Educational Colonialism in NYC

Joel Shatzky Feb 10, 2011

The recent hearing at Brooklyn Tech by the PEP (Panel for Educational Policy that decides on school policies) was notable, if for nothing else, the debut of Cathie Black in her official capacity as the new chancellor of the NYC public schools. The central focus of the three hours in which I attended the hearing involved the co-location of a “selective” school — Millennium Brooklyn — in two of the middle schools of the former John Jay High School located in Park Slope, an upper-income, predominantly White neighborhood in Brooklyn. Although not a “charter school” a “selective school” has high requirements for admission such as at least 3 or 4 on the standardized tests.

Of the fifty or so speakers I heard concerning the co-location, only one advocated for the “selective” and he did so with some serious reservations. What happened was an example of “demockracy inaction”: at the end of the hearing the PEP approved of the “co-location” with only two abstentions.

Among the troubling details revealed at the hearing according to one notable speaker, Jill Bloomberg, principal of the Secondary School for Research, said the John Jay schools have increased their graduation rates from 30 percent to 70 percent in the last few years allowing for those who graduated after summer school, a not unreasonable expectation and a remarkable improvement. During that period, however, according to Principal Bloomberg, the Department of Education has been unresponsive to repeated requests from the school to address such basic needs as repair of leaking roofs, malfunctioning toilets, mould in classrooms contributing to health issues such as asthma, necessary electrical wiring and the need for a new bell system that was finally addressed when Principal Bloomberg affirmed that she took money from her own pocket to replace them.

Now that “the Millennium has arrived,” all sorts of repairing and refurbishing of the school is being promised by the DOE although how much of this largesse will actually be used for the host school and how much for the new school is an open question. Since despite the lack of needed resources the John Jay campus schools have done what they were supposed to do: improve graduation rates, and dramatically, one would think that they would be rewarded by at least maintaining them as they are with the added resources. But the DOE clearly has another agenda; admittedly it is based on a complex situation.

The parents in the Park Slope neighborhood would understandably like to have a local high school to compliment their “high-performance,” predominantly White and Asian elementary school (71 percent) — PS 321. The historical reasons for one school to be composed disproportionately of one ethnic cohort and another of a totally different one — predominantly African American and Latino — at the high school separated by only two city blocks and, it seems might well be in another country, reflect the changes in neighborhood composition as Park Slope became increasingly gentrified. The fact that the John Jay campus is now thriving and could be a good place for all students in the neighborhood to attend makes the move by the DOE even more galling. It is as if the principals, teachers and students are being punished for their success and completely ignored by the DOE would be the opportunity to have a racially and ethnically diverse school with the added resources without “Millennium Brooklyn.”

Jim Brennan, the city councilman representing the district, observed a disparity of over $2300 in per pupil allocation in favor of Millennium Brooklyn in the projected budget over the host school and that those funds could be used to strengthen the school as a whole. Others observed that although it was commendable that there were plans to include a section of the school for children with special needs, specifically autistic children, that the present school could accommodate that program without the planned relocation.
So we are now witnessing the systematic resegregation of the NYC public system done with the same determination that the European colonialists employed on the indigenous populations over a hundred years ago, particularly the doctrine of “divide and conquer.”

Ms. Black’s opening speech itself held little surprise. While she praised the teachers for their hard work, she also gave credit to the Bloomberg Administration’s “dramatic improvements” in the school system with the scripted optimism of an airline attendant on a plane about to crash into the side of a mountain. At least she might have admitted that there were some “problems” with the inconsistent results on the fraudulent standardized tests and that the relatively flat scores of the past decade provide evidence that whatever “reform” the Mayor had initiated is simply not working and needs to be completely re-examined before moving forward to committing more mayhem.

Instead, she repeated the mantra of the need for a standardized core curriculum, a weakening of tenure — as if replacing veteran teachers with younger ones could be a way of improving teacher morale by making the more experienced teachers victims of the “bottom line” approach to personnel management — and raising the possibility that teachers’ pensions might be reduced.

In order to have trust in the judgment of leaders in any system, they must establish some credibility in the face of facts. Ignoring them and pretending that the continuation of destructive practices used to address the problems will improve the situation is no way to show leadership that will be taken seriously. But in the colonial system that NYC public education is becoming with every additional school closing and co-locating that is imposed by a rubber-stamp committee, any expression of opposition to the will of the colonial power is futile. But to end on a note of hope, Chancellor Black has just suspended for a year a program that would have been initiated in the fall concerning special needs children. At least she has conceded that “further study” is needed. Would that she used this approach before sanctioning the “dislocation” of public schools like John Jay.

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

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