Friday, July 2, 2010

Do We All Really Serve the Chancellor, and Do the Buildings Belong to Him? by Cathy Albisa, Public School Parent - NYC Public School Parents

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On June 23, 2010, the Office of Portfolio Planning (OPP) from the NYC Department of Education attended a Community Education Council meeting in District 1 on the Lower East Side. This was in response to an invitation from our CEC to hold an initial needs assessment, before deciding how space should be used in our neighborhood’s schools.

When a CEC member asked, “What happens if there is a conflict between what the community wants and what the Chancellor wants for our district?” Elizabeth Rose, the OPP representative, responded, “We all serve the Chancellor, the buildings belong to him.” You could see the entire room full of parents bristle.

As a parent from a local elementary school who went to the hearing in a furious panic because word had gotten around that new charter schools were opening up and they might be shoved (given space constraints this is the only verb that is appropriate) into some of our public schools, I had a deeply mixed reaction to this statement.

Not surprisingly, I think most of us, including myself, took deep offense at what could only be described as a despotic message that utterly disregarded any value that a genuine democratic process would afford. Yet, there was something so deeply honest and clear about that answer, and so different from all the other vague and evasive answers given when hard questions were posed, that I almost wanted the thank her for at least stating things as they are.

So there it is, if the Chancellor’s buddy wants to start a pet project in the form of a charter school, parents beware and children be damned. Your art classroom, your class sizes, and your principal’s office are all up for grabs.

I was told by CEC members that OPP had agreed to come because parents and the community as a whole had strongly opposed inserting a charter school at the expense of the high need schools in our district, without even a needs assessment being undertaken. Given this context, the community input required as a trade-off for mayoral control was practically a farce.

The underlying bone of contention at this meeting was the formula for how space in measured in our schools. In my son’s school, our principal isn't even quite sure whether the space where he sits is considered “underutilized” (which also demonstrates how confusing the formula is). Right now, he shares an open space with eight administrators, the PTA was relegated to a what feels like a dungeon in the basement because as enrollment increased from 250 to 320 we have had to give away the parents room to create a new art room (a good trade, as the kids come first).

When our principal needs to meet with anyone, he has to wander the halls looking for any empty room because he has no office, and some classes (physical education for example) are held in the back of the large lobby due to space constraints. I have no idea whether the DOE thinks our library even counts.

In light of all this, when I look at the DOE latest "blue book" (or annual utilization report) that claims to show how much capacity each school has in terms of space, it appears that our school has room for a hundred more children! I have images of classes being held in the bathroom and our principal, wandering the hallways with a push-cart carrying all the school files.

One parent who also attended the meeting described this as the “fire code” approach to defining how much space a school has. So long as it doesn’t violate the fire code, they will keep shoving children into increasingly crowded spaces. But clearly we need a learning approach to counting space, and until we have one, none of the conversations with the Office of Portfolio Planning or any other DOE official will be in any way constructive.

The foundation is rotten, and so conflict, disaffection, and deprived children are the result. Until we have a formula that is based on what kind of space a child needs to actually learn, a “learning-based formula,” we won’t be able to say that “we all serve the children, and the buildings belong to them.”