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31st October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 31, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Many supporters of charter schools will doubtlessly be delighted by Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement of a new structure to fund and establish new charters. I say, “Proceed with caution.” Before the celebration, we need to ask ourselves whether these new charters will turn out to be “Klein Klones” or “Lam Lemons,” sharing the same fate as the hundreds of our conventional public schools forced to follow the most radical “progressive” education theology, as imparted by the supposedly visionary Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, Diana Lam. 

    The drama unfolding across the city regarding the fate of education for academically advanced children offers important lessons for those interested in charters. 
    Last week 1,000 angry parents (along with some of their children) showed up at a public meeting in Brooklyn to express concern over the fate of their popular “gifted and talented” programs. Their concerns are well-founded. 

    The educational ideology of those at the highest levels of the Department of Education is diametrically opposed to the concept of programs targeted to academically advanced children. And despite the reams of press releases coming from the Tweed Courthouse, we have yet to hear of any policy directed at servicing the needs of the most ignored children in New York’s public schools, those who are actually doing well. 

    Advocates for Children is a group whose agenda I often disagree with, but which I respect for their commitment to providing information about school issues that is not forthcoming from the Tweed Ring. They report that parents in Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn are expressing concerns about the survival of their existing gifted programs. Information about these programs is being withheld, and regional personnel confide that these programs are ending. That there has been not a word uttered about new gifted programs, should come as no surprise. 

    For the time being, the popular gifted programs in the old District 22, now part of Brooklyn’s Region 6, appear to be safe. However, that is only as a result of pressure by local politicians, including state Senator Carl Kruger, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is said to be considering challenging Mayor Bloomberg in 2005. 

    At the meeting last week, Mr. Kruger announced that funds had been “found” to save the CIG (Center for Intellectually Gifted) and Eagle programs, mystifying since the lack of funds had not been at issue. The senator correctly pointed out that the concerns of the parents came from the widely held perception that the radical “progressive” ideologues that now run the instructional side of the Department of Education would kill programs such as Eagle and CIG that are so antithetical to their core beliefs. Amazingly, Regional Instructional Superintendent Gloria Buckery refused to attend the meeting, perhaps the largest gathering of angry parents since Mayor Bloomberg seized control of the schools. 

    The wildly popular District 22 programs are outgrowths of federal “magnet” money designed to retain or even lure back white students to the public schools. District 10 in the northwest Bronx also received a slew of magnet funds. However, after millions upon millions of dollars, there is no “wildly popular” program to save. Parents in the few remaining “diverse” schools in a district that is 95% minority, simply didn’t trust school officials on the gifted-and-talented issue, and opted out — with good reason. 

    There are never press conferences or media events to announce the disbanding of a gifted-and-talented program. This is something usually accomplished in the dead of night by educrats with an agenda. In September 1998, without any prior warning, students and parents at Riverdale’s M.S. 141 came back to school only to learn that the well-regarded honors program had been eliminated. 

    In a school already reeling from a destructive rezoning pattern, this was the last straw. Outraged parents demanded, and were partially successful in getting, the program restored. The entire episode gave enormous momentum to the effort a year later to elect a more sympathetic school board committed to, among other things, gifted-and-talented education. 

    Former state Attorney General Oliver Koppell was enlisted to lead that slate of candidates that swept into office in the largest turnout in the 30-year history of decentralization. The new school board ordered that programs be established for academically advanced students. But what was demanded was not exactly what was delivered. The words “gifted and talented,” which imply selection by ability, were replaced by “enrichment and talent development,” terms inclusive of the entire school population. Similarly, the annual science fair mandated by the board is held each year, but in the best “progressive” tradition, eschews prizes. 

    As the Department of Education, flush with Bill Gates’ money, forms literally hundreds of small high schools throughout the city under the aegis of the progressive-oriented interest group, “New Visions,” there appears to be no place for schools promoting a more traditional vision of excellence. Parents at the city’s top-performing middle school, M.S. 101, applied last year to expand their school to include the high school grades. This school is a gem among the disasters that characterize post-elementary education in The Bronx. 

    The parents were backed by the popular educator who devised this successful program, former Superintendent Betty Rosa. Dr. Rosa suggests that it was Mr. Klein’s Senior Counselor for Education Policy Michelle Cahill, who dashed the parents’ hopes when she challenged the school’s admissions policy — the 
school only admits students testing at levels 3 and 4, in other words, only pupils at grade level. 
    In terms of gifted and talented education, that is a door opened very,very wide. But not wide enough for Ms. Cahill and New Visions, who rejected the school’s application on the grounds of its “restrictive” admissions policy. In a city that, with the assistance of New Visions, gives high schools over to radical political organizing groups, this is a sad commentary. 

    The former District 2 Superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, followed a “progressive” program but was willing to put aside ideology when it came to educating academically advanced students. Mr. Alvarado aggressively established gifted programs, starting as early as kindergarten. This was the lure that brought hundreds, maybe thousands, of middle-class and well-todo families back to the public schools, becoming the engine that drove the remarkable increase in test scores in his district. 

    All this should give us pause as we consider the mayor’s charter-school initiative. The concept of charter schools is very much a free enterprise idea. Schools should bubble up from the ideas and energy of the grassroots.Then it will be the marketplace that will decide which are the most compelling and, presumably, the best-performing concepts. The last thing we need is for this to be orchestrated from above, micro-managed by those who have an entirely different agenda often incompatible with the quest for excellence embodied in so many of the charter schools.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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