When I served as deputy chancellor for financial affairs of the New York City Board of Education, the question I was asked most often was “Where does the $6-billion budget go?”
Assuming this question-usually accompanied by a funding request for some new initiative- was rhetorical, I would simply wait for the solicitation that inevitably followed: “Can’t you absorb project X into this huge budget?”
My short answer was an unequivocal no; the longer response had to do with 940,000 pupils, 109,000 employees, 1,000 school buildings, a discriminatory state-aid formula, special-education cost differentials, educational deficiencies of the student body, food services, and on and on.
Those were the easy questions.
The second most common line of inquiry sought my perspectives as an “outsider” in the system. Having joined the board as recently as January 1985, I would be asked: “Can’t something be done with the school system?”
The tone--if not the question itself--always implied that the system was a failure. Despite the successes of a large number of individual students and isolated schools--perhaps even the majority of the school population--the system’s 30 percent dropout rate and the lack of adequate basic skills among many of those who did graduate seemed to permit no other conclusion.
Who or what was to blame for the poor performance of many schools? Was it the board of education, the chancellor, a highly centralized decisionmaking process? Inadequate financial resources? The locally elected school boards that governed elementary and middle schools? The superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, pupils?
Pinpointing responsibility, of course, was impossible; problems pervaded all facets of the system.
During my tenure, the board moved to decentralize many of its functions. But while it should continue to pursue such steps, decentralization alone cannot solve some of the most serious problems facing the city’s schools.
Nor can more money by itself satisfy the needs of the many students at risk of failure.
New York and other troubled urban systems must develop fresh approaches for reinforcing education and involving families and neighborhoods in the work of schools. Chartering “school communities,” for example, could help forge new links among schools, students and parents, and local organizations to create an environment of success for families from disadvantaged backgrounds.
My experience over the last three years, as New York City has moved to decentralize many aspects of its school system, suggests the urgency of these more fundamental reforms.
For years, almost all major decisions in New York had been--and to a large extent, still Are--resolved in the system’s central offices: allocation and monitoring of budgets, negotiation of union contracts and settlement of grievances, recruitment and assignment of teachers, curriculum development, building repair, supplies purchasing, and so on. The one significant exception was the naming of school principals and of the 32 local-district superintendents.
Since this centralized approach was not producing satisfactory results, a small group of New York school professionals--including members of the educational-advocacy community-- developed an initiative for change in 1985. We felt that educators on site knew more about the problems of their particular schools-and what potential solutions might be-than bureaucrats far removed from the locality. If the people directly involved at the workplace could become problem-solvers, rather than system blamers, we thought they might be able to create opportunities for improving students’ performance.
The strategy was to downsize the system and vest control at the lowest possible levels. The central bureaucracy--employing 5,500 people--would be reduced, and the districts, schools, and classrooms would be smaller. Pupils, teachers, and administrators would become less isolated and gain more control over their limited environment.
To facilitate this approach, we obtained from the board additional positions for every school in the system. How these positions would be used was to be determined by the schools themselves from a menu of options.
A “teacher’s choice” program providing every teacher with $200 to purchase classroom materials was implemented; for the first time, teachers would be ordering their own supplies. And for schools with exceptionally poor records of success and potentially high dropout rates, more than $100 million was invested in educational and social-service support.
All of these mechanisms centered on improving students’ performance. The strengthening of schools--especially in geographic areas with a high incidence of teenage pregnancy, single-parent households, homelessness, poverty, and drug abuse--was, we believed, the key to lifting young people out of an endless cycle of intellectual, social, and economic deprivation.
Given more than minimal resources, a reformed educational system could make an impact on all students--and especially those who formed an educational underclass. But it was among those children who were most deprived that major problems with the strategy began to develop.
The schools these students attended seemed to have little relationship with other schools in their community. One of the most successful elementary- school principals in an impoverished area, for instance, complained that everything positive that had been accomplished at his school was dissipated when students advanced to the next level. Similarly, a new high-school principal was appalled at the poor preparation his students had received in the earlier grades.
There were problems, too, with the limitations of the school calendar. A 185-day school year, with 6 hours and 40 minutes per day, could not adequately serve pupils with severe educational deficiencies. Schools were not open in the summer, nor after 3:00 P.M. during the school year. And even when $5.5 million was budgeted to pay custodians’ overtime wages so that local groups could use the schools after regular hours, no teachers remained to help unless they too were paid extra.
We determined also that a variety of health and social services were vital to helping these students achieve success. But many school professionals--concerned about issues of control--opposed the idea of schools’ assuming these roles. And having outside groups provide such services on site was anathema to them.
Because they were for the most part uneducated and in many cases limited in their knowledge of English, the parents of disadvantaged children generally did not make themselves available for consultation. And to the few who did seek involvement, the system was often foreign and educators intimidating. Many of the parents did not know how to interact with teachers and principals.
Most distressing, however, was the absence for many students of any support for learning in their families or communities--or worse, the presence of a negative attitude toward education. On one occasion, a black college professor visited me to request funds for a support program to assist elementary-school black males. His sense of urgency was based on feedback he was receiving that told him children who did well in school were ostracized by their peers.
Without reinforcement in the home and neighborhood for what was taking place in school, any student who succeeded was an anomaly. Even a reformed educational system-more participatory and more creative-would fail if the nurturing environment were not present.
For disadvantaged students to succeed, the community must learn ways of supporting and valuing education. And the physical structure of schools could provide the mechanism for facilitating such a process.
As one means of approaching this goal, boards of education might charter “school communities"--granting control of neighborhood schools, during non-operating hours, to local organizations.
Since schools in impoverished areas are invariably staffed--except for paraprofessionals and lunchroom workers--by people who live outside the neighborhood, they cannot provide the necessary internal support for education. But with carefully developed, comprehensive plans, communities can--and must--be mobilized to establish an environment for achievement.
The charter group could be a community-based service organization, business, religious organization, university, labor union, government agency, group of private individuals, or--best of all--a consortium of such organizations. The charter itself would be a legal document granted for a specified time period.
Once established, the charter group would submit a plan specifying the actions it would take--with measurable outcomes--to involve both family and community in support of students. The plan would have to abide by union contracts, education law, and local regulations.
During nonschool hours, the charter group would control and operate the school buildings. The plan would invite the participation of parents, students, and members of the community in such programs as tutoring, classes on parenting, employment and skills training, English language instruction, health and nutrition instruction, sex education, and drug- and alcohol-abuse prevention. These efforts would take place during all available hours throughout the year.
Wherever possible, activities would draw on the knowledge--and willingness to participate--of those who live and work in the community. The rewards of such involvement- improving opportunities for the community’s young people and developing an ethic of achievement and pride in the neighborhood-would foster the volunteerism crucial to the program’s success.
Schools’ regular educational programs could be tied to such activities or remain independent of them. A facility could conceivably have both an educational leader--a principal--and a school-support administrator.
Reforms of this order are necessary if students and educators are to reach their full potential. If we believe that learning cannot take place in isolation--that young people need to be nurtured in an environment that encourages and values their success--then the mobilizing of the community in support of education is essential. Chartering communities of schools could be a means to such a goal
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 1988 edition of Education Week