Walcott must prove worth by not following footsteps of Bloomberg, Black

An open letter to city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott:

For the past nine years, our schools have been run by a top-down bureaucracy that too often alienates public school parents. To your credit, you have said you want to engage parents and communities more than in the past.

But you have also said you plan to stay the course on the Bloomberg administration’s education policies and practices. I believe you have the background and experience to bring parents into our school system, but I know you will not be able to do it by maintaining the status quo.

I am a public school parent and I have spoken with parents all over our city who are tired of the city Department of Education treating them like problems instead of partners. They are looking for a chancellor who has the independence to bring real change to our school system. To accomplish this goal, I believe you must take on three pressing issues facing our schools today: reforming the DOE’s closed-off, bureaucratic process for closing and co-locating schools; fully supporting the parents of students with disabilities; and saving the more than 4,600 teachers who will be fired under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget.

As our growing student population has required more schools to share space through co-locations, the DOE has resisted listening to parents’ concerns and suggestions at every turn. Last year, my office produced a report exposing how the DOE’s top-down policies left parents out of the process, an approach that can result in critical school spaces being lost and students being squeezed into disjointed schedules. The DOE initially agreed to adopt several of our recommended reforms, including engaging more thoroughly with parents and community members when a school is being considered for co-location or closure, but so far it has not fully followed through.

The Brandeis complex on the Upper West Side houses four schools, including the Frank McCourt high school, which was brought in by the community this past September. Now the DOE is threatening this progress by forcing a new school into the building, a decision that could cost Frank McCourt students their science labs, classroom space and music programs. Going forward, you should be willing to adjust the DOE plans based on legitimate concerns, including finding alternate locations when a co-location does not work.

Every year, the DOE closes and co-locates dozens of schools, upending educational environments for thousands of students. Too often these major decisions are conducted in a vacuum, where the views of parents are treated as an obstacle to implementing policy decisions instead of feedback worth consideration. The DOE nearly shut down PS 114 in Brooklyn after failing to remove its principal, Maria Penaherrera, who had driven the school into debt and reduced its academic performance.

Led by PTA President Crystal King, the parents fought back, joining local elected officials and my office, which produced a report tracing the DOE’s history of ignoring concerns from parents about Penaherrera for years. At the 11th hour the school was saved, but this last-minute reversal would never have been necessary if the DOE had been willing to listen to the PS 114 community from the start. Continuing a policy of closing schools first and asking questions later will only widen the gap between your agency and parents. Instead, I urge you as chancellor to use closure as a last resort, following a real effort to give struggling schools support, including teacher training.

There are more than 165,000 students with disabilities in public schools. Their parents face greater challenges than many others, but instead of being helped by the DOE, they are often forced to fight against its bureaucracy. Elisa Gravitch of Staten Island has a 10-year-old son, Kyle, who is on the autism spectrum. At his elementary school, Kyle was in an autism spectrum disorder NEST program, which creates a balanced and supportive learning environment.

As his elementary education came to an end, Gravitch wanted the DOE to put Kyle in a middle school that would provide the same educational and social supports. But for more than a year the DOE repeatedly ignored or dismissed requests from Gravitch and other parents with children in the program. It took public intervention by local officials and my office for the DOE to finally hear these parents and put their children in the school that best fit their needs.

With everything parents of students with disabilities already have to deal with, it should not take a lobbying campaign for their voices to be heard. Under your leadership, the DOE will be implementing an important reform effort to make all community schools more inclusive to students with disabilities. In order to make these reforms work, you must be more supportive than your predecessor of parents of students with disabilities and willing to take their input.

Finally, the most immediate issue facing our school system today is the mayor’s proposal to fire more than 4,600 teachers. This threat is not a new one. This is the second budget cycle in which the mayor has threatened to eliminate thousands of teachers and then changed his mind seconds before the clock ran out.

But while this year’s budget dynamics make the prospect of serious layoffs more real, the mayor has made it clear that his agenda puts the repeal of last in, first out before everything else. We need a new system for evaluating teachers that accounts for student performance, but prioritizing this political fight over keeping teachers in the classroom is too great a risk to take. You need to show independence from City Hall by working first to stop thousands of teachers from being laid off instead of pursuing the mayor’s political agenda.

You will most likely be the last chancellor of this administration. This is a real opportunity to improve upon Bloomberg’s education legacy and to end the history of tension between parents and our school system. Giving parents a real voice in policy decisions, providing them with the support they need and asking them to contribute to their children’s education will make our schools better. I hope you will join me in working with parents and education stakeholders to make this vision a reality.

Bill de Blasio

City Public Advocate