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Opening the Schools

School opens today, and I know the kids are excited and scared and full of anticipation. I wish I felt the same. Instead, I feel like I’m in one of those bad dreams where you show up someplace and you know you don’t belong there. There’s a feeling of confusion, of everything being veiled in shadow.
Chancellor Klein told an orientation session for new Teach for America recruits Aug. 15 that he felt one of his “failures” as Chancellor was “not to get the city more involved, more on board.”

Well, yes. I couldn’t feel less “on board.”

I’m a public school parent, a School Leadership Team member, an education writer. Half my friends are educators. But I don’t see the sense of involvement, of ownership in the schools that I used to. What’s the real agenda for this year? Does anyone know outside Klein’s bullpen at Tweed?

David Herszenhorn’s school curtain-raiser in the Times yesterday led with a description of the schools in “freeze-frame,” awaiting the outcome of the mayoral election. Is this an education vision?

I attended one of Klein’s “listening sessions” at Edward R. Murrow High School, at the very start of his tenure. It was clear after the first few minutes that he wasn’t listening. He was curt, dismissive, and seemed agitated. He had his plan, which he didn’t care to share, and it was like he just wanted to get through the silly talk and leave.

The sham Panel on Education Policy, the toothless Community Education Councils, his wooden press releases, all point to the truth that he himself identified. He has failed to involve the citizenry, or even most school system veterans, in his plans.

Reading the blog today, it sounds like a lot of teachers are really angry, and a couple suggested a fresh teacher exodus was in the making. What they say is driving them out is salary and dissatisfaction with school bureaucracy.
Will he take notice? Klein likes to posture as the anti-bureaucrat, but really, he’s more like the ultimate bureaucrat. Very top down and petty. Read Sol Stern if you think this is just a UFT gripe.

What’s important this year? What kind of education vision would I suggest if he’d listen to me? OK, here’s a start:

1. I’d like to see Tweed involve the city–the real estate developers, the community organizations, pro bono lawyers, sharky (but smart) investment bankers and others–in a multi-year project to create new school buildings that have a real 21st century look and feel, that have sufficient space and good light and labs and athletic facilities and interesting space with some green in them, so that kids could finally believe they are the most important thing in our lives.

2. I’d like to Tweed reach out to negotiate a contract with teachers and school staff that told them, in dollars and sense (sic), that they are valued for their skills and knowledge and commitment to kids. Even if there wasn’t a lot of money on the table initially, I’d like to see that contract be a first step in a planned effort to really professionalize the teaching force. I think Randi has pieces of this vision in her heart and she’d have other unionists in her corner. Instead of carping at each other over ridiculous work rules, union and management would develop a learning environment where teachers want to stay (and kids want to come).

3. I’d like to see Tweed, with Bloomberg’s legendary financial and negotiating skills behind it, just absolutely force the state to finance lower class sizes in the city–right now. There are a lot of legislators who’d be our friends on this. It’s way past time to say we can’t. Yes, space will be a real obstacle, but there are ways to solve the problem temporarily before (see number 1) we build new schools.

4. I’d like to see Tweed reach out to the Health Dept., HRA, ACS and other city agencies to create a network of health and other social supports for children in the schools–health and dental clinics, mental health services, after-school care, and full-day pre-K for three and four year olds, and recreation. The Community Service Society had an excellent model at I.S. 218 years back. Somewhere in this city lurks a consummate bureaucrat with the insider knowledge of the city to make this kind of coordination work–and be a model for the urban nation.

5. I’d like to Tweed support an effort to develop high-quality, complex, multilayered curriculum in every subject, starting with reading and writing. That’s different from buying into crash test-prep programs or dim-witted history textbooks. I’d like to feel that the kids in the city are getting the benefit of the worldliness and knowledge that exists in their city.

6. ArtsConnection, New Visions, the old BOE, later with Annenberg funding, put together the seeds of real partnerships between the arts organizations and the schools. It feels like that’s slipping as Tweed pulls its neck farther and farther into its shell. Think about the teacher/orchestra conductor who was fired and humiliated for calling in sick so she could conduct a symphony. Think about “Mad Hot Ballroom.” Don’t let the arts partnerships go down.

Opening up the schools should mean opening them also to parents, to the community, and to the city politic. It should be Klein’s main agenda, a driving vision. But it ain’t.