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27th September

First Published in The New York Sun,  September 27, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Until the culture of the old Board of Education is purged, change at the city’s Department of Education is bound to come slowly — too slowly if Mayor Bloomberg hopes to succeed in improving our schools.
One key part of this culture that newly appointed schools chancellor Joel Klein could examine are the reams of so-called “Chancel
lor’s Regulations” that govern much of what goes on in the educational system on a day-to-day basis, but are rarely discussed. Mr. Klein, with the flick of his pen, could accomplish a significant reform immediately by moderating, to take just one example, Chancellor’s Regulation A-101.

This is the regulation that governs the admission and retention of students. In particular, Section 1.7 of the regulation permits children to remain in their current school until they graduate, even if they have moved out of the zone, the district, or even the borough. While this regulation was designed to allow parents to choose their children’s schools, an admirable goal, the best of intentions have paved the road to overcrowding hell for some school districts.

Take District 10 in the northwest Bronx, the largest of the city’s 32 community school districts, which is overcrowded by some 2,000 to 3,000 students. Three years ago, it was discovered that 1,666 of the district’s 40,000 students lived outside of District 10. The following year that number ballooned to 1,948.This figure is now widely believed to exceed 2,000 by a good margin.

How did this happen? Some suggest that the incidence of out-of-district enrollment may primarily be related to parental convenience. District 10 is home to a number of major hospitals and other health care facilities. Some parents may be contriving to place their children in schools near where they work. Also, some of the out-of-district enrollment is the result of aggressive recruiting by schools of the best and brightest from other school districts, presumably to raise test scores. A few years ago it was discovered that MS 118 was recruiting hundreds of students from neighboring districts 9 and 12 — meanwhile, there are 2,000 empty seats in District 12. Whatever is bringing students into District 10, it isn’t academic excellence. The district is among the lowest performing in the city.

Community School Board 10 requested a special waiver of A-101 from both chancellors Rudy Crew and Harold Levy. Both men rejected their pleas. So far, Mr. Klein’s regime seems to be toeing the line of the past. Just last week, the board met with Deputy Chancellor Tony Shorris and Director of External Affairs Burt Sacks, both holdovers from previous administrations. Mr. Sacks in particular was adamant that no waiver could be granted.

This would all be fine and dandy if the district had room for these extra kids. But it doesn’t. As a result, many children who move into District 10 neighborhoods, even across the street from their zoned school, are bused to schools elsewhere in the district. The United Federation of Teachers has a capping regulation in its contract that limits the size of classes, even to the point of removing kids to other schools.
Forcing children out of their neighborhood schools is a form of child abuse that should not be tolerated, particularly when it is so unnecessary. Every discussion of alternatives — schools of choice, vouchers, or any other solution — must start with the absolute right of every child to have a space in his or her neighborhood school. Moreover, it costs thousands of dollars to bus each displaced student, which is an outrageous waste of money.

Regulation A-101 was written at a time when New York City’s schools were much less crowded, and some were actually being closed and abandoned for lack of use. In part, the regulation was designed to promote creative methods of filling empty seats in the underutilized districts.

But what of the children now being forced from their own neighborhood schools? What of the students going to schools that are forced to relinquish art rooms, computer labs, music rooms, and other facilities, maintaining just the bare bones facilities for their local children?

It is common practice to require children to attend school in the district where they live. But all too often the concept of neighborhood schools, which was at the center of the great success New York’s education system once enjoyed, has been casually traded away to fulfill other, non-educational agendas.
For District 10, the return of the out-of-district commuter children to their own neighborhoods would be the equivalent of building three new schools, something that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, on account of a lack of funds.

But maybe the educational bureaucracy has a lot invested in the maintenance of overcrowded conditions. Overcrowding is the catch-all excuse for the ongoing failure to achieve any real gains in performance. For instance, among District 10’s growing student population the number of students admitted to specialized high schools has declined by two-thirds over the last eight years. Why the decline? One could blame overcrowded classrooms, in overcrowded schools, in an overcrowded district. Isn’t that much easier than admitting that our fuzzy math program isn’t working, or that we have been too heavily invested in failing whole language programs?

A report recently released by the citywide Educational Priorities Panel agrees that there is little reason to build more schools in the Bronx. Rather, they advocate better management of the student population to even out the numbers of students between districts.

In short, good management and oversight could solve many of District 10’s capacity problems without so much as the laying of an additional brick. Millions could be saved in transportation expenses. It could all begin if Mr. Klein signed his name to a one paragraph waiver.

But that kind of thinking goes against the old Board of Education ethic, under which inertia rules.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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