Tending Our Gardens

BMGF NYC School visitsby Terri N. Watson, Ph.D., School of Education, City College of New York The final line of Tupac Shakur’s elegy "The Rose that Grew from Concrete" reads, “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else cared.” In this poem the fallen rapper marvels at how a rose flourished despite its perilous environment. This feat rings true not only for Shakur’s rose but also for thousands of children who bloom in New York City’s schools. They grow despite their dismal realities influenced, in part, by Mayor Bloomberg’s school-reform efforts.

The latter findings were recently enumerated in a 194-page report issued by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a philanthropic think tank that seeks to "ensure fairness, opportunity and access to high quality public schools for all children." The study, aptly titled A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, delineated how the current climate of education reform promotes practices that lead to school closure in low-income communities of color. School closure is the go-to remedy in the Mayor’s efforts to improve New York City’s schools. Ironically, many of the schools now slated for closure were opened under Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure and are now being closed for the same reason the Mayor closed their predecessors—poor student performance. While New York City’s schools are in the need of reform, how to do so is a conundrum. School closure is an effective way to create public outcry, but an unquestionably ineffective way to bolster student achievement.

School Reform / School Closure

Mayor Bloomberg has radically changed New York City’s education landscape. As the chief executive officer of NYC’s Department of Education (DOE) he is charged with educating 1.1 million children. Since 2002 he has phased out nearly 175 schools, including many large high schools. About 600 smaller schools of choice and charter schools were instated in their place with aims to increase student performance as well as offer additional options to parents and children. Additionally, the Mayor implemented a high school admissions process that assigns 90 percent of incoming ninth-graders to high schools based on their preferences. According to the DOE’s website, this new system is centered on “equity and choice.” However, parents have found these efforts to saddle “select” schools with student populations more likely to struggle in performance testing— students with disabilities, English-language learners, and other low-scoring students—essentially dooming the school to failure.

The Citywide Council on High Schools (CCHS), a parent advocacy group, outlined similar concerns in their 2005-2006 annual report. The CCHS found the Mayor’s reform initiatives “overly ambitious” and to negatively impact traditional schools as they were flooded with low-performing students who were neither accepted into the new small schools of choice nor charter schools. Second, the CCHS found the Panel on Education Policy (the governing arm of the DOE) to be “unresponsive” to concerns from parents who witnessed a ripple effect of the Mayor’s policies on their own children’s schools, including overcrowding, lack of discipline, and increased gang violence.

Lessons Learned There is no cure-all for poor student performance as children are faced with varying challenges that may inhibit their achievement. In addition, while some schools should be reorganized—or, going further, reimagined—closure should never be seen as a viable option. In short, in order to improve student achievement, collective action that focuses on restoration and rehabilitation is needed.

The Mayor, parents, school leadership teams, teachers, students, community members, service providers, and school reformers must be active participants in student success. As we have learned from Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, applying a marketplace model to public school governance sets up a competitive system that requires some schools to fail, and will not systemically improve teaching methods or learning comprehension. Our next mayor, as well as the broader community, must consider new education policies and practices to improve student achievement. No longer can we be left to ponder Who is tending our garden? We must do so, and we must press for this issue to be central in New York City’s mayoral race this fall.

Dr. Terri N. Watson teaches at City College of New York in the School of Education. She is the event organizer for our upcoming event, What’s Next for New York City’s Children? A Mayoral Debate Watch Party and Teach-in sponsored by the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and the Office of the President at the City College of New York. The event takes place September 3, 2013. Register today.