School & District Management

N.Y.C. Schools to Gain Freedom Under Empowerment Plan

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 19, 2006 3 min read
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Principals at more than 300 New York City schools could gain greater power over hiring, budgets, and curricula next school year in exchange for high performance in what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is calling a dramatic step in his 4-year-old effort to improve the nation’s largest school district.

The “empowerment schools”—331 of the district’s 1,400 schools—would operate independently of the district’s 10 regional offices, Mr. Bloomberg said last week during a news conference at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx.

Using millions of dollars that the mayor said would be saved by trimming administrative jobs, each empowerment school would receive roughly $150,000 in additional money to spend as the principal saw fit, he said. Restrictions on other funds would also be lifted, he added.

Mr. Bloomberg’s announcement came on the fourth anniversary of his successful bid for state legislation giving the mayor control of the city’s 1.1 million-student school system. It represents an expansion of a 2-year-old pilot program known as the “autonomy zone” that delegated more decisionmaking to principals at 48 schools. (“Chancellor Pledges Autonomy for Some N.Y.C. Schools,” Feb. 1, 2006.)

“It moves us toward our long-held objective of putting more resources, autonomy, and accountability where they belong—in the schools,” the mayor said of the expanded initiative.

Mr. Bloomberg said 350 principals had applied to participate in the expanded empowerment-schools program, exceeding expectations. Of those, 331 were rated as “ready” by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s senior staff and received formal invitations to sign performance contracts. The schools that were chosen include the 48 that have been in the pilot program.

The invited principals had until June 19 to accept the offer.

‘Illusory’ Changes?

In exchange for independence, the principals must agree to meet standards for student achievement, fiscal responsibility, and school safety. Their performance will be judged annually by the district’s new rating system for schools, which weighs student test scores most heavily. An A grade will bring accolades and extra funding; a D or F grade for two or more years could cost the principal’s job.

But the union that represents the school system’s principals questioned whether the program really offers new power and genuine independence.

“We think that much of this is going to be illusory,” said Jill S. Levy, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Much of what they are saying will be given to the empowerment school principals are things that principals are already doing.”

Ms. Levy, whose union has been at loggerheads with district administrators over stalled contract negotiations, also said the performance agreements limit the autonomy and rewards that the mayor has been touting, such as granting principals exemptions from attending school district meetings.

“The fine print really says that they are empowered to do things unless they are told by their superintendent not to do them,” she said.

Ms. Levy also suggested that the district may have stacked the deck by choosing schools that were most likely to succeed.

But city education officials said the selected schools run the gamut from some of the city’s top-performing campuses to some that have struggled academically.

About one-third of the principals invited to join the program run new, small schools that are scattered across the boroughs, while a handful are charter schools that already enjoy considerable autonomy, the officials said. Schools that were not selected, they said, had very poor student-performance records, legal issues, or other problems.

Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. Klein said principals at empowerment schools would be organized into networks of 20 or so like-minded school leaders who would hire a “network support leader” to help them deal with a range of issues.

Purchasing equipment and services for schools and training principals in how to use a new data-management system to track student achievement are among the services that the networks would provide, district officials said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Schools to Gain Freedom Under Empowerment Plan

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