Focus on Fixing the Schools: Social Promotion

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When Jeanne Kassler’s sons were still in elementary school at P.S. 6 in Manhattan, she started to think about the paths they would take through school as they got older. From parents with bigger children, Kassler knew about the difficult choices she would have to make-whether to keep her kids in public school, whether to help her children apply to gifted middle school programs, and whether to push her sons to strive for spots in the city’s best public high schools, like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

The complicated choices spread out before her seemed imperfect. Kassler herself had gone to Hunter, one of the city’s most competitive high schools, but she did not like the idea of sending her kids through gifted programs. “That’s a way of letting the system off the hook-they’re escape hatches,” Kassler says. “You have a few jewels in the crown. But there’s something profoundly wrong with the system if you have a few gifted programs and the rest is unacceptable.”

Instead, she hoped to see the neighborhood graced with the kind of school families might find in the suburbs: a solid academic high school, big enough to support sports teams and drama clubs, but small enough so that bright, B-plus students like her own kids would not get lost.

That year, 1997, Kassler befriended another parent at P.S. 6, Melanie Cissone. The two started talking with each other about the dismal quality of high schools in their neighborhood. Then they began thinking about how to convince the board to build a remedy: an entirely new high school specifically for kids from the Upper East Side.

Kassler is a physician; Cissone is a freelance writer. And so they wrote a 40-page report, using school report card data from the Board of Ed’s web site, to make their case. “I guess we just knew how to investigate,” says Cissone.

They knew that parent pressure could get results. That same year, the Board of Ed had agreed to open Baruch College High School, in response to earlier demands from East Side parents. But that school was to be tiny, just 400 students from all over Community School District 2, and would base its admissions on a bell curve, mixing a selection of high- and low-performing students. Cissone and Kassler wanted their school to guarantee a spot for every kid on the Upper East Side who sought one.

So the duo put on what they called a “traveling road show” for elementary school PTAs, focusing their presentations on the chaotic high school admissions process the parents would soon face. Their audiences were shocked to learn that the application process does not guarantee admission to even a single choice a child lists. And that schools are required to admit “top 2-percenters,” so that in some high-performing schools like Baruch, every slot for kids in the top 16 percent on tests scores is filled by kids with the very highest test scores in the city. Many schools won’t even consider a student who hasn’t listed that school as a first choice, so most kids in the top 16 percent waste their first choice if they naively list a school like Baruch first.

Admissions horror stories like these abound, and Cissone and Kassler became experts of sorts. Even now, parents are still calling them for help, like the one who emailed Cissone in April: Her child, in the top 3 percent of her class at a public school in Brooklyn, had been rejected by every high school she applied to.

Their expertise was hard-won. With two other PTA leaders, the women formed a cadre that devoted as many as 20 hours each week to their cause. They built a web site and sent out email bulletins detailing upcoming candidate events and political forums, to which parents then turned out in droves, demanding a neighborhood school.

Their goal only came in sight once Rep. Carolyn Maloney organized a forum in January 2001 that was attended by every political leader from the neighborhood. It culminated with a promise that the school would be built. Maloney convened a task force that included Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, Assemblymembers John Ravitz, Steve Sanders, and Peter Grannis, then-State Senator Roy Goodman, Board of Education member Irving Hamer, and Councilmember (now Speaker) Gifford Miller.

But a school wasn’t theirs yet. In November 2001, Moskowitz sent a letter to Upper East Side parents and PTAs. “Dear Fellow Parent,” her letter began. “The East Side High School for which you and I have worked so hard is in grave danger…. For the last 30 years, the Board of Ed has been promising us a quality academic high school for our kids. We cannot let this promise go unfulfilled.” Moskowitz feared that unless at least 50 parents showed up for the meeting, the resolution would not pass.

She was right to worry. Moskowitz had found a space for the school, in an old Sotheby’s warehouse, and the money needed to renovate it, $16.5 million in City Council appropriations. But the District 2 board refused to consider opening the East Side school for Upper East Siders alone.

For the local board to approve the school, the parents would have to agree that their school would admit, by competitive application, students not only from the Upper East Side but from throughout District 2, which includes Chinatown, Kips Bay and parts of the West Side and Lower East Side-neighborhoods considerably more diverse, racially and economically, than the area immediately surrounding the school.

“I thought zoning this as a neighborhood school set up an us-versus-them mentality, and I wasn’t supportive of that,” says Moskowitz now. “The district serves a mixed population, and any kid who wants to learn Latin or A.P. calculus should have that opportunity.”

Some parents were perfectly happy with a district-wide student body. “We were not married to just an Upper East Side high school,” says Jennifer Greenblatt, one of the four parent leaders.

But Cissone and Kassler, along with a minority of other parents, refused to compromise. They wanted a school for the neighborhood, and they had not spent five years agitating for a high school that their own children might not even be able to get into.

Moskowitz and the board prevailed. The school will open in September for high schoolers throughout District 2; its admissions formula favors kids who are at or above average on eighth grade standardized tests.

Cissone is still bitter about what she considers a betrayal. “The problem is that no elected official is willing to take a stand on a neighborhood high school-we’re too white. To get reelected, they didn’t back us-they backed what they wanted,” she says, stressing that all she wants is a school with strong academics. “This is about community and neighborhood, and a lot of parents would like to see neighborhood schools throughout the city. That’s the way it used to be. And what’s wrong with that?”

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Though they didn’t get exactly what they sought, the East Side parents were victorious in a way they might never have expected. The energies they put into demanding a quality high school are a powerful sign of a long prayed-for resurgence of interest in New York’s public schools among the middle and even upper classes.

Parents on the East Side and in other affluent neighborhoods have been able to make a strong case that, after years of abandoning the city’s public schools, they are newly committed to public education. This is a message the Board of Education wants to hear. When middle-class parents fled the city’s public schools beginning in the 1960s, much of the political clout needed to force state and city politicians to adequately fund the system went with them.

These parents already have shown their dedication by contributing time and money to the PTAs at their children’s elementary and middle schools. They’ve raised substantial amounts of private cash through fundraisers, matching grant programs and appropriations from local elected officials. In 2000, the 20 most active parent associations in the city raised about $3.8 million.

The power wielded by higher-income parents could bring about meaningful change in a system whose constituency of poor families has consistently been denied adequate resources. “Upper-middle-class families that once moved to the suburbs are now staying in the city to raise children, and putting pressure on the public school system to accommodate their kids. I think that’s a good thing,” says Clara Hemphill, a project director for the group Advocates for Children, which acts to promote the interests of poor children in the schools. “It’s significant that parents with political clout can force changes that disenfranchised parents cannot.”

Irving Hamer, Manhattan’s representative on the Board of Education, concurs that the Upper East Side campaign is an important watershed for the public schools. “I think this is a good thing, and important for the system to respond and respond well,” he says, insisting that the successes of middle-class parents will pave the way for other, less powerful constituencies to get the same results. The East Side parents, he says, “made exactly the same noise that parents in central Brooklyn, central Harlem, and other neighborhoods make. It will be hard for the City Council to say, ‘We figured it out for the East Side, but not for any place else.'”

The City Council appears to agree. In April, in its budget response to Mayor Bloomberg, the council proposed not only restoring $344 million in cuts to the Board of Education’s budget, but adding an unprecedented $5 billion commitment to constructing new schools and fixing old ones, to be paid for by that most politically hazardous of measures: a new tax levy. Of that, $1.5 billion would go to build new high schools. The mayor immediately called the plan “not responsible,” arguing it would drive taxpayers out of the city.

Appealing directly to middle-class concerns, Council Speaker Gifford Miller insisted that the tax would do just the opposite. “We have got to keep our middle class, we have got to attract businesses, and we believe that the way to do that, first and foremost, is to have an outstanding public education system,” he said at an April press conference at an overcrowded Queens elementary school. Miller, who has just two more years before he is term-limited off the council, is wagering that the political power of investing so tremendously in education outweighs the risks of alienating taxpayers.

The City Council and Mayor Bloomberg do agree on one thing: Fixing the city’s broken schools is a top political priority. Elected officials are keenly aware that poor education is the number-one force driving prosperous New York families out of the city, much as rampant crime was in the 1980s. Parents who stayed put when the city became safer are now faced with three crummy choices: move to the suburbs, pay for private school or consign their kids to an education they consider mediocre.

Assemblymember Sanders wants to see the city launch a crusade for decent education, much as it once waged a war on crime. In the late 1980s, New York launched Safe Streets, Safe City, raising taxes to put 10,000 more police on the streets and improve crime-fighting technology. “Crime dropped precipitously; people stayed in the city,” notes Sanders, who chairs the Assembly’s education committee and is negotiating the terms under which Mayor Bloomberg might take control of the city’s schools. “The cutting-edge issue today is education, and we ought to look carefully at what we did 10 years ago. We did invest, it did have results, and it did ultimately attract more people to the city. That’s a lesson for education.” The only way to improve those schools, Sanders believes, is to increase per-pupil spending: This year, the city spent $8,500 per student, compared to between $13,000 and $18,000 in nearby suburbs.

Sanders and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver don’t plan on forcing Mayor Bloomberg to approve the council’s tax increase proposal as a condition for the mayor’s takeover of the city’s schools. But Assemblymember Roger Green, chair of the Black, Hispanic and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, says that that’s a big mistake. “We could only support restructuring if we get a restoration of cuts,” he says-and putting that money back in the city budget, Green adds, would require a tax increase. “We’re encouraged by the City Council’s tax surcharge.”

This April, the parents protesting the mayor’s budget cuts at City Hall didn’t just come from Green’s Crown Heights district; residents of the East Side and other upscale neighborhoods are now putting their clout behind the same cause, a development that has opened up these intensely local campaigns to a more citywide focus. Whether neighborhood groups with disparate agendas will coalesce into a popular movement for reinvestment in public schools-with enough force to convince Mayor Bloomberg to reconsider his stand against tax hikes, or to propel the City Council to override a veto-will become clearer during this month’s city budget showdown.

So far, though, most parents have found it easier to pick small fights than embrace a broader reform agenda. “Our point is to find an educational solution for our kids,” says Jeanne Kassler. “I don’t know how to fix the problem. I’m not an educator.”

If anything, events until now have shown that without careful mediation, affluent parents’ outrage has more power to divide neighborhoods than it does to unite them. Hemphill, for one, is concerned that the political struggles surrounding each new school represent lost opportunities for parents to agitate for meaningful changes citywide. “Unfortunately, the movement of middle class parents for good public high schools has not coalesced into an interracial, interclass struggle,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s an us-against-them situation.”

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In 1991, Kathy Dunne moved to Riverdale, setting up her structural engineering firm on Delafield Avenue and moving into a new home with her son, Colin. The location was ideal. For work, she needed to travel to New York’s suburbs and throughout the city, and it was easy to jump on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

For 14-year old Colin, she knew the schools would be good, and he thrived in them. But many Riverdale parents regarded M.S. 141 as middling, and the high school choices only looked worse. If spending $10,000 a year on private school was not typically an option, neither was the high school “zoned” for residents of their neighborhood, John F. Kennedy, where just 36 percent of the Class of 2001 passed their Regents English exams.

Riverdale parents have long clustered their kids into a small number of high-performing high schools, particularly Bronx Science, where admission is now more competitive than ever. Last year, more than 20,000 kids took the test for Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech; only about 2,500 got in. Similarly, Townsend Harris, in Queens, and Midwood High School, in Brooklyn, get nearly 10 times the number of applicants they can accept.

Dunne watched her friends make tough decisions. When Todd Rubenstein’s daughter reached high school, the choice fell between Dewitt Clinton, a nearby, zoned school with a small, highly regarded honors program, and Townsend Harris, a highly selective high school in Queens. She chose Townsend Harris, cutting what would have been a two-hour morning commute to half an hour by taking an airport limousine each day.

In Riverdale, though, the demands for neighborhood schools started not with parents but with Andy Wolf, publisher of the combative Riverdale Review. Wolf was provoked by an article in the New York Times that traced the Metro North commutes of Riverdale kids to suburban public schools, which they paid tuition to attend. Wolf believed that Riverdale parents would keep their kids in the public schools if the neighborhood had its own high school. He also believed the middle school was part of the problem. M.S. 141 drew from Riverdale, Kingsbridge and the very poor community of Marble Hill. Its reading and math scores were good, but not stellar. And it was 85 percent minority.

Wolf, who sent his own children to private school, believed M.S. 141 needed more white students to be attractive to white parents. “That’s called the tipping point,” Wolf says. “Parents, very liberal parents, were pulling their kids out of the schools.”

Wolf formulated a plan. Add a high school wing to M.S. 141, he thought, and set the southern boundary of its catchment area at 231st Street. This measure, not incidentally, excluded about 200 black and Latino students from 141, who live in the Marble Hill housing projects. Those kids, he decided, could go to a new middle school that the Board of Ed had already authorized the district to build nearby to alleviate district overcrowding. In February 1997, Wolf approached the PTAs of Riverdale’s elementaries, P.S. 24 and P.S. 81, seeking support.

Kathy Dunne didn’t like the proposal at all. Instead of encouraging Riverdale parents to try to improve the achievement of 141’s poorest kids, she felt, the plan would allow them to circumvent the problems of both 141 and Kennedy. “It’s more valuable to spend your time benefiting 5,000 students than 150,” she says. Marble Hill parents had even harsher words for Wolf’s proposal: They called it plot to shift the poorest kids out of a racially mixed school with experienced teachers and a strong academic reputation.

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But most Riverdale parents embraced Wolf’s plan. Randi Martos, a third-generation Riverdale resident who had attended 141 as a child and was the Parents Association president of P.S. 24, had seen many friends move away. She believed the neighborhood ties would deepen if parents felt the schools were good enough so that they could stay. Martos and other P.S. 24 parents were sure the district administrators and school board would gladly support a neighborhood school, too. “Back in 1997, I was just a parent volunteer. We said, ‘Oh, sure, let’s do it,'” she recalls. “No one knew what we were in for.”

In March, at a crowded meeting, parents tried to convince District 10 administrators to support the plan. The board members listened but made no promises. Undaunted, PTA parents started writing letters to the board and enlisted Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz as an outspoken supporter of their cause. Wolf used his newspaper as a stump, writing article after article in support of the school. The Association of Riverdale Coops, whose property owners would benefit if good schools succeeded in improving demand for the neighborhood, supported the plan as well. And at school board meetings, the parents came out in force.

In truth, the school board vehemently opposed the parents’ plan. School board president Charles Williams later railed against the proposal, saying the redistricting would turn 231st Street into “a Mason-Dixon line” and accusing the parents of class bias informed by racism. “They didn’t want kids from the Marble Hill housing projects,” Williams says. “They created a two-tier system in District 10, one for the affluent and one for the very poor.”

Martos and other parents were shocked by the critics’ attacks. “We were accused of a lot of things,” says Martos. She points out that no school in Riverdale is more than 50 percent white and that her family lives in an apartment, not a million-dollar home.

But Dunne was not surprised. As school leadership team president at 141, she helped plan the new high school and was troubled by a pervasive bias she perceived in private meetings. “Too many times people would say, ‘Our grades will go up because we don’t have those people dragging us down,'” she says.

The school board, led by Williams, rejected the plan. Rather than give in to the Riverdale parents’ demands, the board actually turned down the Board of Ed’s funding for the new middle school. And for a moment, it seemed, the case was closed.

But the parents, the Co-op Board and Dinowitz outmaneuvered the school board. “They spit in the face of the parents and attacked the community. We said, ‘If you don’t respond to the needs of the community, they’re going to throw you out of office,” recalls Dinowitz. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

The parents approached former state Attorney General Oliver Koppell, now the neighborhood’s City Council representative. He agreed to spearhead a slate of candidates for the school board. Voter turnout for those elections usually is weak, but about 8,500 Riverdale residents turned out, winning every seat their candidates ran for. The new board immediately approved both the school and Wolf’s zoning plan.

Martos, who now works for Dinowitz, says she plans to send her 7th grader to the high school, which opened last September. “It’s quite a relief knowing he has somewhere to go. There’s no pressure or panic to be studying for the Bronx Science tests,” Martos says. “And they are neighborhood children, so I’m sure it will be happy, secure, safe.”

Construction of the new middle school for kids south of 231st Street has been held up by environmental problems, but its $85.5 million facility is slated to open in the fall of 2003. Thanks largely to the influence of one of the new school board members, Cordell Schachter, M.S. 368 already has exceeded Marble Hill parents’ expectations at its temporary location within M.S. 141. It focuses on technology-every child carries a free laptop computer-and operates on a tightly crafted curriculum. Schachter devised a 25-student swap, by lottery, so kids from 141’s district can attend 368 and vice-versa. “Someone had to have the energy, political capital, patience to help out an area that’s not as politically active,” Schachter says.

To Omar Reynoso, a quiet kid who likes to tinker on the computer, 368 looked better than 141, which he was zoned to attend. “Mommy, this is a tech school-let me get in there,” he told his mother, Milagros. She entered him in the lottery; now, he proudly pulls out his laptop every night to do a heavy homework load.

Many 368 parents are still troubled, though, by the rezoning. “Up there, there’s a lot of people that really make money,” says PTA president Zoraida Burgos, who lives in the Marble Hill Houses. “Since we’re from this side of the tracks, they want to get rid of the kids from over here.” They don’t understand why their kids are now going to a school that’s even more segregated than 141. Ninety percent of their students are black and Latino, and 88 percent quality for free lunch. “Not that I’m saying 141 is better than 368, but what I’m saying is, it was a mixture of blacks, whites and Latinos.” (M.S. 141 is 72 percent black and Latino, 17 percent white.)

But they are even more mystified why the Riverdale parents want to come back to the public schools at all. “You think if I had money I would send my kids to the public schools?” Burgos asks. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody in their right mind would.”

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The Board of Education first did away with neighborhood high schools in the 1960s and gradually instituted citywide choice, with the intention of granting poor and minority kids access to the city’s highest-quality schools. At the time, “neighborhood schools” was a catchphrase that white parents used to fight forced busing and desegregation.

Indeed, a return to local high schools would suggest an invitation to segregation. New York City couldn’t be much worse in that regard. It already has the most segregated schools in the nation, according to a study by Gary Orfield at Harvard’s Civil Rights Project. The city’s schools are 85 percent minority. To desegregate its schools, New York City needs more white students to attend them.

John Jay High School, in Park Slope, was typical of zoned schools. Though located in a mostly white area, John Jay was less than 5 percent white. With almost 3,000 students, it was stuffed well past capacity. Out of an entering class of 1,400, only about 230 made it to senior year within four years. In 2001, not a single student scored in the top 15 percent on English Regents; only 6 percent did that well on the math. Police incidents were nearly three times more frequent than at other city schools.

Few parents from the district-encompassing Park Slope, Sunset Park, Red Hook and Cobble Hill-sent their kids there. But three years ago, parents heard at a District 15 meeting that Chancellor Levy had suggested to the district board’s then-president, Mark Peters, that John Jay become a neighborhood school. “Parents were saying, ‘If this happened, we’d send our kids.’ ‘This’ meaning involvement of District 15, local management and the local politicians. They were willing to be sending their kids in care of these people,” says Marge Raphaelson, a former PTA president at Park Slope’s P.S. 321 who served on the task force that revamped John Jay.

The former John Jay High School was reborn last fall as the home of a pair of higher-performing middle schools; along with John Jay’s existing law program, they now extend up through high school, too. The New School for Law, Journalism and Research operates with a somewhat utopian hope: that it will be good enough to attract bright kids, without an exclusive entrance formula.

To Raphaelson, the school seemed ideal. Even before she moved from Kensington to Park Slope, Raphaelson had picked the middle school for her son because the teachers were a cohesive group, chosen for their dedication to the school’s philosophy, and the long seminars with a single teacher kept class size small. Her son thrived. When the school took its first ninth grade class last year, Raphaelson imagined that he would soon join them. “I have confidence in the programs. It seems silly to leave when they have the same high standards, the same leadership,” she said back in October.

She also looked forward to forming its school leadership team and using it to leverage the kind of financial support that had helped P.S. 321 achieve its excellence. At 321, the PTA is an incorporated nonprofit, which raised $236,110 in 2000. “We do every fundraiser you could name. We get public grants from our state senators. We ask for matching grants, and a big chunk of our money comes from that. We make tons of money over there,” Raphaelson says. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Last year, that money paid for a working artist to teach a 12-week studio art program to every class in the school. It paid for copy paper, a photocopier, a drinking fountain, a computer consultant, an art consultant to work with classroom teachers, a music teacher, and some AV equipment for the auditorium, says Kelly Hayes, the current co-president, who donates 20 to 30 hours each week to the school. “That’s the kind of thing we can do for John Jay, now that it’s back in the neighborhood. We owe it all kinds of support-money, collaboration, resources,” Raphaelson says. That’s the power well-connected and involved parents wield.

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When Eva Moskowitz had to find $16.5 million to build the Upper East Side school, the task wasn’t as hard as it might seem. The City Council already had set aside $150 million in funds for new school construction, money it typically turns over to the Board of Ed as a lump sum. Moskowitz convinced her colleagues to commit the funds to individual projects instead. With the help of fellow Upper East Side rep Gifford Miller and then-speaker Peter Vallone, the council created a special fund, allocating not only $16.5 million to the Upper East Side high school, but up to $35 million to build a new school in each of the other boroughs.

For the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, the money was a godsend. For five years, this community group in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood had been running a small bilingual English/Spanish school within another school building. It had no cafeteria, no gym and no playground. Cypress Hills developed a proposal for the school’s development, found a site, performed necessary environmental studies and worked with an architect to design the facility-all on its own dollar. Still, despite vocal parent and political support, years of conversations between the Board of Ed and Cypress Hills LDC had yielded nothing. Without the Upper East Side council members’ initiative, “I don’t think it would be being built,” says Ray Adkins, director of community development at the organization.

For more than three years, community development groups had been meeting with the Board of Ed, trying to codify a process for nonprofits to create new schools. New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy and the Citywide School Construction Leasing Group have made the case that these nonprofits build small schools quickly and economically. “Even that group couldn’t quite crack it,” notes Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, the city’s largest organizer of low-income parents. ACORN is already in the school-building business, starting three new high schools since 1996. But the ACORN School for Social Justice, which is supposed to serve Bushwick and Bed-Stuy students, has been operating out of a temporary space in downtown Brooklyn since 1999. Its building won’t be finished until fall 2003. A fourth ACORN high school, in the South Bronx, has been in the works for eight years.

Maria Polanco, a Dominican immigrant, has been meeting about the Bronx school almost every week for the past four years. Invited to an ACORN meeting a decade ago by a friend, Polanco was surprised by the chance to speak up. She had a lot to say. Her oldest daughter was then in first grade and, unlike most kids in her class, had learned at home to read, write and do simple math. Polanco watched with dismay as her daughter grew bored, learning almost nothing in school, and she became increasingly angry as many of her daughter’s classmates failed to learn to read. When she saw the math that nieces and nephews were doing in 8th grade, Polanco was unnerved. “That was third grade math in the D.R.,” she says. That year, Polanco and her husband made a decision to scrimp in order to send their two daughters to Catholic school. But the rest of the kids in her family go to public schools. “That’s why I fight,” Polanco says.

Like the Upper East Side activists, Polanco and the other ACORN parents first wrote a report documenting the failings of local high schools and making a case for the ACORN high school. It would be small, with only 400 kids, and focus on community justice. The parents went to PTA meetings and stood outside schools in the morning, giving out fliers and T-shirts and copies of the report. They sent the report to local politicians, inviting them to a forum. “It was very hard for us to meet with [ex-chancellor] Rudy Crew, and we wanted [the elected officials] to write a letter to him asking him to receive us and listen to our concerns,” Polanco says. Only Public Advocate Mark Green came, and he wrote the letter; the parents soon scored a meeting with Deputy Chancellor Judy Rizzo. But those conversations seemed to go nowhere. “They only say, ‘We don’t have the budget,'” says Polanco. Now they’re trying to convince the development group New Visions for Public Schools to sponsor ACORN’s South Bronx school.

But while grassroots reform can be glacial, Bertha Lewis says the current funding crisis is propelling a new urgency, and a new force for the schools: Parents from across the city, who first came together to improve education in their own neighborhoods, have begun to