Courtesy, professionalism and respect. That’s been the Police Department’s slogan since the Giuliani years, and the man most responsible for it was Dennis Walcott, then head of the Urban League, according to a revealing profile The New York Times published on Sunday. Now the new schools chancellor must apply that approach to every aspect of interactions between the Department of Education and the public, much of which believes officials have been running roughshod over parents, teachers and students.
For years teachers have been decrying the high priority given to standardized testing, saying they’re forced to “teach to the test,” but the DOE hasn’t slowed down its efforts to put even more weight on the exams. Whistleblowers have revealed how administrators pressure teachers to change grades, but the department just keeps exaggerating how much the results show city schoolchildren are improving. The concerns of teachers, many of which are valid, have been ignored. Somehow they must be allowed a greater degree of freedom in the classroom.
Perhaps even worse than the tension over testing is the ongoing effort to shut down and restructure underperforming schools, including many in Queens. It’s been chaos. At first the DOE didn’t even bother to hold the hearings required by state law, so concerned citizens had to go to court to get compliance. Now hearings are being held, but they’re just for show. The decision to close a given school is made long before any public forum. Nothing anyone says has changed the plans for any school, whether it’s Jamaica or Beach Channel high schools or elementaries like PS 30, which is why parents, teachers and students have been taking to the streets in protest nearly every week.
Another problem the city needs to fix is the lack of a teachers contract. Laying off teachers due to budget constraints is difficult but necessary; at least those who remain should know what their economic future looks like.
Walcott’s reputation is that of a conciliator who can bring opposing parties together, as he worked to do when racial crises broke out in the city during his tenure with the Urban League. He’s not known for bold new proposals, but the city has enacted enough of those in education in recent years — with the jury still out on the results. Walcott appears to be just what the city’s schools system needs now, a peacemaker.
The three-month Cathie Black debacle only exacerbated the divide between the DOE and those it serves. The new chancellor’s top priority for now must be closing that gap, and we wish him the best in doing so.
Queens has taken a couple of hits recently — the renaming of our iconic bridge over our objections, the sentencing of Alan Hevesi, which reminds all how sleazy many of our homegrown politicians are, even the farce of Jamaica Estates native Donald Trump’s supposed run for the presidency.
So when there’s a chance to celebrate and be proud of Queens, we want to take it. And that’s what’s happening May 3 at Queens College, at an event called “Celebrating the Underdog Borough.” Faculty will be reading from “The Forgotten Borough,” the only literary anthology dedicated to Queens. The college promises a “vivid, layered portrait of the borough as a microcosm of America.” Cool. Check it out.