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.
Every year in New York State, there's an entire week in January devoted to giving Regents exams. Kids can study, prepare, and take tests, or if they're really lucky, get a week off. Meanwhile, their teachers proctor, grade exams, and take care of whatever has to be done before the kids return.
This year things are different. One reason is that there's a new English Regents exam. It's been streamlined and there's less writing. It only takes one day instead of two. And it appears to be largely regulated by a private company called Pearson, contracted for "performance standards revisitation." I'm not entirely certain what that means, but perhaps how kids perform on the test will determine which standards need to be applied. Will the test be easier? More difficult?
No one knows for sure, and that worries those of us who constantly have Adequate Yearly Progress hanging over our heads. In fact, the conversion chart that will allow teachers to turn raw scores into actual grades won't be available for two weeks after the tests are scored.
This brings me to another point — this test will not be given during Regents week, which begins Jan. 25. Instead, it will be administered Jan. 11. This means New York high school kids will lose, besides Regents week, an additional full day of school. But that's not all. The geniuses at Pearson have decreed that all test papers be scored, recorded, photocopied, and prepared for UPS delivery by 2 p.m. on Jan. 12.
Poor Miss Crabtree. She's getting married, and she has to leave her job. Such things happened back in the day, before anyone thought of equal rights for women, tenure, or indoor plumbing.
Nowadays we no longer insist teachers take chastity vows, remain unmarried, fill the inkwells, clean the coal boilers, or do whatever else they did in the good old days. Still, without tenure Miss Crabtree could now be fired for some more contemporary reason. Perhaps she told her colleagues how much UFT teachers earn. Or maybe she insisted they provide services mandated for special education students. Maybe she didn't do anything and they took the word of an angry student over hers. Perhaps they posted her scores (despite an explicit agreement not to — how can anyone trust these folks?) and decided to discontinue her, rendering her license useless in New York City. These things happen when teachers don't have tenure.
Yet, I keep hearing, tenure is evil. Why? Because there are bad teachers out there! If you watch "Waiting for 'Superman,'" you may walk out thinking they all hide behind the skirts of evil AFT President Randi Weingarten. You might even think Weingarten recruited them and granted them tenure, but she did neither. People who think she did are confusing her with folks like Joel Klein and his merry band of administrators, who actually have such powers.
Say what you will about Weingarten, but she's the most "reform"-minded union leader in the history of civilization. Weingarten most certainly does not defend bad teachers.
In fact, I've never seen anyone at all say we want more bad teachers, or that bad teachers need to be retained indefinitely.
Francis Lewis High School can be a tough place. We're the most overcrowded school in New York City, and kids have only four minutes to make it from one class to another. In the case of my students, they have to make it all the way to the back of the building, then out almost to the street to Trailer 5, my workplace. It's a formidable trek, but as a teacher you have to defy logic, set a tone right away, and frighten kids into arriving on time all year.
Maria had come late the first three days, and the fourth morning I called her mom. Mom said she and Maria had discussed it, and that Maria has always moved a tad slowly. Maria had tried, but just couldn't make it. I told Mom Maria was a joy when she showed up, but that I couldn't allow one kid to come late while everyone else came on time. Mom was very reasonable and understanding, and we ended the conversation hopeful of an acceptable solution. The fact that Maria came from room 306, all the way up there on the opposite side of the building made this a challenge. I didn't want to read Maria the riot act again. For starters, she knew very little English, and likely didn't much understand it.
I got off the phone, grabbed my bag, and moved straight to room 306, Maria's science class. When the bell rang, I walked in to find Maria leisurely placing things in her bag.
"Come on, Maria!" I said, gesticulating with all the urgency I could muster. "We have to make it to the trailers before the bell rings!" She was appropriately shocked, and began to move accordingly.
Years ago, the technical guru in our school was a guy who sat in an office running the school computer. No one knew what the school computer did, but all seemed well, and the guy pretty much never bothered anyone. Several times a year, he gave professional development sessions, and whatever he was demonstrating never worked. Things popped, fizzled, went up in flames. Pieces of important-looking machines fell off. People tripped over electrical cords and were rushed away in ambulances. Our presenter would leave the room for thirty minutes in search of a solution. You'd sit and talk, and wait, and by the time the session ended, you weren't really sure what it would have been about if it had occurred.
After his retirement, technology became more commonplace, and professional development sessions began to focus on the Next New Thing. For some reason, I missed the first round of Smartboard training. Everyone was amazed, I was told. The following session entailed usage of tablets, which were very cool, and would quite possibly replace Smartboards (except they didn't). You could write on them and your miserable handwriting would magically turn into computer fonts, just the thing for the teacher with awful handwriting (me). Unfortunately, by the time the session ended we hadn't managed to turn on our tablets.
The next round of training was learning how to set up the Smartboard, which you apparently had to do every single time you wanted to use it. This took 10 minutes, during which time you had to trust the kids would engage in whatever meaningful activity you'd provided. I say "trust" because you'd be too busy fiddling with the Smartboard to check.
Last semester's round of training utilized more advanced Smartboards, which were mounted to the wall and no longer required the ten minutes setup time. You could put all sorts of stuff up there, you could play games, you could illustrate whatever you were discussing, you could write, play music, maybe have it do a little dance — the possibilities were endless.
Smartboard training this week incorporated suggestions on how to use it to teach English. A young English teacher got up and showed us a PowerPoint presentation. Up until now, every PowerPoint presentation I'd ever seen was read aloud. I'd assumed, therefore, that PowerPoint's prime function was to prolong life by cultivating boredom. However, this teacher used it to present questions that might serve to stimulate discussion. It seemed like a great idea.
But as good as the presentation was, I still felt like I'd wasted my time.
Every year, I fill out a form specifying which courses I want to teach and what time schedule I would like. Each September, I sit down with my department coordinator, and she calmly and methodically persuades me to do whatever she wants me to, whenever she wants me to.
Two years ago, she asked me to prep English learners for the English Regents exam. I said OK, and spent all year making the kids write until their hands were ready to fall off. Most of them passed, and for some, it was miraculous. Of course, they're fortunate that more stress is placed on content than grammar and usage ("conventions" rates the very bottom of the grading rubric). I showed them how to write highly formulaic four-paragraph essays that minimally met the requirements.
One technique entailed copying directions and converting them to first person. Another featured repeatedly rehearsing canned literary references, many of which could be trotted out to support virtually any quote about anything. No technique, in my view, much encouraged writing habits that would prove useful in the long haul. There was no time for such things and besides, half my kids could barely communicate in English. Sadly, there was almost no time to work on that either.
English language learners should not be taking this test at all. It's designed for native speakers. If my kid couldn't pass this in eleventh grade, I'd be very concerned. But a kid who came from Korea two months ago needs other things — including the grammar and usage that the state test doesn't value that much.
Education is on a roller coaster recently, with unexpected twists and turns seemingly improvised on the spot by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. First, 4,400 teachers were going to receive pink slips. Then, the mayor unilaterally declared teachers would receive no raises for two years, and that layoffs would thereby be averted.
His declaration spat in the face of the Taylor Law, which "requires public employers to negotiate and enter into agreements with public employee organizations regarding their employees' terms and conditions of employment." Though the mayor has no legal right to unilaterally declare a conclusion to ongoing negotiations, the New York Times declared it was a "sensible choice." Gabe Pressman called it a "wise decision."
Then, wise decision or not, Mayor Bloomberg surprised us by reconsidering yet again. Apparently, he may give teachers pink slips anyway. Even if he doesn't, the draconian budget cuts he's imposed will mean fewer elective classes for kids, larger class sizes, and widespread "excessing" of teachers, dumping them into the Absent Teacher Reserve and forcing them to scramble for a rapidly decreasing job pool. Teachers have every reason to be nervous.
Having lost my job this way four times, I know exactly how they feel.
I recently met a guy from another country who found himself a little surprised by what he'd seen in America. People here, he said, spent almost all their time working. In their few free hours Americans watched TV and seemed to believe everything they saw. In his country, he said, we would go to a cafe and talk about what was on. We would question whether or not we could believe the commentators — then we'd make up our own minds.
Our conversation started because I'd mentioned the frenzy to create more charter schools. President Barack Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, created a program called Race to the Top, in which states compete for cash. What states needed to do, apparently, was subscribe to as many unproven educational programs as possible, and the more shots in the dark they took, the more chance they had to win the money.
The jewel on the crown of New York's monumental struggle to kowtow to the feds was the raising of the charter cap. This was very important to Duncan, even though charters, with fewer English as a Second Language and special education students than those attending neighborhood schools, have still not managed to outperform public schools.
This amazes me because I strongly believe proactive parents to be the number one predictor of academic success, or lack thereof. When I call parents, which I do with great frequency, the ones who react the most vehemently tend to be the ones who effect the quickest changes. That parents could take the time and trouble to research and enroll their kids in any alternate setting is a sure sign they care about their kids. With 100 percent proactive parents, any school ought instantly to rack up better stats than its counterparts.
In any case, the new law says charter schools will have to serve the same population as public schools. After reading false accounts in the New York Times claiming they already do, I'll believe that when I see it.
One of my personal pet peeves is class size, and as a new chapter leader I thought compliance was quite straightforward — you grieve the oversized classes, and on a bad day you lose and you're screwed for a term. On a better day you win, kids win, and class sizes are corrected (at least to the extent prescribed by the UFT contract, which still leaves city kids with the highest class sizes in the state).
But I hadn't counted on fighting City Hall. Whatever City Hall wants, City Hall gets, and unconnected little guys like me, or the 4,500 kids attending our school, are routinely left by the wayside.
It's not only the kids, of course. When I became chapter leader I learned our school's UFT chapter had a soda machine in the check-in room. We made some sort of profit from each can of soda, how much I had no idea. The company that filled the machine was kind of cute — they forgot to send checks when I took over.
We called. Nothing happened. Called again. Another excuse. We finally told our contact, whom we knew only by first name, to send us a check or move the machine out. No response. Then we unplugged the machine. Three days later we got a check. The only way to deal with these folks, I thought, is to make them offers they can't refuse. But they're small potatoes.
Both our chapter and the cute company learned that weeks later when City Hall rolled in and took over everything.
Bill Gates is amazed at what he sees happening at KIPP charter schools. Bill has no idea those same things happen at Francis Lewis High School, and countless other public schools, each and every day. Because Bill believes in the very same "reforms" that have caused Francis Lewis, my school, to balloon to 250 percent capacity, he surreptitiously funded the Learn NY campaign to preserve mayoral control (in practice, mayoral dictatorship). So I don't trust him, and I don't think he knows much about education, despite the millions he throws around imposing his pet projects on us. Still, I withheld judgment when he sent his new program to my school. I did not participate, but I said nothing to those who chose otherwise.
The Measures of Effective Teaching program, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, is now at my school and many others across the city. Teachers were told this study would show what worked and did not work in the classroom. They hoped it would give them ideas on how to reach their students more effectively. How long should you pause after posing a question? Did certain seat arrangements promote more interaction? Is group work always more effective than lecturing?
A young woman from the program came to our school and told our teachers that the study was actually examining newer ways to observe teachers. Traditionally, said she, there've been only a few ways to accomplish this. The most popular is the traditional observation, in which a supervisor sits in the classroom and writes up the results. She also cited peer observation, and the notion of test scores being used to determine whether or not lessons are effective.
However, she said, this new study had an entirely new element — the panoramic camera. This camera, specially designed, could observe not only the teacher, but also the students. Are they engaged? Do they understand? Are they texting their girlfriends during the final exam? Should we grant tenure to the teacher in question? Perhaps the camera could tell all, if only they could get it to work properly (there have been issues, and they're apparently working on a newer version).
Three participants told me that learning about the panoramic camera caused them to question the sincerity of the program's sponsors.
What is it good for? Well, war has been around for an awfully long time, and sometimes if you can create the right war, you wag the dog, and no one even needs to win.
If you're Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein, you find one of the last remnants of vibrant unionism in the center of your fiefdom and ask, "Why should we put up with such nonsense? Unions? We don't need no stinking unions!" After all, most charter schools don't have unions, and you can fire teachers simply for telling their colleagues how much UFT teachers earn. You can fire them for hanging Picasso paintings in the classroom.
So, how do you start this war? Well, a good start is to seek out some nervous and wacky senator facing an uncertain future. If he's desperate enough for your support, maybe you can persuade him to propose an uphill bill demanding an end to reverse-seniority layoffs. You will demand this only for teachers, not for firefighters, police, or anyone else. After all, you haven't invested years into sliming them. Also, you'll insist this bill be restricted to New York City, where you have mayoral control and a fake board of education that votes for absolutely everything the mayor wants. If they don't, they're fired on the spot, and teachers should be fired on the spot too, goshdarn it!
In part one of this series, I described several teaching methods I've been encouraged to follow — and then encouraged to discard. All had good qualities, but none was as perfect as promised, and in time, all tended to be rejected, recycled, or forgotten. Yet presenters continue to approach us with new methods and don't hesitate to introduce them as though they are the Ten Commandments, specifically designed to replace last year's Ten Commandments.
The possibility that we teachers might be building on something, improving on something, or engaged in a gradual process is never acknowledged. It's not as sexy as a cure-all, and certainly not likely to make people jump up and down and shout, "Eureka!" But when you're trying to persuade the public, there's a need to evoke that reaction, even if it results in a wild goose chase. After all, after this one fails, there are always other wild geese to make us chase around.
For politicians, the latest quick-fix is closing schools. According to them, it's what we need to do right now to fix everything. Apparently, if we shuffle enough kids around from here to there to who-knows-where, eventually they'll somehow find themselves in a better place. If their neighborhoods are left without schools, too bad for them.
Of course, the messy part of closing schools is replacing them.
Almost once a year for the last 25 years, I've listened to some expert or other explain there is one way to teach, only one way to teach, and that anyone who wasn't teaching that one way was simply not doing things correctly. The new way was far better than every other way, there was no doubt whatsoever, and anyone who questioned the validity of this method had no business pretending to be a teacher.
One year, a woman came and explained to us that portfolios were going to revolutionize schools. The kids would do work, it would all be placed in portfolios, and the portfolios would be available, right there in the classroom, for anyone who needed to see them. Anytime you wanted to check the progress of any kids, you could simply look in their portfolios, and there it would be. What more could anyone ask?
The following year, the same woman came around and raved about cooperative learning. The students would work in groups and help one another. Every day would be a marathon of learning. A teacher asked whether this involved portfolios. "Portfolios are out," the woman responded curtly. Several months later, some Very Important People came to my classroom and noticed my kids were sharing books. They complimented me profusely on my use of cooperative learning, and I decided it was best to thank them without explaining why I'd embraced this particular methodology. Actually, I only had 15 books for my 34 kids and was doing the best I could under the circumstances.
I was at parent-teacher conferences when one of my very best students walked in with her mom. I can't speak Chinese, but a former student of mine, also from China, was in the room and volunteered to translate for me. I told Mom her daughter was wonderful, that she was learning fast and doing great. I told her if she were my daughter I'd be very proud.
But Mom was not happy.
She asked, through my ex-student, why I didn't teach like they did in China. Why wasn't I giving extensive vocabulary lists for her daughter to memorize? Why wasn't I giving her daughter the SAT words she'd be tested on? Why wasn't I giving books full of those words? Well, I said, she's only just arrived here, and I don't think that's what she needs just now.
"You can't tell Chinese parents anything," confided my young translator, her hand covering her mouth.
I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." It is, frankly, a revelation, and anyone interested in education, particularly New York City education, needs to read it right now.
For anyone who's wondered where on earth Joel Klein dreamed up his "reforms," look no further. A substantial source of inspiration appears to be a three-stage process — a New York City experiment that gave a false impression of success, a San Diego experiment that eluded success altogether, and a stubborn determination to replicate both in overdrive.
As both Bloomberg and Klein were business experts using business models, they used a "corporate model of tightly centralized, hierarchal, top-down control, with all decisions made at Tweed and strict supervision of every classroom to make sure the orders flowing from headquarters were precisely implemented," Ravitch writes. It appears they didn't squander their valuable time on troublesome input from teachers, parents, or any contradictory voices whatsoever. In fact, Ravitch points out that though the mayor had promised increased parental involvement, it was actually reduced. Parent coordinators were hired, but in fact, they actually "worked for the principal, not for parents."
I'm marginally astonished at the city's contract demands, the ones that Mayor Bloomberg says are not demands. As I review the demands that are not demands, the one that really jumps out at me is the lowering of standards for dismissing teachers. Apparently, the city now has to show "just cause" but wishes to lower the standard to "arbitrary and capricious."
One of the social studies teachers in my school, trained as a lawyer, could not believe I'd gotten the term right. But there it is, in GothamSchools, the most reliable source for education news and opinion in the known universe. So basically, they can fire you for stealing pencils, and you'd have to prove to them that you didn't do it. After all, it's "Children First" in New York City. So if you're an adult, falsely accused, too bad. No salary or health benefits for you. And when the children who "came first" grow up, the hell with them too. They get the same 19th-century-style jobs we just took away from their parents.
The DOE, of course, is now two years into its quest to fire more teachers. So far, they've only been able to build successful cases against three. It's remarkable that, led by a noted attorney, that's as far as they got. I'm sure they could've done better if they weren't expending so much energy on personal vendettas and utter nonsense. Still, you'd think someone who so reveres accountability and spurns excuses, like Chancellor Klein, would have a better explanation than the one he's got — that the rules and regulations are neither arbitrary nor capricious enough. But those are the sort of results you can expect when you send people to the rubber room for bringing plants to school or reporting administrative malfeasance. I personally worked with someone who spent time there largely for the offense of not wearing a tie.
As a chapter leader, I'm particularly fascinated by the clause demanding that chapter leaders do all their work outside school hours.
That's a popular saying. Basically, it means you've got to get tough with the kids when they first see you, and stay that way for a good long time. After all, every parent knows it's the sacred duty of every kid to test every adult every minute to find out precisely what can be gotten away with.
I'm up to the challenge. On the first day of class, I might phone the homes of every kid who looked at me the wrong way. Doubtless that will be the talk of the classroom. "This teacher is crazy!" That's music to my ears. They prevailing platitude states a good lesson plan is the single best factor in classroom control, but I'd say a bad reputation trumps the good lesson plan every time. After all, if the kids are tying you to a post and setting fire to it, your excellent lesson plan is likely to go up in flames with you, no matter how good the instructional objective may be, or how much praise it's garnered from your supervisor.
Actually, I like kids a lot — working with them is by far the single best part of being a teacher. As an ESL teacher, drawing them out and making them comfortable enough to speak freely is a major part of what my job entails. So, much as we all treasure peace and quiet, I don't have the luxury of simply telling them to sit down and shut up the entire year. Nor would I want it — I don't think I'd like that any more than the kids would.
It's scary when schools close. No reasonable person wants to see that happen. But look at the closing schools and you'll notice they all have certain things in common. The one that really stands out is the large population of students with special needs. Now don't take this the wrong way — I make my living teaching kids like that, and I adore them for the most part.
But whose fault is it, really, if it takes my kids longer to graduate? I mean, most kids pass my beginning English classes. I always hope to pass 100 percent of my students, and I sometimes come very close. But when I see a kid who came from Korea 18 days ago carrying around a two-inch thick biology text, I'm not optimistic. How on earth is that kid gonna differentiate between enzymes and hormones? I just spent 10 minutes showing him the difference between "kitchen" and "chicken," and I count myself lucky he got that far.
Unfortunately, school report cards are serious business nowadays. And don't fool yourself into thinking they mirror report cards your kids get. If my kid, for example, came home with a D, it might be a long time before she'd see her iPod again.
In New York City, schools live and die by statistics. If statistics take a nosedive, schools are closed, no ifs, ands or buts. Of course, everyone knows the old saying about liars, damned liars, and statisticians. So you'd think before taking the draconian step of closing a school, statistics would be checked with great care.
You'd be wrong, of course. But if you were relying on the local papers to inform you, you'd never know it. In fact, it appears Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gets his info straight from Mayor Bloomberg's PR machine, and that appears good enough for President Barack Obama as well. Amusing though it is to watch politicians jump like trained seals, doing whatever it takes to grab the money Obama and Duncan dangle before them, their utter lack of vision and common sense is unsettling, to say the least.
One of the most vexing aspects of this administration's frenzy to close schools is its absolute willingness to accept and propagate explanations like this one. While the much-ballyhooed statistics are outrageous and inaccurate, it appears true that no one's actually planning to bulldoze Jamaica High School, as far as I know. Of course, that's only as far as I know.
Still, even if the building will remain, does that mean residents will still get what they've always gotten?
I grew up in Long Island, and I'll never forget the construction of a local park, named for a spectacularly corrupt local politician. For years, we rode our bicycles past the park, watched piles of dirt move from one side to the other, and nothing of consequence happened. As long as they kept shuffling back and forth, it gave the appearance of progress. When I hear talk of "reform" from Tweed, I always think of those ever-shifting dirt piles.
For example, snow is falling, and that can only mean it's school-closing time again in New York City. According to Tweed, these schools are failing and must be replaced ASAP. It's not their fault the schools are failing, because nothing is their fault, and anyway, it's not their job to fix schools. What is their job? Nobody really knows. And anyway, why should they bother fixing schools when they can simply rename them, fill them with different kids, and pretend the old ones never existed?
If schools they started specifically to replace closed schools don't pass muster, that's not their fault either. The folks at Tweed are ready and willing to close the schools they opened, and take no responsibility whatsoever. The important thing is they're going to open even newer ones, and whether they end up closing is not their problem. It isn't Tweed's fault, it isn't Chancellor Klein's fault and it isn't Mayor Bloomberg's fault either. Here in New York City, that's called "accountability."
That was the topic of a recent lesson I taught my level 2 ESL class. Actually, I was teaching them to use past progressive, e.g., "What were you doing at 9:18 p.m. last night?" But if I'd told them what they were really doing, they'd have risen up en masse and tossed me out a window.
I was using a book called American Streamlines, which offers illustrations of an unfortunate high school principal being hit over the head with a blackjack or something. At first blush, the kids enjoyed it. But the story specifically stated that the police thought the attacker was a student, and that all students would be questioned, be they male or female.
The male/ female distinction is an important one, particularly when you've got a large group of Chinese speakers. In Chinese, they tell me, they do not distinguish between male and female in third person pronouns, so many of my kids call everyone "he." I'm forever drawing stick figures and explaining how dangerous it can be to refer to women as "he."
As far as dangerous women go, I have one right next door, in the adjacent trailer. That would be Ms. Rena Sum, Chinese teacher extraordinaire.
If you work for the NYC Department of Education, getting small things done can often be a large task. But I've been doing it since its inception, and I have some advice for those who are bewildered, or simply discouraged. Even if you've been exiled to the most filthy, decrepit, and crumbling trailer in Mayor Bloomberg's New York, you can do it. Just follow these simple steps.
A trailer at Francis Lewis High School. By Arthur Goldstein
First, try all the normal channels. Go to the custodian and explain how cold, how wet, how malodorous and revolting the trailer is. When that fails, go to administration. Fill out the forms, make the requests, and do whatever official policy dictates. Go in every now and then to remind them when nothing gets done. Demand luxury items, like soap.
Repeat every year, as necessary.
Don't give up when you discover bar soap instead of liquid soap, even if it grows a curious oozing black crust the kids refuse to touch. Just pick it up with a piece of paper and interrupt a Very Important Meeting to show the assistant principal. The soap bars will soon disappear. While no new soap will replace it, you can make yourself feel important by boasting to the kids about how you got rid of those grungy soap bars.
After the fifth year or so, you may find your trailer's desk filled with fast-food garbage.
You may not think ravioli is worth discussing, but the Panel for Educational Policy debated it in some detail last Thursday at its November meeting, held at PS 128 in Queens. Apparently there's a need for higher-quality ravioli. In fact, the PEP voted to increase spending on ravioli by 40 percent, earmarking over a million bucks to make sure city kids are no longer burdened with the inferior ravioli that's been dragging our system down all these years.
I was sitting with James Eterno, UFT chapter leader of Jamaica High School. He told me that now, in mid-November, his school has ten classes without teachers. There is no money to hire them. Yet, somehow, the school was able to open a line for a new English assistant principal, who would not only cost more, but also teach fewer classes than a teacher. Eterno calculated that the additional money spent on ravioli could buy over 20 teachers for a year. How badly do our kids need that ravioli upgrade?
If you were at the meeting, you heard chapter and verse about the virtues of ravioli. It's canned, and can sit on shelves for a long, long time. Teachers can't do that. Also, if one of the fine DOE vendors fails to make a delivery, the lunchroom staff can slop ravioli on Styrofoam trays at a moment's notice. The ravioli contain not only starch, but also protein.
I wrote the column below, which originally appeared in the Oct. 15 Queens Chronicle, together with Leslie O' Grady, the co-president of the PTA at Francis Lewis. Because NYC parents and teachers share common interests, we felt it would make a strong statement if we showed our alliance on the issues of class sizes, overcrowding and flagrant disregard of the Contracts for Excellence.
We felt our situation at Francis Lewis had been ignored for years, so this year we became very active in getting the word out about conditions at the school. As a result, we've been featured in the New York Post, the Daily News, the New York Times, WABC, and most importantly, right here at GothamSchools. Naturally we wanted to share our column with the GothamSchools community, and here it is:
Overcrowded, Oversized, and Overlooked
As the new school year begins, Francis Lewis High School is again challenged by severe overcrowding. Joel Klein promised the state as part of the city's "Contract for Excellence" that our school would reduce its class sizes through "The Contract for Excellence" to 30 students per class this school year-on the way down to 25 students per class. Why, then, have we seen dozens of classrooms filled beyond the 34 allowed by the union contract, gym classes of 160 students, and a school "day" that literally doesn't end till night?
A lot of people think teaching is somehow a job for life — that no teachers can be fired for any reason, no matter what they do, who they kill, or whether or not they sleep in garbage cans. It's not true. In fact, the Department of Education tries to take away teacher jobs all the time. I recently read about one teacher who's up on charges for giving watches to kids who scored 90 or above in his class. Clearly, dangerous individuals like that must be dealt with severely.
Those of us who aren't up on charges have other worries. For example, we can become "ATRs." ATR is an acronym for "Absent Teacher Reserve." When Chancellor Klein closes a school, he's required to retain 50% of "qualified" teachers. This translates to fewer than 50% of actual teachers. If the "reorganized" school doesn't offer French, for example, 100% of working French teachers say adieu, teaching schedule and bonjour, Absent Teacher Reserve.
The ATR situation started in 2005. Tabloid editorial writers were jumping up and down about the new UFT contract. God bless teachers, they declared. Finally, they said, principals could decide who they wanted to hire. It was morning in America again. Several weeks passed before they went back to vilifying us, as tradition dictates.
In any case, teachers would no longer be sent to schools simply because there were open positions. Instead, they'd become ATRs, teaching whatever, wherever, to whomever. From there, we were assured, they'd easily find jobs. Unless, of course, they didn't. Personally, I'm very glad I transferred when I could. For all I know, they could be closing my former school this very moment. I'd be very unhappy as an ATR teacher, and I've met many ATR teachers who feel precisely the same way.
On Tuesday morning bright and early, I drove to Forest Hills, Queens, and took the E train all the way down to the American Arbitration Association. I had to go there because Francis Lewis High School has 73 oversized classes.
I'm a new chapter leader, I'd never done this before, and I made some mistakes. For one thing, I numbered the oversized classes when I was supposed to highlight them. So James Vasquez, my UFT District Representative, handed me a highlighter and told me to get highlighting.
Oversized classes are arbitrated in reverse order, so the schools with 200 oversized classes had already been and gone. James went into a room and represented a school with 75 oversized classes. While he negotiated each and every one of them, I kept highlighting.
There are things you see when you highlight that you'd never notice otherwise. For example, many classes are actually multiple classes meeting with the same teacher in one classroom. I noticed we have a Hebrew class that includes two levels, one with 23 and another with 14. I'm grieving that as a class of 37, but if you do a straight average, there are only 18.5 kids in each class.
Imagine there are two high schools in the same borough. One school can't enroll enough kids to stay open, and the other is filled to 250% of capacity. What would you do? It might seem logical to even out the population of both schools, but that is not how New York City operates.
I'm in one of the most overcrowded schools in the city, Francis Lewis High School. Our building is designed for 1,800 kids, and last year we were up to 4,450. This year we hit 4,700, and the sky's the limit. Where the extra kids will go I have no idea. I teach in a trailer out back, and you wouldn't use it to house your dog if you had a choice.
In the trailers, you never can tell if there will be heat on cold days or AC on hot ones (and don't buy a used car from anyone who tells you tin keeps you cool). The bathrooms are an abomination. Though school trailers are all the rage in New York City, you never see them on the news. If I didn't visit one every working day of my life, I probably wouldn't believe they existed.
On the other hand, James Eterno, chapter leader at Jamaica High School, has a completely different problem. Not enough kids are enrolling in his school. Could we help one another?
Lots of people complain to me about the 12-period day at Francis Lewis High School, and they began well before I became chapter leader.
Perhaps I look sympathetic. I try not to, but it discourages no one. Almost every teacher in my building wants an early schedule. That means you come in around 7 a.m. and leave around 2 p.m. There are fights. Grown men and women gripe about fairness.
“How come he's on early and I'm not?”
Sometimes they're right, and sometimes they aren't. But few want the dreaded late shift, which ends after 5 p.m. Personally, I did it for several years in a row and was fine with it. I got to stay up as late as I wanted, and got all sorts of things done in the morning. Also, my Queens College job didn't start 'til 5:30, giving me a near-adequate window to bolt from the trailer, drive away, park, and run like hell to my class.
After a while, though, they stopped giving it to me and switched me to early. Early is OK if you don't mind getting up at 5:30 a.m. Me, I don't care for it. I've had kids who didn't care for it either.
Overcrowding comes to city schools for various reasons. In my school, our reputation makes kids want to come, we have magnet programs like JROTC that attract kids from near and far, and there's never been a cap on enrollment. Neighborhood schools like PS 123 don't get the opportunity to grow and expand because other schools are simply placed into whatever vacant spaces they may have. In fact, as Juan Gonzalez reported, space they'd actually been using was commandeered by a charter school chain. It now appears Eva Moskowitz's Harlem Success Academy will be taking that space permanently.
PS 123 has gone from an F-rated school to a B-rated school, and you'd think that would merit some encouragement from the Department of Education. You'd be mistaken. Rather than expand upon the progress they've made, the building that houses PS 123 has become a civics lesson for all who teach and study there—a newly designed two-tier education system. 55 years ago, Brown v. Board of Education stated, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." At PS 123, separate educational facilities can be found within the same school building.
In fact, some families have one kid in 123, and another in HSA. But it's pretty clear to all that the schools are different. For one thing, all HSA classrooms are painted and renovated before kids even attend. A few weeks ago, protesters questioned why the whole school couldn't be painted, rather than just the HSA section. You have to wonder why an administration that prides itself on placing “children first” would allow so many children to be second priority.
Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are experts at wall-building. At A-rated Francis Lewis High School, we have 4450 kids in a building designed for 1800. Whenever anyone complains about overcrowding, more walls appear.
Most walls go up in the middle of classrooms. They magically transform one room into two. Unfortunately, with 34 kids in such a room, you get a haphazard pile of desks you have to climb over to sit in, and the only real beneficiaries are kids who'd otherwise have trouble copying their neighbors' test papers. While this may improve test results, you also hear every word on the other side of the wall, which makes concentration quite a challenge. Some of these rooms have no ventilation, while others have windows that open directly to fragrant dumpsters.
Rugged individuals who hate walls can move out back to the full sized trailers. Sometimes they have heat, and sometimes they even have AC (but not always). Sometimes their bathrooms have soap, working faucets, functional water fountains, toilet paper, or paper towels (you can never predict which). In fact, some kids claim, wretched though our bathrooms are, they're not as bad as student bathrooms in the main building. I find that hard to believe, though I'm a little afraid to go in and check. If it's true,though, maybe we're not so bad off as I thought. And there's no denying they don't build extra walls in the trailers.
This notwithstanding, there are some downsides to trailer life.