fine direction,” Tisch said of Grady, which received a B on its most recent city progress report. “This is the wrong message to this school at this time. Don’t be so dismissive of the efforts going on in that building.”

It was Tisch’s second visit to the school. Last week, she brought fellow Regent Kathleen Cashin for a visit that was scheduled after she met Maione in February at a principals union event featuring Diane Ravitch. On Wednesday, Maione said, Tisch and Cashin brought State Education Commissioner John King along with them.

Tisch’s support would be a boon to the school, whose teachers and students have been protesting the city’s plans for weeks. But King’s presence was especially significant because he must sign off on the city’s turnaround plans in order for the schools to receive federal funding. So far, he has only commented on the technical viability of the city’s strategy, calling the concept “approvable.”

The city has not yet submitted formal turnaround applications to King and has said that it will go through with the turnaround plans with or without the federal funds. Still, if King denies or pushes back against a turnaround application, it would strike a blow to the Bloomberg administration and could leave the city on the hook for paying for school improvements it has promised.

Maione said she is hopeful that the officials’ presence would help her school get a fair consideration as the city’s turnaround plans move forward.

“I enjoyed having them and I think they saw a Grady they didn’t think they would see,” Maione said Wednesday. “I think they were pleasantly surprised.”

In the past, Tisch has said other schools on the turnaround list were not improving quickly enough under the city’s interventions. When she visited Automotive High School last fall, she said the city was using the school as a “warehouse” for high-needs students. Now, Automotive is set to be closed and reopened just as Grady is.

“I believe in closing schools,” Tisch said. “I will not defend failure, but I’m also not going to sit back and watch” a school such as Grady be closed.