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N.Y. School-Based Reform Initiative Rapped

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A program to fix New York State's lowest-performing schools by requiring teams of parents and educators to carry out school-improvement plans is wholly inadequate to the task, according to a coalition of 26 civic and parent groups in New York City.

In a 67-page study released Nov. 10, the Educational Priorities Panel described the state-mandated Comprehensive School Improvement Program as a "peripheral" initiative that has failed to address longstanding school problems.

The program was created in 1985, in reaction to complaints that the state was not ensuring that schools educate students properly.

Under the program, more than 500 schools with low reading and mathematics test scores and poor attendance rates were required to form committees of parents, teachers, administrators, and other staff members to create and carry out school-improvement plans.

More than 90 percent of the designated schools were in New York City. Each received $400 to carry out its proposals.

'Height of Hypocrisy'

In the last few years a number of states have created school-based planning initiatives to encourage more lasting reforms within individual schools.

These programs are based on the notion that real change cannot occur by mandate, but requires the active support and involvement of local parents and teachers.

The report by the New York City panel cautions, however, that "school-based planning is not a panacea."

The city's schools have "serious problems," including inadequate resources, overcrowded and dilapidated buildings, and inexperienced and poorly prepared teachers, said Margaret Nuzum, coordinator of the panel.

"It is the height of hypocrisy to suggest that a school plan and an extra $400" would solve these problems, she said.

'Clearly Underfunded'

The panel's report, "Small Change: The Comprehensive School Improvement Program," was based on visits to seven New York City elementary schools involved in the program during the 1987-88 spring term.

The study found that overcrowding in many of the schools impeded reform. In one building, for instance, four classes met regularly in the gym.

Staff shortages and high turnover rates also made improvements difficult. In five of the seven schools, more than 30 percent of the teachers were employed on a temporary per-diem basis or held a probationary license to teach.

In addition, nearly 25 percent of the program facilitators, who were supposed to provide technical assistance to the schools, left their positions after the first year.

"Too often, the least experienced teachers are assigned indiscriminately to the most difficult schools, which have the highest turnover rates," said Tina Kelly, author of the report. "The continuity of school-based planning efforts suffers in buildings without a stable teaching staff."

In addition, the report notes, staff members were not adequately trained to do school-based planning.

It also found that no one was di2p4rectly in charge of school improvement at the participating schools, and no one was held responsible for poor results.

Finally, it concludes, the program was "clearly underfunded."

According to the report, schools may need $50 to $100 per student for meaningful school-improvement efforts.

Not Just Talk

Robin Willner, staff director for the panel, said that more "concerted action" was needed to bring about desired changes in the designated schools.

"If you're interested in school reform ... you can't just form a com8mittee and say you're going to talk about the problems of the schools," she said. "And if you look at this program, in the end, that's what it was."

At the state level, the panel has recommended passage of a number of legislative initiatives. These include:

Changes in the school-finance formula to provide more funding for New York City. The city's schools now receive 33.2 percent of state-education funds, even though they educate more than 37 percent of the state's students.

Creation of a school-construction authority that would hasten the pace of building and renovation in New York City. Lack of space was one of the most frequent complaints in the schools visited.

Elimination of New York City's Board of Examiners. Prospective teachers in New York City now must complete a "duplicative" series of examinations and hurdles in order to teach, the report notes. That system needs to be eliminated, it suggests, for the city to recruit the more than 40,000 new teachers needed over the next 7 years.

The report also recommends new ways to hold principals accountable for school reform.

If, after a year of help, a school's staff members are uncooperative and unable to plan needed improvements, it suggests, they should relinquish their planning authority to the community school district and, eventually, to the central board of education.

"Somebody else will have to move in and organize and staff the school," Ms. Willner said.

On the other hand, the report argues, the state should waive categorical-funding constraints for schools that create and carry out effective school-improvement plans.

Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the state board of education, had not seen a copy of the report last week. But he said its recommendations "appear to be in line with what the department already is saying about what should happen in New York City."

He cautioned, however, that chances of a "major inflow of new money'' into the state's funding formula for schools is "quite slim," given the state's budget shortfall.

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