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merging small schools

Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, Carmen Farina, and Mayor Bill de Blasio

The Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, Carmen Farina, and Mayor Bill de Blasio have recently instituted a reform policy of merging small schools that are struggling with other schools in an effort to promote success. The small schools in question are usually located in buildings known as “educational campuses.”

These campuses used to be large comprehensive high schools and middle schools, but since 2002 have been sub-divided. For example, Taft High School is now called the William H. Taft Educational Campus. Roosevelt High School is now the Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus.

Each campus houses five or six small schools. The goal of these new mergers is to give “failing” small schools a chance to “turn around” prior to being taken over by the state and handed over to "receiverships".

Placing schools into receiverships is the result of Governor Cuomo’s new education law pushed through with our state budget in 2015. Schools labeled as failing had to show fast improvements or be placed into receivership, and most likely be taken over by charter school operators.

Before falling into receivership, the schools were awarded turnaround funding ($154 million for 94 schools) and allowed to modify teachers’ working conditions to provide longer days, extra tutoring and other benefits to students. Even with the extra funding many schools were not able to demonstrate enough rapid improvement.

So now the Mayor’s new position is that smaller schools lack support services and would benefit from combining together. Not as well-publicized is that many of these small schools will be merging with charter schools. Yes, that sound you heard was the other shoe dropping.

Now, I enjoy when policy makers mandate sweeping changes as much as the next guy; to heck with the impact on children and communities. However, the idea of creating larger schools as a means for improvement just plain cracks me up.

I am sure all of the teachers who were excessed or forced into early retirement during the small schools initiative of our previous Mayor, Billionaire reformer Michael Bloomberg, are laughing as well. You see, their careers were destroyed because of this now obviously failed experiment.

Teachers who argued that the reason for poor academic performance was the high poverty rate in the communities were not only figuratively, but literally, dismissed.

During Emperor Bloomberg’s 12-year reign (2001 – 2014), one of his earliest education reform tactics was to break up large public schools and create hundreds a “mini-schools”. The political rhetoric used at the time was that large schools were failing and that smaller schools would be more accommodating to a child’s needs. Vilification of teachers unions, blaming veteran teachers for the failures, and eliminating seniority protections were tactics used to justify the dismantling of the larger schools.

Teachers who argued that the reason for poor academic performance was the high poverty rate in the communities were not only figuratively, but literally, dismissed. Students just needed to be fed their daily bowl of grit and rigor in a small school setting to succeed.

Bloomberg’s push to shut down large schools fit right into the education reform plans of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s New Visions grant program. New Visions provided $150 million to fund the NYC small schools initiative. It is always fun when a couple of billionaires decide what is best for our children. Gates eventually invested $2 billion in this plan nationwide before abandoning it.

The New Vision grants allowed for the purchase of upgraded technology, desks, materials and staff development. With all of that money on the table, the media and the politicians could not wait to swing the proverbial wrecking ball into our most underprivileged and vulnerable school districts.

Every wannabe principal with two or three years experience was writing proposals to secure some of that Gates grant money and open a new school. To obtain the money, these new schools had to have a theme and a cute name, like: New Explorers High School, The Urban Academy for Careers in Sports, The Knowledge and Power Academy International High School, The West Bronx Academy for the Future, etc, etc.

If you could fill out an application and submit a proposal, most of the time you got yourself a school. These New Vision proposals did require you to partner with an outside organization. That organization would co-sponsor the new schools, and also share control of the grant money. Honestly, I am not sure if any of these proposals were ever turned down. The new schools also led to a large number of 26-year-old “instaprincipals” popping up out of nowhere. Few had even taught for more than two years.

Once the proposals for the new schools were accepted, the yard sale was on! Existing schools became wholesale markets where these new principals and outside sponsors could cherry-pick the incoming students to fill their rosters. They were not mandated to accept students with special needs in the same proportion as the existing schools. In order to close down the larger schools, the Department of Education would first conduct a dog and pony show to pretend they were investigating whether or not the school was failing and needed to be closed.

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We, the staff in the targeted school would fall all over ourselves to show our best work, the love and dedication we had for the school, and to discuss the frustrations and disappointment we had with a system that sets up students to fail. Endless cadres of suits would fill our classrooms and observe the hard work we were doing in the most difficult situations. Then they would submit reports that had already been written before they ever set foot in our building.

Next, they would begin to carve up the school like a turkey on Thanksgiving, taking the choicest pieces for themselves. You would be teaching your class and these DOE guys would walk in with blueprints and survey equipment to set up the school du jour. They would take the best classrooms and monopolize the common facilities like cafeterias and gyms.

We in the closing schools were left with the closets and the old bathrooms to teach in. The new principals demanded separate entrances, and our students were told to not even walk through the halls where the new schools were located. Rules were put into place so that each school could treat their students as special, compared to the closeout school’s students.

Meanwhile, the small schools had little discipline and their students basically had carte blanche to run the building. See, 26 year old principals might be chock full of energy and enthusiasm, but they don’t know a damn thing about earning the respect of students and maintaining discipline. That is a fact.

In order to disregard the UFT contract, the “blame the teacher” rhetoric was ratcheted up. The edict was that when the large schools were being phased out, 50% of the existing staff had to leave. This is where the anti-union narrative came into play. To destroy these schools they would have to grease some pockets and change a few rules.

Inevitably, the teachers removed were the most experienced teachers who had the highest salaries. When Bloomberg assumed mayoral control of the schools, one strategy used was to give principals autonomy of their school budgets. Before mayoral control school budgets were de-centralized, if a school needed a new teacher, one was assigned by the Board of Education.

Now, principals were looking for the cheapest human capital. The only problem was the pesky collective bargaining agreements that protected teachers’ rights. So, those contracted rights had to be violated. Experienced educators with many years of service were too expensive. They also knew their rights. Those teachers were either excessed, forced into something called the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, or retired.

This end run around of seniority protections was then ratified into our UFT contract when teachers were thrown a bone of a raise after years of wage freezes.

ATR teachers became second-class citizens with fewer rights and protections than other teachers. Of course, in order to destroy the public schools, a corrupt bargain had to be made with union leadership to give away our hard fought rights, and so it was. Countless teachers were pushed out of their careers, only to be replaced by the six-week Teach For America warriors who took a crash course in teaching theory and came in to “save the schools.” Then fled in droves.

…Or became 26 year-old principals.

The experience of senior teachers was not respected. The propaganda taught to TFA recruits was that older teachers were the reason the schools were failing. The recruits arrived in these new schools with an unmatched level of arrogance and ignorance. I will admit that it was satisfying watching these TFA’ers get eaten alive when they tried to teach their classes without the benefit of discipline and experience. Except for the damage being done to the children in the classrooms, of course, it was actually kind of enjoyable watching them cry and quit in en masse.

Gates abandoned the small school movement to focus on Common Core and high stakes testing as his next attempt to privatize schools. But this was not before an entire generation of students was damaged, and the careers and reputations of countless teachers and staff were destroyed.

Creating smaller schools with new names and fancy desks doesn’t solve the main problem, poverty. These smaller schools “failed” with the same frequency as the larger schools did. Except now our already-limited school budgets are being siphoned off by management companies, tech suppliers, and outside vendors. These vulture philanthropists take the money and run leaving the discarded carcasses of the community schools that had been the foundation of our neighborhoods.

It was like the slaughter of the bison on the Great Plains in order to starve out the native peoples and steal their lands. They left our schools rotting and bloated on the streets of the city, while they counted their money and worked towards the new methods of public school genocide; charter schools, vouchers, Common Core, anti-tenure lawsuits, etc. etc.

So, yeah, when I see these brand new administrators come in to scout out locations for school mergers I am, what you might call, suspect. As teachers they were just crying in their classrooms like yesterday. By reformer logic they must be qualified to be an administrator. “Hey, you have been teaching 3 ½ hours, why not open up your own school”? What could go wrong? The more things change, the more things remain the same.

Michael Flanagan

Michael Flanagan
Badass Teachers Association