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7th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 7, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Smaller is better.This is one of those feel-good theories that now rule the New York public schools. 
Rich people, no doubt with the best of intentions, have opened their wallets to fund the spread of this concept. Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the world’s richest person, has kicked in $51 million to further this idea in our high schools. 

As I suggested in a column in October, this may be “Gates’ Revenge” on his old nemesis, Schools Chancellor Klein, who as a top Clinton Justice Department official targeted Microsoft as a monopoly. 
There is no dispute that New York’s high schools are a disaster. But it is not because they are too big.These same schools were successful in educating millions of students, including those from the poorest homes,for generations.How did these once-great schools fall so far, so fast? 
Gotham’s high school problem isn’t structural; it is ideological. We have changed what we teach students and how we teach it.The result has been failure. But instead of addressing the root causes, we are embarking on an expensive plan that is already backfiring all over the city. 

Why are many high schools so large to begin with? Part of the reason is economy of scale, not just to save money, but also to provide a critical mass of students to enable a wide array of course offerings to meet varying needs and interests. This is a problem that is vexing even to the best private schools. 

The Fieldston School in Riverdale eliminated its advanced placement courses several years ago to “make room” for its more eclectic array of elective course offerings.This was a controversial decision. 

    Advanced Placement courses have become an important method that colleges use in evaluating the rigor of the academic programs completed by applicants. Fieldston, with its national reputation and crackerjack college counseling staff, can afford to do this. That’s not the case in public schools. 

    How many creative electives and A.P. course offerings will be found in these new mini-schools with a student body less than half the size as the one at Fieldston? 

    A controversy over the location of the “funmathschool” that the Department of Education wants to place in Riverdale led me to ask why this particular school needs to be started at all. “Gates money,” was the answer. Not need, not demand, not overcrowding. Just funding. 

    A rich fellow from Washington State dangles some cash — perhaps substantial in and of itself, but a tiny proportion of our public education expenditures — and the result is untested policy choices that will shape the expenditure of billions, perhaps for decades. 

    In the past, every child was guaranteed a spot in his or her neighborhood high school. But many of these schools are being downsized or even eliminated, often broken up into small “themed” schools. 

    This contributes to the fact that about a sixth of all eighth-graders were, as announced on Wednesday, shut out of all of the 12 schools on their preference lists and as of now are not placed in any school for September. That’s 14,000 unhappy families throughout the fiveboroughs. Moreover, the breakup of local schools often has a subtle, destabilizing effect on our neighborhoods. 

    This idea of small high schools has been around for decades and a part of the city’s educational policy for 20 years.Small schools are favored by the “university institutional complex” that is the permanent government of the school system. But of the first small schools, established in the early 1970s by the then-District 4 (East Harlem) superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, only a handful have withstood the test of time. 
    The majority faded into oblivion. I predict history will repeat itself. 

    The local agent of Mr. Gates is called New Visions for Public Schools.New Visions has set up scores of these mini-schools throughout the city, many of which have thinly veiled political agendas: 

    The Community School for Social Justice, the Pablo Neruda Academy for Architecture and World Studies, the Bushwick School for Social Justice, the High School for Global Citizenship, the Banana Kelly School for Learning Through Community Building (whose parent coordinator is the radical community organizer Sandra Barros, an apologist for the late anti-Semitic minister, Khalid Abdul Muhammad), and the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, forever immortalized in a City Journal essay by Heather Mac Donald as the school offering the course “Hip Hop 101.” 

    If it weren’t so tragic, it would be funny to see the best intentions of pillars of capitalism like Mr. Gates resulting in such politically correct, left-wing outcomes.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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