Sunday, January 16, 2011

What the real choices are for Cathie Black and NYC kids

With all the furor over Cathie Black's comments about “birth control” and “many Sophie’s choices” in relation to school overcrowding, I hope the larger issues are not ignored.

There is a huge school-age population explosion in downtown Manhattan, not because people are reproducing like rabbits, but because of the rampant development that Mayor Bloomberg and other city officials have encouraged.

(For information about the downtown population explosion, see this presentation, Why downtown's kids need to keep Tweed, by Eric Greenleaf, NYU professor and public school parent; it was in response to Eric's projections, which have been right on the mark that Cathie Black made her joke about birth control.)

The DOE has failed to build enough schools to accommodate these kids, as well as throughout the city, and has repeatedly underestimated the need for new seats. Yet instead of saving critical space within its headquarters for downtown Kindergarten students, the Department of Education has decided to donate space in Tweed to a charter school for middle school students, run by a for-profit company headquartered in Sweden.

This is no "Sophie's choice," but a deliberate decision to benefit a charter school over neighborhood children. The charter operation is run by Kunskapsskolan, or KED, which had revenue of more than $37 million in the third quarter of 2010, and could afford to build its own school, or lease space elsewhere. But instead, KED is not only getting free space, they are being given it right inside the DOE's headquarters, which represents tremendous advertising and promotional value to the company. (For some of the reasons this charter school should never have been authorized by SUNY in the first place, see our comments to the SUNY Charter Institute.)

So why would DOE prefer to give space to a Swedish charter school, rather than provide for the needs of the downtown community, and the wishes of their powerful Assemblymember, Speaker Shelly Silver? Because KED is an online charter school, and right now, DOE officials are hugely enamored with the potential of virtual instruction.

Here is how one of KED’s Swedish schools was described in the British paper, the Telegraph:

It’s 10 o’clock at Kunskapsskolan Nacka, a Swedish school for 12 to 16 year-olds, and no one seems to be working. One pupil plays Nirvana on a guitar. A second walks about barefoot eating an apple. Two more sit on desks, chatting. Suddenly the head enters. One might expect rebukes, or reprimands. None come. Instead, the head, Lotta Valentin, smiles and ruffles the hair of a nearby pupil. ''I really enjoy walking about the school and seeing the children at work,’’ she says.

One supposes that they also spend some time at computers.Get a Professional QualificationChoose from more than 40 courses from the UK’s leading home study college and start gaining new skills today!

As Elizabeth Rose of DOE's Portfolio planning explained at an earlier meeting, they intend to tear down walls within Tweed and install glass, so that all the educrats in the building can observe these students walking around and receiving virtual instruction online.

The population explosion is occurring not just downtown, but all over the city, as a result of Bloomberg's policies to encourage development, rezoning 76 neighborhoods, and in many cases, allowing more density and high rises to be built. Many other factors have also contributed to the citywide increase in the public school population, which the DOE’s “expert” consultants said would not occur until 2016 or 2017, but began as early as last year – and in most districts even earlier than that. These include a rise in the birth rate, the closing of many parochial schools, and the tendency of families to stay in the city longer, because of lower crime rates and the perception of an improved overall environment.

Yet city officials have carelessly failed to plan for the school population that would be generated. (For a good article on this, see the NY Magazine article from last year.) This, despite numerous warnings in reports detailing the population boom that was imminent, from Class Size Matters, the City Comptroller’s office, and the Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

So what can be done? Again, there are several decisions that should be made –not difficult ones for any rational policymaker, but so far for DOE.

First of all, the Chancellor should call a stop to all the co-locations, which not only cause intense conflicts within buildings and communities, but make overcrowding worse, since every new school that is inserted into an existing school subtracts valuable classrooms to make room for administrative and cluster spaces – with an estimated 10% loss of capacity each time.

Secondly, she should immediately re-align spending priorities. In November, the DOE added a billion dollars to the school capital plan, to be spent on technology, in addition to the $800 million that was already in the plan for that purpose. Why? So virtual learning and the “Izone” experiment can be inserted in 200 more schools over the next two years, and 400 schools thereafter. They want to proliferate these programs rapidly, supposedly to “personalize” instruction (ironically, by means of computers) without any independent evaluation of the success of the Izones that have already been implemented. (Here is a dizzying presentation of the theory behind this.) And they want to spend all this billion dollars in one year alone, over the next school year.

With all the millions that the city has misspent and wasted on high –tech projects in the last few years, from ARIS, the $80 million super-computer super-boondoggle that never lived up to expectations, to the bloated contracts of Future Technology Associates, to the ongoing scandal that is City Time, none of these can compare to the potential for waste involved in the DOE’s new proposal to spend one billion dollars in one year, amidst all the other budget cuts – on online learning.

These funds should instead be spent on leasing or building new schools, including some of the 27 parochial schools closing this year in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, and the 19 closed last year in Brooklyn and Queens, to alleviate overcrowding, allow for smaller class size, and actual “personalized” instruction – with real teachers, in real classrooms, instead of subjecting kids to an an expanded online system, with unknown risks and benefits, and the potential of a billion or more dollars down the drain.

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