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A Passionate Talk With Our Schools Chancellor

It was amazing to me that our schools chancellor Joel Klein was the same person I knew 25 years ago. He and I met during the Willowbrook Wars. He was one of the attorneys in the infamous federal class action lawsuit. It changed forever the way people who are mentally retarded are treated. It insured that there would be funding streams for group homes and day programs. It also became the model for other states nationwide.
I knew the power of successful class action suits. So, I had been following closely the federal class action lawsuit on behalf of the school children in the city.
On a frigid winter Friday afternoon I visited the chancellor at Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street. It is just behind City Hall. First, I must tell you, the building is gorgeous! I know you usually use such a word for a woman, but this building rates it. The pillared exterior has a majestic 50-step granite staircase leading to gigantic carved wooden doors. The stately building has two active neon signs of walking figures on each side of the building that made me smile. It really makes you stop and wonder what’s up these steps.
Well, after taking the pyramid-like steps (there is an elevator on the ground level), I went through a security check (they made me leave my pen knife, attached to my keys, with them). I was met by Chancellor Klein’s press office representative. We walked past an amazing 54-foot-tall Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, standing imposingly and dramatically in the four-story central atrium. It was loaned to the Department of Education for $1 a year. There are tours you can take of the building. Simply call 311 for a tour of the Tweed Courthouse and City Hall.
We had our interview in the first floor of City Hall Academy which was created to serve 200 elementary and middle school students.
The chancellor, with pride in his voice, immediately took me to the map drawn on the rubberized floor. He said, “Show me where you live.” It was pretty easy to find, but I must admit I was delighted that they had a space for Bay Terrace, which is in Bayside, and rarely noted separately.
After chatting about “old times” from the ’70s, I asked the chancellor what he expected would result from the city schools’ class action lawsuit. I was thrilled to learn that he expects the $5.6 billion for programs and $9.2 billion for capital construction to become a reality and be available over a number of years.
Of course I asked him his wish list for the money and I must admit, having been a teacher for seven years, was thrilled by his answers.
I asked him bluntly, why he took on such an enormous challenge after having a successful legal career.
He earnestly answered, “Education changed my life. I grew up poor in the Woodside Housing Projects in Queens. It was my education that set me up for the career I had. I don’t mind taking on wars. I call this the “Education Wars.'”
He hopes to remain chancellor and see the mayor re-elected to enact his plans.
He bluntly said, “If we’re going to succeed with our changes, we need teachers who are led by great principals. We must build trust for the changes with the parents, the principals and the teachers,” he explained. “They are all part of a team. These kids are our lives. They must be supported and respected.”
With the recent announcements of the closing of many parochial schools, I asked Klein if he is considering buying or leasing the closed schools. He enthusiastically said, “Yes. I’ve met with the Bishop and now our teams are working out the details. We’ll take everything they have and make them ready for school in September. Where we need to, we’ll bring in the school construction teams and make any renovations necessary.”
With the huge diversity of Queens, I asked him how he expects to meet the language communication problem.
He adamantly stated, “Every child must be taught English and the families work with us.” He added that he respects the multiple languages of parents. He has increased the number of translators and interpreters available to parents. Bi-lingual literacy classes for parents are available and encouraged all over the city.
He concluded our meeting by saying, “It’s been the greatest 2-1/2 years of my life. I’m proud of the leadership training Program for principals, the creation of parent coordinators in every school and the structural changes in the system.”
He repeated his belief that, “I’d love to do this job for four more years. You don’t change jockeys in the middle of the race.”
I think he takes seriously his war on education – there are so many children’s lives at stake. I hope he succeeds. He’s a warrior from the streets of Queens with a mayor as passionate as he is. It doesn’t get better than that!

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