This parent offered testimony to the Néw York City Council, explaining the incoherence of reform in Néw York City. She described how the Mayor dissolved geographic districts and replaced them with a structure that no one understands, a structure that leaves parents out in the cold. Her comments about the “Children’s First Networks” created by the Bloomberg administration are especially valuable, because the Boston Consulting Group has urged similar networks as a “reform” for the Philadelphia school district. This post explains what Néw York City parents think about these networks.

Please read:

Honorable Robert Jackson
Chair, Education Committee
New York City Council
250 Broadway
New York, NY 10007

November 6, 2012

Dear Chairman Jackson,

Thank you for the opportunity to submit my testimony on the NYC Dept of Education’s networks for school support.

I am a parent of two children in public schools in Manhattan. I have been an active member at my daughters’ schools having served as a PTA officer, an SLT member, and a volunteer environmental educator. I am also the current President of the Community Education Council District 2, although this testimony does not reflect the opinion of the Council.

Since the Mayor took control of the system, organizational structure has changed at least three times. In the process, the old structure based on the 32 community school districts, whose existence is mandated by the State Education Law, has been nearly dismantled, leaving only two people: District Superintendent and the District Family Advocate. The series of reorganizations has made it very difficult for parents to know where they can get assistance beyond their own schools, and created transition periods during which school administrators were unable to figure out where to go for help on anything from enrollment to budgeting. The constant reorganization has also made it nearly impossible to assess the effectiveness of any one organizational structure because none has been in existence long enough for thorough evaluation.

The current organization of Children First Networks is perhaps the worst of all the structures. Schools in a given network or cluster seem to be selected rather randomly. Within a network there may be elementary, middle and high schools from all five boroughs. While my understanding is that principals choose a network to join, the resultant networks still seem to lack cohesion of any kind. Such lack of cohesion makes me wonder how effectively the network leaders can communicate information among the member schools and more importantly how well they can deliver pedagogical support.

Most parents are not aware of the existence or the role of the networks. For those parents who are concerned about issues beyond their schools, such as mandated curriculum, the opaque and unnecessarily complicated organization of networks and clusters makes it extremely difficult for parental involvement. If parents are familiar with the networks, it is unclear how exactly network leaders support their school or to whom they report and how they are supported. In the pre-Mayoral control era, there was a clear line of command: teachers to principals to district superintendents to the Chancellor. Under the current CFN system, principals do not report to the network leaders, who themselves do not seem to report to anyone.

The performance of network leaders also seems highly variable. For instance, during the introduction of the Special Education initiative in spring of 2012, some network leaders were effectively communicating accurate information to principals while others were not disseminating the right information. Ultimately, it was the students with IEPs who suffered from the confusion and the miscommunication. Unfortunately parents were left clueless as to how to improve communication, because they do not know their school’s network leader, who was responsible for miscommunication.

Furthermore, for a network leader to be effective, s/he must be an educator, professional developer, financial manager, and a business manager. In other words, the network system expects network leaders to do everything a district office used to do with a full staff. It is unreasonable to assume we can find a person who can excel in all these areas, not to mention more than a hundred such persons for all the networks. Speaking with principals, I am under the impression that many network leaders are not equipped to manage all the aspects of their jobs well enough for principals to receive the support they need.

Finally Hurricane Sandy illustrated all too well the limitation of the CFN in a disaster. I believe that assessing the damages to the buildings and needs of affected schools, developing plans for relocation, determining closure and reopening of schools, and communicating with principals, teachers and families would have been done much more efficiently if the schools were organized by geography of the community school districts. Our Superintendent in District 2 knows his principals and his schools in the District. In fact, he was in communication with many of the principals and assisted those whose schools lost power or flooded. Our District Family Advocate has the capacity to efficiently communicate with schools in District 2. If the Superintendent were empowered to make decisions regarding schools in his District with consultation directly with the Chancellor, I believe we would have avoided a great deal of confusion and anxiety among families, teachers and principals.

I strongly believe we should return to organizing schools by the community school districts. Grouping schools by geography builds stronger communities among parents and educators alike. I also believe community school district offices should be staffed appropriately beyond the Superintendent and the District Family Advocate to provide support to schools and assistance to families. We need an organization that makes sense, easy to grasp, and most of all builds a stronger community.

Thank you.
Shino Tanikawa