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Grant to N.Y. City Schools Spurs Action, Anger

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A $50 million gift to the New York City public schools has managed to simultaneously unify and divide a sprawling array of players in the nation's largest district.

The challenge grant from the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg has sparked the formation of coalitions seeking common ground, such as the group Parents and Community Mobilization for Excellence and Equity in Education--an alliance of the Parents Coalition of New York, the New York Urban League, and eight other community groups.

But questions about who decides how the money is spent and who will get it appear to have heightened racial tensions and divisions between educators and some parents.

New York City is one of four urban school systems promised a $50 million challenge grant by Mr. Annenberg. The others are Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The gifts represent $200 million of the $500 million the retired publisher and diplomat plans to contribute to public schools over the next five years. (See Education Week, 2/1/95-->.)

Locked Out?

About 10 representatives of a newly formed group, the Coalition for Excellence in Black Education, picketed a conference earlier this month that was sponsored by the Center for Collaborative Education, one of four education groups tapped to oversee the creation of 50 schools using $25 million of Mr. Annenberg's gift to New York. (See Education Week, 3/22/95.)

The coalition charged that the four education groups--known collectively as the New York Networks for School Renewal--do not have enough minority representation, and alleged that African-American, Asian, and Hispanic educators and parents have been "locked out" of the city's broader school-reform movement.

But some observers questioned the sharp rhetoric of the coalition's literature--one flier referred to the New York Networks for School Renewal as "plantation owners"--and suggested that its approach was counterproductive.

Heather Lewis, a co-director at the Center for Collaborative Education, said that the protesters were invited to come to the meeting and present their concerns but that they declined to do so.

"I think there are very legitimate questions about the inclusiveness of any project that involves all of these resources," Ms. Lewis said. "The problem in New York City is that there is no existing mechanism for addressing them." Efforts to form an advisory board to guide the Annenberg Challenge in New York are still under way.

Deborah Meier, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which is based at Brown University, and a member of the center's board, said the center's record speaks for itself.

"This is not a political movement; this is school people trying to produce more good schools, and in doing so we can't ignore racism," Ms. Meier said.

"I believe we have all worked hard to keep that in mind and need to continue to work even harder to attend to the impact of racism," she said.

Both groups agreed last week to meet to discuss the concerns raised by the protesters.

One of the protest organizers called the meeting a step in the right direction. "They've showed a willingness to continue the dialogue with us," said Don Murphy, a member of the Coalition for Excellence in Black Education. "And we are extending a hand."

Early Criticism

In a separate development, the networks announced that they have hired a director, Douglas H. White. Mr. White graduated from Yale Law School and served as New York State's commissioner of human rights for six years. Mr. White, who is African-American, worked to improve the representation of minorities and women in the workforce when he served as New York City's personnel director from 1990 to 1992.

While the Annenberg grant is one of the largest private gifts awarded to the New York City schools, it is still a relatively small amount of money in comparison with public spending on education in the city.

It represents $10 million a year for the next five years in a system facing a $773 million deficit in its roughly $8.5 billion budget.

But because Mr. Annenberg is requiring that the grant be matched with $50 million in private money and $50 million in public funds, it has the potential to generate additional support.

New York is the only one of the four cities awarded Annenberg funding to date to receive its grant in two parts: the first $25 million for the networks, referred to informally as "Annenberg I," and the second $25 million, "Annenberg II," which has not been awarded but is expected to go to projects that complement and support the first initiative.

Criticism about the Annenberg I process surfaced early among some parent and community groups. "The meetings were very, very white," said Mr. Murphy. "There was no discussion of inclusion of people of color."

Ayo Harrington, the president of the United Parents Association of New York City Inc., agreed. "There was a big outcry because the groups were exclusive in their process and did not reach out to include a wider range of organizations."

This remains a critical question as educators grapple with how to distribute the remaining $25 million, said Anne Galletta, a program officer at the Academy for Educational Development, a group that works to prepare children for school, the workforce, and community life.

"In order to create some collaborative relationships, there's a whole lot of dialogue that has to take place," she said. "And some of that is very painful and can be very messy because there are a lot of issues to work out in defining what we mean by an inclusive process."

To date, there is no formal network of local grantmakers interested in education, nor has any ad hoc committee been formed to deal with the Annenberg gift.

In the absence of such an effort, the city's schools chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, asked Joseph Shenker, the president of the Bank Street College of Education, to solicit input from educators, community groups, and others and to draft a proposal.

An early draft suggested putting the money toward reforms in middle school mathematics and science. But even before it was released, other groups began devising plans around themes ranging from teacher preparation to parent involvement to educating the public about the initiative.

David S. Seeley, an education professor at the College of Staten Island, is drafting a plan that draws on five of the "concept papers."

Raymond Domanico, the executive director of the Public Education Association, an advocacy group that conducts research and provides information on education issues to the public, said that in spite the conflicts, a tremendous amount of productive discussion is taking place.

"What I fear is that people from the outside will say it's just those cantankerous New Yorkers, they can't get together on anything," he said. "But when you step back, a number of discussions have emerged, [and] groups not talking to each other six months ago are now hashing out some common areas of agreement."

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