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.
Many of the moves have angered teachers and parents, who complain that the Bloomberg administration operates schools like a corporation with heavy-handed, top-down management.
Elected community school boards that had helped shape decisions in vastly different neighborhoods were abolished. Teachers who were once free to develop creative lesson plans were told to teach a uniform curriculum that focused on reading and math at the expense of history, art and science.
In a move that drew particular ire, students were banned from bringing cellphones to school, to the chagrin of many parents who wanted to be able to reach their children in an emergency.
"I truly believe it has been a terrible experience," said Leonie Haimson, a parent activist who led the letter-writing campaign to parents in Los Angeles. Bloomberg and Klein "have used the takeover to have complete dictatorial powers over our schools. They do not listen to anyone. They are not accountable to anyone."
Bloomberg compares running the school system to directing other city agencies, such as police or health care, where decisions do not require approval from advisory boards or parent committees. The parent coordinator Klein hired for every school is enough, he said.
"Parents know about their kids, but they're not professional educators," he said.
"There is no reason to think they should be designing a school system or running a school system. Do you want parents to make medical decisions? I don't think so."
The potential loss of parental input was a major reason the 2004 bid by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to take over schools failed. But Fenty believes he has a mandate.
"In all eight wards [of his primary campaign], people said, 'Fenty, do something about the schools,' " he said.
In New York, Bloomberg and Klein, who lead the Justice Department's victorious antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, wasted no time. Klein took over in August 2002 and began major reforms after studying the system for four months with consultants.
"The incrementalists and status-quo-ists are not going to get us where we need to go," Klein said. "The way it worked under the old structure, everybody's for change, everybody wants to improve the school system, but a lot of people don't like this change or that change because their ox is gored."
When they met resistance, Bloomberg and Klein hardly slowed down. In 2004, they proposed ending social promotion -- the practice of moving unprepared students to the next grade level in the hope that peers would keep them engaged.
The city's Panel on Education Policy, an appointed committee that replaced the school board and approves major policy decisions, balked. No matter: Bloomberg dismissed two members he had appointed, orchestrated the removal of another and got his way.
That move outraged stakeholders who believed Bloomberg had walled off healthy dialogue.
"The biggest mistake Bloomberg made is that because he was given control by the state legislature and elected by the public, he thought he had all the answers," said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College who serves on an advisory panel to Klein.
Bloomberg does not apologize.
"Control means control," he said. "If what you want is something where the mayor sits there and says, 'I'm at the top of the tree, but no one has to listen to me,' that's not control."
Perhaps no change has been as dramatic as the development of the small high schools. Bloomberg and Klein tapped a $100 million donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to rapidly expand the program.
Students are selected through a lottery. Because of space limitations and enrollment caps at about 108 students per grade level, many are turned away.
At the Evander Childs building, located in a low-income neighborhood, each of the six schools has its own principal, teachers and classrooms.
Early signs are promising: At one of the schools last year, 56 of 60 students graduated.
On the fourth floor of the building is the Bronx Lab School. Founded three years ago by Marc Sternberg, a Harvard Business School graduate, the school houses 300 students in grades 9 through 11 and will add a 12th grade next year.
Sternberg, 33, who spent three years teaching in a Bronx middle school, was working for a charter school company when he was tapped to be a principal by a nonprofit group helping Klein solicit proposals for small schools.
Along with friends and colleagues in his Upper West Side apartment, Sternberg dreamed up a school "where we convey to students the importance of hard work and get them out of their comfort zone to try new things and prepare for the next step, which we think should be college."
To that end, Bronx Lab School sends students on a week-long camping trip, offers twice-a-week internships with private companies, and integrates math and science to promote practical applications of the curricula.
Sternberg has told Klein that he intends to graduate 90 percent of his students. He had better deliver: About 330 principals have been granted more autonomy this year by Klein in exchange for promising to meet rigorous performance goals. If they fail, they risk losing their jobs.
"Bring it on," Sternberg said. "If I'm not prepared to meet expectations the city has for me, I shouldn't be doing the job."
This accountability is the point, Bloomberg said, changing a culture of patronage.
But education historian Diane Ravitch, who has studied New York's system for years, noted that the vast majority of students remain on campuses that are growing ever more crowded as the new small schools get dibs on coveted classroom space.
"Most large schools are in far worse shape," she said. "Everybody is looking for the magic thing, but the problems don't change: lots of kids in poverty, no support structure at home."
Four years into the transformation, the Bloomberg administration has hailed gains on standardized tests, particularly for third- and fifth-graders. But others point to stagnant results in other categories, such as high school graduation and attendance rates and eighth-grade achievement.
Bloomberg scoffs at the notion that the public is unhappy, pointing to his reelection last year:
"The public wants a mayor who stands up and says, 'This is what I believe and this is why I believe it. I was elected the mayor, and this is what we're going to do. See me in four years, and if you don't like it, throw me out.' "