Streams

Aiming for School Diversity in Williamsburg, With Little Progress

Monday, June 18, 2012 - 08:18 AM

Magnet schools, a principal under fire, sexual misconduct, teacher evaluations and Pearson were among the education topics in the news this weekend.

How difficult is it to integrate a city school? Pretty tough, according to the latest article in The New York Times's "A System Divided" series, which has been examining the issue of segregation in the New York City public school system.

The article, in the Metropolitan section of The Times on Sunday, by Liz Robbins, looks at a group of magnet schools in Brooklyn that have been trying to diversify their pupil populations. But the process is slow going.

Since the mid-1980s, New York’s public schools, which are among the nation’s most segregated, have received millions of dollars in magnet grants from the federal government. In this most recent round of grants, in 2010, the four Williamsburg elementary schools and one middle school, all in District 14, received a total of $10.2 million over three years; schools in Long Island City, Queens, and on the West Side in Manhattan also won grants, for a total of $33 million.

Magnet schools were once the federal government’s favored mechanism to increase diversity and prevent “white flight.” The idea was to create a themed curriculum that attracted children from outside a school’s immediate neighborhood to reduce the isolation of one minority group. Today, as the Williamsburg schools show, integration is an uneven process at best, hampered by geography, legal limits and, critics say, a lack of ideological commitment from the city.

The article says drawing together students of disparate ethnicity and from different neighborhoods is no longer at the top of the city's goals.

Although decades of research studies show that children perform better in integrated schools, desegregating New York City’s system has not been a distinct priority for the mayor or his chancellors.

“I can’t remember the last time anyone in a leadership position said anything about desegregation,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University.

“That sends a signal,” she added. “They talk about choice.”

Also in Sunday's Metropolitan section, Ginia Bellafante uses her Big City column to look more closely at an issue that has gotten the full tabloid treatment in New York City, and become one of those touchstone moments that those in the rest of the country use to attack New Yorkers.

The issue is whether Greta Hawkins, the principal of Public School 90 Edna Cohen on Coney Island, Brooklyn, is "un-American" because she cut the country singer Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” from a roster of songs to be performed at a coming end-of-year kindergarten ceremony.

Ms. Hawkins’s rationale for excising the song, Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said had to do with the belief that its opening lines, in their suggestion of dramatic misfortune, might unsettle 5-year-old minds. In the same way you might not want a stage full of kindergartners to perform Merle Haggard’s ballads of loneliness, you might opt to have them skip a song that introduces visions of sudden and annihilating material adversity: “If tomorrow all the things were gone/I’d worked for all my life...”

But soon enough, we were treated to headlines and blog posts like this ungrammatical one from The Washington Times: “NYC School System and Greta Hawkins Supports Un-Americanism.” A Facebook page created by a self-described veteran who said he did not live in New York aimed to have the principal removed from her position.

At the same time, Mr. Greenwood, whose claim to moral supremacy might be challenged on the grounds that he has been married four times, took repeated opportunity to denounce the principal in the news media, saying that her decision offended him “as a Christian.”

To be sure, Ms. Hawkins has had a rocky history in the city -- although the parents at her school seem to like her, according to the article. But, as Ms. Bellafante writes, anyone reading Ms. Hawkins' story and considering a career in school administration "must surely be wondering whether tending a tollbooth on the George Washington Bridge would secure greater karmic rewards."

Also in the news this Monday morning:

Don't be surprised if the back-and-forth between Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott and the United Federation of Teachers that kicked up on Friday over the procedures to fire teachers for sexual misconduct continues.

After Mr. Walcott again called on the Legislature on Friday to change the laws so that the chancellor has final word on the disposition of cases in which a teacher has been found to have committed sexual misconduct, the union and the city had a war of words over the current system.

The union said the city should first fix its screening in hiring, but Mr. Walcott made public on Sunday a letter to the union president, Michael Mulgrew, in which he said hiring was not the problem:

Your call on the City Council to review the Department of Education's hiring process is a disingenuous shell game to fool the public from the real problem: your protection of teachers who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior with students. And the fact that none of these teachers had a prior record that would have prevented their hire is only part of the problem.

You can find the exchanges in a post published on Friday in SchoolBook and updated over the weekend.

Gotham Schools reported on Friday that State Education Department officials were talking tough with Pearson, which creates tests, after the flood of errors this spring on state exams written by the testing company. John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, apparently told state legislators (where, when and who were not clear from the post) that Pearson had been put on notice:

In a presentation summarizing the state of New York’s testing program, King said Pearson had made typographical errors on .35 percent of test questions and scoring guides this year and mistranslated 20 items on foreign-language exams, for an error rate of .46 percent.

Next year, Pearson will have to change the way it picks reading passages, adopt a new writing and editing system to make sure errors are identified and corrected quickly, and hire an independent group to check the foreign-language translations it provides, King said.

Plus, the company will have to foot the bill for an “expert, independent review” of its test development process. And King said that amendments to Pearson’s $32 million contract would spell out penalties for “unacceptable items or translation errors” in the future.

The post included a chart showing some of the actions the state had taken to address the issues with Pearson.

Finally, legislators in Albany are either close to a deal on making public teacher evaluations -- or not close to a deal. Take your pick. But the leaks, hints and guesses have been rolling out for weeks, and anyone who follows Albany closely knows it's foolish to speculate. As Yogi Berra would say, it's not over until it's over up there.

The new class of NYC Teaching Fellows is convening. At 2 p.m. on Monday, Mr. Walcott speaks at their welcoming event at the Manhattan Center. Welcome, new fellows.

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