The Department of Education’s decision to abandon its “turnaround” plans for 24 city high schools, including seven in Queens, due to a strong legal challenge from the teachers and administrators unions that couldn’t be overcome in time to prepare for the next school year, if ever, raises at least as many questions as it answers.
The plan was to fire half the teaching staff in each school, along with the administration, replace them and reopen the buildings with new names. We were skeptical of its chances from the start.
For one thing, what could possibly be the point of changing the name of John Adams High School, for example, to Future Leaders High School at the John Adams Campus? Or changing Long Island City High School to Global Scholars Academies of Long Island City? The utter ridiculousness of these Orwellian new names symbolizes the foundation of the entire plan pretty accurately.
But the names are only the start. Was trying to fire 50 percent of the teachers really necessary or productive? That’s an arbitrary number that just screams out, “We don’t care what’s going on in any individual school, we just want the federal money we were promised if we went ahead with this plan.” And now all those teachers who were handed their walking papers at the end of last month have been given their jobs back. Will they all take them back? Have the best already found employment elsewhere, maybe in another city, maybe in another career? And what about those who were deemed unfit to teach: are they? And how will they fit into their school communities again now that they’ve been branded with the scarlet F of failure?
“We have to operate under the principle that the staff who were at the school[s] will be coming back,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said last week. Not exactly a statement that inspires confidence.
What about the new teachers who were offered jobs at the 24 schools? Will they be given positions elsewhere in the system? Are they just out of luck? And how about the principals and other administrators who have already started planning for the next school year and now, apparently, won’t have schools to run? Many of the original principals they were to replace were distraught, even crying, at what were to be their last graduation ceremonies last month. Are they coming back? How many will want to?
Another key question is what will happen to the $60 million in federal education funding the “turnarounds” were designed to bring in. That’s only a tiny share of the DOE’s $24.4 billion budget for 2012-13, but every dollar counts, especially when the city is cutting programs like arts and music left and right, when Queens schools remain the most overcrowded in the city despite new construction and when the city is building schools that don’t even have gyms while preaching to the masses about fighting obesity. It would be a travesty if after all the public angst caused by the announcement of the closures, after all the rallies and hearings, after all the disruptions in the lives of parents, students and staffers, the money never even comes through.
We’ve always advocated what we thought is best for the children. We’ve been open-minded on new ideas like charter schools and mayoral control, knowing that the old model of education in the city needed serious reform. But the cure has been worse than the disease. Mayor Bloomberg wanted to establish a legacy as the education mayor, but it looks like he’s failed as surely as the underperforming schools he tried to shutter. It’s time to come up with a new model of reform, whatever it may be — another unanswered question — and implement it, fast. School starts again in six weeks.