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Walcott's Plan to Strengthen Middle Schools Draws Mixed Reaction

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 12:29 PM

9:52 p.m. | Updated In his first policy address since becoming schools chancellor in April, Dennis M. Walcott announced on Tuesday that New York would open 50 new middle schools in the next two years, many in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The city will also apply for about $30 million in federal money to replace teachers and leadership, while keeping students in place, at five struggling schools for each of the next two years, the chancellor said.

While the plan, outlined in a speech at the Kimmell Center of New York University, got a warm welcome from educators in the audience, it drew a more guarded response from others, including the president of the teachers’ union, Michael Mulgrew, who said Mr. Walcott was not going far enough.

“We need a strategy that focuses on instruction and lowering class size,” Mr. Mulgrew said in an interview. “Rearranging the deck chairs isn’t going to do it.”

A proposal to get middle schools to focus on literacy was on target, Mr. Mulgrew said. But he pointed out that many students read below grade level and asked, “Where is the plan to train teachers to adapt literacy skills into the curriculum?”

In his speech, Mr. Walcott said he planned to follow the federal “turnaround” model to transform some troubled schools, meaning at least half of a school’s staff members would be reassigned. That approach “will foster new possibilities in teacher compensation,” he said, hinting at possible bonus pay for teachers who accept more difficult assignments.

Mr. Walcott also announced that an entire incoming class of the New York Teaching Fellows Program will be trained to work in middle schools in poor neighborhoods, where vacancies are hardest to fill.

It was unclear how many of the 50 new schools would be charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently operated, and how many would be traditional schools. But while the chancellor praised some district-run schools, his plan to improve middle school performance called largely for using techniques borrowed from the city’s successful charters, including emphases on discipline and routines and on preparing all students for college.

There are about 400 schools in the city serving grades 6 through 8; 59 of those are charters.

Mr. Mulgrew said he was troubled by the suggestion that strategies used by charter schools might be seen as a solution. Because the schools tend to enroll fewer English-language learners and special-education students, he said, their achievements must be measured differently.

Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools in Harlem serving students from grades 6 through 12, said a culture of discipline and academic rigor, coupled with longer school days, could yield benefits. Students at Mr. Andrew’s schools spend nine and a half hours in school each day, and his 9th and 10th graders have consistently had passing rates of 90 percent on Regents exams.

Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, which runs more than 70 public schools in the city, mostly in high-needs neighborhoods, said the key to the success of Mr. Walcott’s plan was enlisting help from outside the schools. “It’s got to include dropout prevention, community programs, psychological support,” he said.

Ken BaumMichael Kirby Smith for The New York Times Ken Baum, principal of Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the Bronx, who was cited by Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott on Tuesday, greeted Kimberly Lopez, 11, and her family during a home visit this summer before the start of school.

In a statement, Ernest A. Logan, the president of the principals’ union and a former middle school principal, said he was “very supportive” of Mr. Walcott’s strategies, especially a push to breathe new life into the Campaign for Middle School Success. Started by the Education Department and the City Council in 2008, the campaign was meant to inject public and private money into struggling middle schools. Mr. Logan said it had since been “nearly abandoned.” Zakiyah Ansari, a parent leader at the Coalition for Educational Justice, which was among the original partners in the campaign, said the biggest misstep in Mr. Walcott’s plan was excluding advocacy organizations from the discussions that helped frame it.

“The parents and community members we represent have lost trust in this administration and its policies,” Ms. Ansari said in a statement released on Tuesday. “Today was not a good start at earning back that trust.”

Other initiatives Mr. Walcott announced:

  • Using $15 million in state textbook money to buy nonfiction books aligned with the new common core standards for middle schools;
  • Increasing the City Council’s Campaign for Middle School Success, which began in 2008 and tries to foster partnerships among middle schools, community organizations and private donors.
  • Selecting some schools to join the Innovation Zone program, where students receive computer-based individualized lessons based on their abilities and progress.

Listen Mr. Walcott's full speech on the middle school challenge here:

WNYC

Or read the speech here.

Erin E. Evans contributed additional reporting.

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