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28th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 28, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

While people may have different opinions about the wisdom of the educational reforms undertaken by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, this is unquestionably the most far-reaching attempt to change the system we have seen in decades.That’s why I was so distressed to see the intense, fawning coverage given earlier this week to the opening of the City Hall Academy, the school located on the first floor of the Tweed Courthouse.

This is an expensive public-relations gimmick that will contribute nothing to the overall improvement of our education system. It could even be argued that the education of the rotating groups of children being transported to Tweed for two-week sessions will be impeded by the unnecessary interruption in classroom routine.
Despite this, every daily newspaper in the city gave the opening of this school extensive coverage, as did the broadcast outlets. I wish that the press would pay as much attention to the real concerns raised by the Bloomberg reforms as they do these periodic journeys down the yellow-brick road of self-aggrandizement in which the new Tweed Ring specializes. Now is not the time to be cheerleaders, but to carefully examine every aspect of every new program with the most critical eye.The future of our city’s children is at stake.
In that spirit, allow me to take a closer look at Mr. Bloomberg’s venture into the land of educational Oz.

The seven classrooms built in Tweed may be the most expensive built anywhere, ever. It reportedly cost $7 million to hastily construct them, which sounds to me like $1 million a room. Boss Tweed would be proud.
Meanwhile, up in the northwest Bronx, the construction of MS/HS 368, a desperately needed facility in one of the city’s most overcrowded districts, lags nearly a year behind schedule. As a result, the school’s students are crowding into another local school, compromising the education of more than 2,000 students. A well-spent couple of million dollars could probably accelerate the construction enough to get the school open by the fall.There is no money for that, but $7 million was found for the mayor’s dog-and-ponyshow school.

These seven classrooms don’t increase the city’s student capacity by even one seat.As these seven rooms are filled, seven others elsewhere lie empty. Similarly, in a system that is preparing for massive layoffs, a cadre of special teachers is being hired to staff the superfluous Tweed program.
The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is right on target when she questions the expenditure of what she estimates to be $1.6 million annually. This is an entire year’s budget for a small elementary school. She calls it an “unnecessary luxury,” but it is actually much worse. Whatever funds are used for either the creation of the school or its operation are simply being stolen from

our students for the worst of all possible purposes — use as a public-relations gimmick to aggrandize the mayor and the chancellor.

This appears to be the modus operandi of the new Tweed Ring. A few weeks ago, Mr. Klein schlepped up to the Bronx to teach a class at the new Lehman College High School of American Studies. Has the chancellor been struck with a sudden compulsion to impart his wisdom to these students to satisfy their deep thirst for knowledge? Or was it perhaps a convenient device to give a camera crew from “60 Minutes,” filming what promises to be the puff piece of all puff pieces, a suitably impressive photo-op?

The three classes of third-graders who are the first to occupy these new gold-plated facilities at Tweed will be taking the citywide reading test on April 15, little more than two weeks from now.The math test follows hard on its heels on April 30.

Since New York City children are not given this kind of examination until third grade, this will be the first experience these kids have with high-stakes testing. For many of them, the results will decide whether or not they will have a summer vacation of recreation or remediation.

Presumably, in their regular classes, these children have been engaged in a course of study that will prepare them for these important tests, ones that will set an objective baseline for the rest of their school years. But the two weeks at Tweed have interrupted the normal pattern of the school day. Teachers will tell you how difficult it is to resume the instructional routine after any extended break.While the timing of this first class is particularly unfortunate, such a program will always be disruptive to students’ regular course of study.

To lead the Tweed school Mr. Klein has tapped the principal of P.S. 234, Anna Switzer. P.S. 234 is the high-performing, mostly upper-middle-class school that is located near the site of ground zero. One might assume that Mr. Switzer is qualified for this assignment by her expertise in leading a topscoring school. After all, who wouldn’t want to run a school whose results are measured in column inches of press coverage rather than test scores?

But, alas, Ms. Switzer is not the best choice for the post. Since the purpose of the school is to lead the gullible press down the yellow-brick road, a much better, and certainly a more honest, choice as principal would be the chancellor’s public-relations director, David Chai.

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

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