Marc Epstein taught at Jamaica High School in Queens, New York City, for many years. The school is under a death sentence, which means the end of many programs that served children with different needs. Here he makes a plea to Mayor de Blasio to save some of the doomed schools.
A De Blasio Clemency?
This is the time of year that governors and the president issue pardons and clemencies. They are issued to prisoners who have either been exemplary citizens during their incarceration or set free because extenuating circumstances indicate that their punishment didn’t fit the crime.
Mayors aren’t granted this kind of executive power, but this year Bill De Blasio does have the executive power to call a halt to the systematic elimination of several of New York’s comprehensive high schools that have had their fate sealed by Michael Bloomberg’s school closing policy.
Ostensibly, these school closings were to result in improved student performance in small schools that were placed within buildings occupied by the traditional high schools. It was an idea hatched by Bill Gates, an idea that he abandoned long ago.
In the waning days of his mayoralty, Bloomberg has embarked on a citywide tour, touting his legacy. The papers have dutifully transmitted City Hall’s talking points, with hardly a demurral finding its way onto the printed page.
The Wall Street Journal’s 3,000 word “Bloomberg Reshaped The City” article credited the record high 60% high school graduation to Bloomberg’s stewardship of the schools and politely left out the inconvenient statistic that shows a record high number of New York’s high school graduates are unprepared for college and require remedial courses in math and English.
In an interview with Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s schools chancellor for over 10 years, that appeared in the Scholastic Administrator, Klein expressed his hope that the next schools chancellor will continue Bloomberg’s education legacy.
If only Mayor De Blasio will pick “someone who is committed to building on the progress of the last 11- plus years,” Klein’s tenure won’t have been in vain, at least according to Klein.
If that should be the case, we should prepare for record numbers of meaningless diplomas, more school closings, an unstable teacher work force, and a school system where academic apartheid defines education opportunity.
Record numbers of students now use mass transportation to get to the “school of their choice.” Why have 250,000 students using mass transit when many of them could walk to school instead, is a question that has gone unasked and unanswered by reporters and politicians for over a decade.
The community has been de-coupled from the neighborhood high school, because hardly a neighborhood high school exists anymore. The result is that parental participation suffers, after-school activities suffer, and the community suffers.
A record number of students attend boutique schools that screen their applicants. I estimate that close to 10% of the seats available to high school students are now reserved for these students. Most of these students used to help make up the population of the traditional high schools.
When Jamaica High School was handed its death warrant, the Department of Education, fearing a backlash from parents who simply didn’t buy the line that Jamaica was a failed school, cleverly carved a Gateway School out of the Gateway program that had existed in Jamaica for about 20 years.
And then, miracle of miracles, the new Gateway High School received an “A” on its report card!
Is there a serious argument that can be made for a public policy that is perpetually closing and reopening school houses because they are “failed”?
We’ve all heard of the Amityville Horror, but does that mean we should treat the schoolhouse as we would a haunted house? But if closing and opening hundreds of schools is the new normal, we’d do better to hire Shinto priests to exorcise the evil spirits in these buildings rather than renaming and re-staffing them.
Our lowest performing students usually carry baggage that includes unstable home life, poor to no healthcare, limited language skills, and physical impoverishment.
If instead of further destabilizing their school environment, Mayor Bloomberg had thrown his energy and resources into creating schools along the “Comer Model,” he might actually have had something to show to the public.
The Comer school model developed by Dr. James P. Comer at the Yale Child Study Center has been around for close to fifty years and has a proven track record in addressing the problems of low achieving students in the inner city. But the lure of the well-meaning philanthropist with no expertise proved irresistible.
Instead, we are left with the tired litany of the teachers and union as villains, and the mayor and his minions as heroic for taking them on. But beneath the surface Bloomberg has created a highly segregated school system that keeps the disadvantaged far away from the middle classes and the upwardly mobile.
If Mayor De Blasio wants to reverse this death spiral, he’d do well to grant clemency to schools like Jamaica High School and Beach Channel High School and give them the resources they need to make them work for the children and their communities.
In their heyday comprehensive high schools included students who were on multiple career paths. There were differentiated diplomas and a multiplicity of choices. The students might not have attended all the same classes together, but they played on the same teams, shared the same teachers, and developed mutual respect for one another.
Inexplicably that has been destroyed, and instead of these students existing side by side with each other in the same community, they live and learn as peoples apart.
When this consideration is no longer a part of our education system we all become impoverished. Clemency is one way to begin turning this around.