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25th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 25, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Students celebrated their spring vacation last week in the medieval town of Siena, Italy. And within the town walls are lessons for those who run schools in America’s cities, particularly here in Gotham.

Among these Siennese students were a number graduating from the University of Siena, just now completing their degrees. Gathering with friends and family in the vicinity of the Piazza del Campo, the graduates could easily be identified - they were the ones wearing laurels on their heads - from which we get the word laureate.

You could tell that these young people were from Siena if someone in their group was carrying a medieval banner, symbolizing one of the 17 contrade or neighborhoods of the town. Siena takes neighborhood pride very seriously. Twice each summer the contrade compete in the world famous Palio, a manic horse race observed by some 40,000 persons, packed shoulder to shoulder in the sea-shell shaped Piazza del Campo.

This is sport in its purest form. There are no agents, big name players, or endorsements. The contrade are competing for nothing more then a flag of victory and the bragging rights that come with neighborhood pride. Before the race, each horse is taken to the church in each contrada to be blessed by the local priest.

Each contrada is named for an animal, real or fictional. There is among the 17 a Rhinoceros Contrada, an Eagle Contrada, a Dragon Contrada, and a Caterpillar Contrada. I myself am partial to the She-Wolf Contrada. The boundaries of the contrade are marked on the buildings of Siena by small plaques - if you know to look, you will know when you cross the border into, say, the Rhinoceros Contrada.

Being born in a particular neighborhood makes you a member of that contrada for life. Baptisms are often held at the museums that each contrada maintains to track its history, the main highlights being the Palio victories accumulated over the centuries.

When New York City was considered the nation’s finest urban school system, we had a strong network of neighborhood schools, an informal contrada system. In the Bronx, today at the bottom of the academic heap, there was once active, albeit informal competition between neighborhoods for the reputation of their schools, and pride in the accomplishments of the students.

Among those victories were seats at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Parents in the borough knew exactly which public schools had a better record of getting their students into Bronx Science, and sought to live in those communities, just as some seek to live in specific suburbs today, enticed by the reputation of the public schools. At one time, the majority of students at Bronx Science came from the borough’s neighborhoods.

Beginning in the 1950s, in the false hope that breaking the barriers between neighborhoods would result in more equitable academic results for students, that system was slowly deconstructed, a process that continues today, even as the strategies educrats pursue leads to more segregated schools and even worse academic results.

This is the thinking behind the ill-advised “fair school funding” plan of the mayor, a plan that will shift resources out of middle class communities, so much so that in some cases a child in those neighborhoods will only receive 60% of the funds that children elsewhere in the city receive. This will only result in parents who have the means accelerating their abandonment of our public schools.

Similarly, parents who fought hard for gifted and talented programs in their neighborhood schools are seeing those programs destroyed, again in the name of “equity.” It is not the fault of those parents - or their children - that the results of the admission process is not particularly satisfying to those seeking “equity.”

The parents rejecting placements to the new “fair” gifted programs that force their five- and six-year-olds on buses to other neighborhoods are not racists. They simply believe in the idea of neighborhood schools.

The difference between the mediocre academic results we post in New York and the far worse results in other big cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles is that we have retained at least some of our middle class, while other cities have not. I see no advantage in policies that drive out the middle class in the name of equity.

Better to learn from the Siennese their pride of place, for their neighborhoods and their town. That is reflected in the celebrations of the success of their neighbors, the young people wearing their garlands, parading through town under the flag of their contrada.

In New York, restoring a sense of the school as the center of neighborhood life is how we can get back into an academic race that can be as exciting as the Palio in Siena.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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