NYC School Takeover Inspires Fenty, but Critics Abound

At Bronx Lab School, one of six small schools sharing a building in New York, Kari Ostrem helps Christopher Rodriguez with a Chinese lesson.
At Bronx Lab School, one of six small schools sharing a building in New York, Kari Ostrem helps Christopher Rodriguez with a Chinese lesson. (Helayne Seidman -- TWP)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006

NEW YORK -- For years, Evander Childs High School in the Bronx epitomized the problems with this city's failing public education system. With more than 3,500 students, the four-story building was crowded, the classes were unruly and the graduation rate was 31 percent.

Now, three years into a dramatic restructuring, it has been divided to house six small schools. On different floors, students are learning in more intimate environments -- with such themes as aerospace, communications and health. Discipline has improved, and more students are graduating, teachers say.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hails Evander Childs as an example of what is possible when a city's chief executive takes a hands-on approach to school reform. In 2002, Bloomberg abolished the Board of Education, took direct control of the 1.1 million-student system and named a former Justice Department lawyer as schools chancellor.

Bloomberg's plan is a prototype for D.C. Democratic mayoral nominee Adrian M. Fenty, who has spoken admiringly of the speed and breadth of New York City school reform. Fenty, who plans to meet here today with Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, suggests he will move quickly to take control of the District's struggling system next year. Fenty is all but guaranteed to win the Nov. 7 election; three-quarters of registered voters are Democrats.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the nation's largest school system is an applicable model for the District, which has 58,000 public school students.

Furthermore, not everyone in New York is thrilled about Bloomberg's approach, saying he has created model schools at the expense of others, which have faced further crowding and discipline problems. When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa visited Bloomberg in the spring to seek advice for his own takeover bid, 40 New York parents and educators wrote an open letter to their L.A. counterparts urging them to oppose the effort.

Bloomberg has little patience for his critics, insisting that he has broken through the "politics of paralysis" that stymies turf-oriented school boards.

"When mayors don't have control, take a look at any of these big-city school systems, and I don't think you want to continue that. Anything is better," Bloomberg said in a recent interview at Gracie Mansion. "My advice to Fenty is, 'Look, do everything right away. Beg for forgiveness, but not for permission. Just do it.' "

Mayoral takeovers are not new. Chicago's Richard M. Daley (D), with whom Fenty will meet on Thursday, gained control of schools a decade ago. Nor are takeovers all the same; Boston's Thomas M. Menino (D) got results through his authority to appoint the members of the school board.

But ever since Bloomberg persuaded the legislature to award him full control in 2002 -- the provision is due to expire in 2009 -- more mayors are taking stronger action, said Kenneth W. Wong, professor of education policy at Brown University.

"They want to use education to improve the quality of life and as a long-term investment to turn cities around," Wong said.

What Bloomberg and Klein will describe to Fenty is a massive overhaul in which they rolled out more than 170 small high schools with fewer than 450 students apiece. They streamlined the central administration, transforming 32 school districts into 10 regions and slashing $200 million from the budget, largely by eliminating administrative positions. They created a principals' academy to train administrators, using $75 million in private donations, and established rigorous performance standards for educators.

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