Saturday, November 22, 2008

Comptroller Gives Mayor Low Marks on Schools by Vladic Ravich - Queens Chronicle

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City Comptroller William Thompson advocated an overhaul of the city’s school system at a education summit last Saturday in Far Rockaway.

Photo: City Comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr. addresses the audience at a wide-ranging education conference last Saturday. (photo by Vladic Ravich)

A leading critic of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, Thompson plans to run for mayor in 2009. Given the opportunity to criticize the cornerstone of his rival’s legacy, the comptroller did not fail to take it.

“I have never seen a time in the education system in New York City when parents have less idea about what’s going on and have less opportunity to address their problems,” said Thompson.

Citing an investigation from his office that revealed $100 million in no-bid contracts to the city schools, Thompson turned the administration’s education statistics against it.

Referring to a city-supplied figure showing the city’s education budget increasing over 40 percent, Thompson asked, “Where’s the money really going?”

Joining the comptroller at the Far Rockaway Community Church of Nazarene, state Senator Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) praised the work of the first annual education conference and encouraged the community to redouble their involvement in the work of educating their children.

“This is a challenging time for the State of New York,” Smith said, acknowledging the planned budget cuts before the state Legislature.
“However, one of the opportunities of a challenging time is that everyone is ready to listen to creative ideas.”

The summit’s chief organizer, Rosalind O’Neal, described it as a “proactive way to help ourselves and to help each other.”

Thompson used his remarks to criticize the “opaque” state of mayoral control of the schools — the centerpiece of Bloomberg’s educational policy and likely a major part of his reelection bid.

The comptroller also said the department was out of touch and “made decisions behind closed doors.” As an example, he brought up the decision to reroute school bus routes during February: “They left students standing on street corners during the coldest part of winter,” Thompson said.

However, the speech was only the prelude to an extensive and nuanced discussion of how to revive one of Queen’s most dysfunctional public school districts, located in predominately black neighborhoods in the Rockaways.

Speakers, such as Professor Samuel Anderson, founder of Black New Yorkers for Educational Excellence, questioned the philosophy of the city’s test-based curriculum. “Envision a new system where you and your child are the center of the system, where the classroom is not a prison cell.” Anderson said.

The conference featured a wide variety of speakers, such as develpmental psychologist Lenora Fulani, who advocated “play, curiosity and exploration” as crucial factors for lifting young people out of neighborhoods filled with crime and poverty.

The two-day conference took place last Friday and Saturday, the first of what organizers hope will be an ongoing catalyst for education reform.

Featuring a panel of various academics and civic leaders, the conference framed the challenges facing their community in philosophic, cultural and psychological terms. Afterward, there were several workshops for parent to help them navigate all available educational and social services.

A second conference is planned for the spring.

There was also a youth day, which featured talks on topics ranging from gangs, clothes and President-elect Barack Obama. The conference also featured prayers from another organizer, the Reverend Les Mullings, and a youth choir.

Last week’s event was presented as part of an ongoing effort to get the community involved in creative solutions for the troubled public school system. Aside from the practical presentations and workshops, the speakers emphasized the hope and inspiration needed to overcome the daunting problems being discussed.

During his speech, Anderson quoted from the state Senate’s recent hearings on mayoral control. “Success in school should be measured by how many of the children go on to graduate from college… by how joyfully noisy and colorful the school building is inside and out… by how many parents, regardless of race and nationally, want their children to be at that school,” he said.