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Fearing change, principals lobby de Blasio to protect networks

Facing an incoming mayor who wants to shake up the city school system, a coalition of principals is lobbying to hold on to one Bloomberg policy they say is crucial to running their schools.

A group of 120 school leaders say they’re concerned with Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s campaign pledge to restructure the city’s support networks, which manages school operations around professional development, curriculum and budgeting. De Blasio has said he wants some decision-making authority restored to district superintendents, who oversaw support before Mayor Bloomberg won control of the school system.

The principals said they felt compelled to respond publicly to a chorus of criticism that the networks have received recently.

“Our feeling is that there has been a lot of talk, that people are dissatisfied with networks and the new mayor should eliminate them,” said P.S. 321 Principal Liz Phillips, who is leading the coalition. “But we felt that the voice of a lot of principals who are very satisfied haven’t been heard.”In a letter that Phillips co-authored and sent to de Blasio on Friday, the principals argue that they should be allowed to stay in their networks if they want. Listing the system’s perks, they say their networks encourage professional collaboration, unite like-minded schools across geographic boundaries, decouple support and evaluation — and they’re better than any system that’s come before it.

“Networks provide particular kinds of support for schools that many of us have found to be invaluable,” the principals say in the letter.

Their lobbying puts them at odds with their own union, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators. CSA President Ernie Logan has said giving power back to superintendents, who manage and evaluate the job performance of principal, would restore a clearer chain-of-command.

“It’s true, some schools are especially pleased with their Network, but it is also true that some are dissatisfied,” CSA spokeswoman Antionette Isable-Jones said in statement.

The way school operations are managed has changed several times since 2002. Currently, schools choose to contract with networks run by the Department of Education or nonprofit-run support providers based on their need, with the least in-demand ones getting shut down.

Critics say the network structure has many drawbacks.

Some say the expertise of staffers can vary among networks and that some can become stretched thin trying to serve many member schools across multiple boroughs. Others say that far-flung networks can cut off schools from their surrounding communities, and that weaker networks fail to support struggling schools or serve high-need student populations.

“It’s a very mixed bag out there,” New York University professor Pedro Noguera said of the quality of networks.

Darlene Cameron, principal of Star Academy P.S. 63 in Manhattan, said that the collaboration among principals in a network can be useful, but that many networks feel pressure from the city to focus more on ensuring schools follow department protocols than helping them improve their practice.

“It should really be about teaching and learning and not about compliance,” she said.

The 120 principals represent schools in about six networks, said the letter’s co-author Julie Zuckerman, principal of Castle Bridge School. Zuckerman and Phillips belong to the Children First Network 102/113, which is run by Alison Sheehan and shares an opposition to high-stakes testing.

Another signee, Nedda DeCastro, principal of the International High School at Prospect Heights, said her network excels at helping her serve a student population of all English-language learners.

“It helps us tremendously,” said DeCastro, who belongs Children First Network 106, which serves other international high schools. “It is a lonely job and we need one another.”

Zuckerman and Phillips have often been on the other side of Bloomberg in the education debate, signing onto a letter opposing the role of testing in teacher evaluations. But Zuckerman said she expects other principals to join the coalition regardless of where they stand on other policy issues.

“This is a single issue thing that doesn’t have the same kind of complexities as testing and some other things have,” she said.

Seeking some middle ground, the principals proposed “a hybrid system that would allows successful networks to exist and offers more geographic-based structures for those who want that.”

Sheehan, the network leader, said a “hybrid” system would allow schools to get the support they need without abandoning networks altogether.

“What we’re trying to get de Blasio to understand is that one size doesn’t fit all and that he should figure out a way to differentiate supports for our schools,” she said.

A spokeswoman for de Blasio’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the education department pointed out that principals are generally satisfied with networks. “Their views should be respected and valued,” said the spokesman.

A copy of the letter is below:

In support of the network structure option

As people anticipate restructuring at the Department of Education in the next administration, we want to establish our support for keeping networks that work and allowing principals the choice as to whether they stay in those networks or not.

Networks provide particular kinds of support for schools that many of us have found to be invaluable, and that were not necessarily provided through the district, region and ISC structures. These support features are:

1. The gathering of schools of similar visions or purpose: the internationals, special ed reform focused, collaboratively structured, and schools committed to alternative assessment. This enables these schools to work more closely together and support each other towards better meeting their missions.

2. Shifting the supervisory structure into an advisory and support structure. It makes all the difference in the world that the network leader and team members are not the principals’ rating officer. Our networks have been responsive to us and in many cases network principals have had a say in the selection of network staff.

3. Networks support professional development that better meets the needs of the teachers, administrators, and other support staff in our schools and that allows for cross-pollination across our schools.

4. Because of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood in New York City, geographic districts are often segregated as well. Self-selected networks offer the option of racially and economically diverse schools working together and benefitting greatly from this collaboration.

We are deeply committed to our networks and do not want ours to be dismantled because some are not working well for others. We can imagine some kind of hybrid system that allows successful networks to exist and offers more geographic-based structures for those who want that—more like the early days of the Empowerment Zone.

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