Thursday, December 27, 2007

Do Community Based Organizations Hold the Keys to Small Schools?

Pick up today’s Daily News and you might get the impression that community organizations that sponsor small schools can basically decide whether those schools survive or not. The first article, Bushwick parents and kids celebrate exit of embattled Acorn High principal, Rachel Monahan describes how the ACORN School of Social Justice, with their CBO, ACORN, was able to oust a principal who was blamed for the school’s poor performance and a DOE letter grade of F. The school was obviously saved from closing with a change in leadership despite its poor grade. ACORN was willing to continue to help the school although it is unclear what they were doing to allow the school to take such a precipitous decline.

In another article, Slow death for Brooklyn high school, Carrie Melago, describes how the CBO, East Brooklyn Congregations pulled out of EBC/ENY High School for Public Safety and Law and left the school to be placed on DOE’s death list of closing schools. The school was making some improvements but without CBO support and other political considerations the Chancellor decided to close the school even though the school received a letter grade of D.

While only a mile apart physically, both schools are light years away in how they were treated by the DOE.

Are the differing CBOs the reason? Perhaps. But it is only a part of the story.

CBOs have been making inroads on public schools for many years. Some involvement has been limited and some has been more extensive. What is clear in most situations is the natural tension among the participants. Each stakeholder has its own goals and the political interplay will generally determine how the school functions.

A Case In Point

The Second Opportunity School and Suspension Schools have long operated with CBO involvement. The school for long term suspended students spanned four boroughs and at one point had 6 CBO’s working with its students. While it was never clearly defined collaboration was emphasized. What collaboration meant was the turnover of particular school functions to non-public entities under contracts. The CBOs were responsible for all counseling and group activities yet each CBO took their responsibility differently. What remained the same, however, was the displacement of DOE personnel in school functions, especially in mandated areas.
At the Manhattan high school site the CBO tried to maintain the site despite fierce opposition by the school’s administration. The site suffered from total mismanagement and the fact that the CBO hired well meaning but uncertified personnel did not help. Salaries for some of the CBO staff performing counseling and providing some IEP services were 1/3 of their DOE counterparts. It did not work.

At a meeting toward the end of the year the principal asked the DOE staff whether they wanted CBO involvement and most of the staff could not believe their ears…were they really being consulted on such an issue? Not long thereafter the school was shut down and reorganized. Most of the staff, DOE and CBO, went elsewhere.


At EBC/ENY it was clear that the abandonment of the school by the CBO was one of the reasons that the DOE decided to close it down. What happened?

East Brooklyn Congregations, a CBO whose parent organization the Industrial Areas Foundation was founded by Saul Alinsky, received approval for its new high schools as a way to build community involvement in education in East New York, Brownsville and Bushwick. Ironically they worked with a branch of the Manhattan Institute, the Center for Educational Innovation, a conservative think tank and DOE support organization for 55 schools.

At the time of the school’s founding EBC was involved in housing projects in the community and, as time went on, devoted more of its energies and resources to housing than education.

While EBC involvement with the school was minimal at best it was clear that when the school was placed on the SURR list three years ago it served as an embarrassment to both the organization and its senior education director, Ray Domanico.

Domanico, who became president of the Public Education Association (which later merged with the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation) was known for his ultra-conservative views of public education. Appearing on Bill O’Reilly’s “Factor” Domanico stated in response to O’Reilly’s question about why Catholic schools do better than public schools, “We think there's a couple of reasons. The Catholic schools know what they do well, and they stick to that. They have a very focused and basic curriculum. For example, an immigrant student comes into the public school system in New York City and, often, the public school will keep that child in bilingual education for six years, not teaching them in English. In Catholic school, they'll pray with you in Spanish or in your home language, but they are going to teach you English in the first year.” (THE O'REILLY FACTOR, Fox News Network, Friday, May 18, 2001.)

Given his background it was no surprise that he was quoted in Elissa Gootman’s New York Times article that it was the fault of the school’s leadership that the school was being closed. Nothing about EBC’s changing priorities.

There were other factors which led to the school’s demise including the fact that EBC/ENY elected to become an empowerment school as opposed to one of CEI’s schools.

While we can speculate about the school’s closing what is abundantly clear is the need a full assessment about school closings and small schools. We have been calling for this for a long time…is it ever coming?


Anonymous said...

The study isn't coming soon.

Anonymous said...

So EBC had to disown the East New York high school that has their name on it. Did it give them pause? Was it an occasion to reflect on the past 14 years and what went wrong?

According to the Daily News, their position is that the school staff wasn't open to "new strategies" and changes.

What new strategies and changes? What about just trying to finish what you start!!?? These local "community" flimflammers sure have learned a lot from the demagogues at the top!

Anonymous said...

What is interesting is that EBC still has at least a nominal connection to two other schools--Bushwick Leaders and EBC High School for Public Service. It hasn't severed those connections. I wonder what the difference is?

Anonymous said...

Just a thought:

Maybe EBC -- not the most caring or honest people during my interactions with them on behalf of one of "their" schools -- have a cozier relationship with the principals of Bushwick Leaders and EBC High School for Public Service.

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

NYC Educator said...

I don't know much about the schools you mention, but I've been noticing that principals who come from the Leadership Academy tend not to be treated as harshly by Tweed, no matter how outrageous their behavior. So maybe if you're in a so-called failing school, you're better off with those principals, not matter how unreasonable or incompetent they may be.