Sunday, March 22, 2009

ICE Members Testify at State Assembly Education Committee Hearing in Brooklyn

Lisa North, from ICE, and I were able to testify at the State Assembly Education Committee's hearing in Brooklyn at the end of a long day on Friday. The Committee is chaired by Cathy Nolan.

Lisa talked about how the current system is flawed and she also advocated for the ICE School Governance plan. Other ICE members were in the audience also.

I was lucky enough to be accompanied by five hardy UFT members from Jamaica High School. We took the long F train ride after school from Jamaica to Brooklyn to make our case to the Education Committee. I did not get to read my entire testimony as time was short but I was able to explain how Mayoral control has affected Jamaica High School (see below) and push for democracy and checks and balances in school governance. The Committee seemed quite interested in hearing what we had to say. A few minutes later, a member of Chairwoman Nolan's staff came to meet with the Jamaica group at the request of the chair. We will keep our readers informed as we proceed.

Testimony of James Eterno, Jamaica High School Social Studies Teacher to State Assembly Education Committee

My name is James Eterno. This is my twenty-third year as a teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens. I also serve as the school’s UFT Chapter Leader. I am here to tell you how the current school governance system known as Mayoral control has affected my school, a school that has been a part of the Jamaica community since 1892. Jamaica is now subject to a wild accountability system that basically flies in the face of reason. If this school governance system is not changed to introduce real democratic governance with proper checks and balances, then not only will our century old institution be imperiled, but the educational opportunities of another generation of New York City children will be placed at risk. That is how urgent the task of this committee is.

In 2002 when the Mayor took over the schools, our school had its issues but so do all schools. Over the next couple of years, we started to notice that we were getting more and more incoming pupils who were not fully prepared for high school academically or emotionally. The school decided to take a zero tolerance policy and report every safety incident and punish it at its highest possible level. This produced a spike in our reported incidents. We tried to explain what we were doing to keep our halls clear so classrooms could be safe for learning but to no avail. The previous Principal and I pleaded with the police and DOE not to label us as dangerous because we never were. The DOE and police told us numbers don’t lie. Their computers flagged us as an unsafe school. The resulting mis-labels of persistently dangerous and impact school caused our enrollments to dramatically decline. In essence, we were punished for telling the truth.

School officials have figured out that if you just make the test scores, promotion numbers, number of safety incident reports and everything else look right on the computer, then nobody will question anything. Our administration learned and the consequences were almost deadly at Jamaica. A directive was put out telling staff not to call 911. Subsequently, a student fell ill and since there was a delay in calling for an ambulance, that student didn’t get medical attention fast enough and it is fortunate that she didn’t die.

As long as a school’s survival is based on making numbers look right, the temptation to play with the numbers is too great.

When you look at the numbers on our school’s budget this year, it looks as though we were provided with an extra $124,555 for an additional support position as this extra allocation shows up on our budget. However, we recently learned that the employee who was listed on our official school budget as working at Jamaica, does not even work for Jamaica High School; he works for Queens Collegiate, a new small school opened up in our building.

Concerned members of the Jamaica High School family have written to the State Education Commissioner three times in the current school year to complain about how our school is treated unfairly by the DOE. The DOE answers basically that all is well. If we have a phantom employee, the numbers can look good and DOE can tell the State that we are providing extra funding to Jamaica.

Due to our declining enrollments, the DOE said we have space to open up a new small school with modern up-to-date facilities in our building. Since this new school, Queens Collegiate, took over our space, the Social Studies Department at Jamaica was evicted in the fall and is now housed in a room that has one electrical outlet for the entire department. We have been waiting all year for the electricity to be upgraded. Nothing has been done. As the new school has taken space, it is clear that we will not have sufficient classroom space to lower class sizes at Jamaica as our enrollments have hopefully stopped dropping and might even go up.

In one of our letters to State Education Commissioner Richard Mills that we sent in February, we told the Commissioner about how the DOE has taken the state class size reduction funds this spring and used them to plug a budget hole from a past year. Class sizes have increased substantially in social studies to UFT contractual maximums and a social studies teacher who was paid for with state class size reduction funds was moved out of social studies to teach in special education, a subject he is not qualified to teach. The state has answered our letter by saying that they will monitor our use of class size reduction funds in April. Meanwhile, the DOE sits by silently and nothing changes. Students are forced to sit in larger classes despite 150 million in state dollars that was allocated to reduce class sizes and some of our most at risk pupils are being taught by a teacher who is not certified to teach special education.

In the past, under the old Board of Education which certainly was no ideal governance system by any means, if we would have made such a complaint about misuse of state funds, there would have been Queens High School Superintendent officials here within days and classes would have been ordered changed. Under the current system, we wait and wait and wait for any kind of action. It looks to those of us who work at Jamaica as if there is no penalty for the DOE when they violate state law. What kind of message does that send to our children? We have no doubt that this is happening in other schools throughout the city as class sizes are on the rise in most grades this year despite the infusion of the extra state money.

There is more. Hourly employees at Jamaica now deal with much of the school’s confidential record keeping that by Contract and law licensed secretarial personnel are exclusively supposed to handle. DOE does nothing to stop this.

In addition, pupils are moved up to the next level in a subject course even if they don’t pass the first course.

This winter, Jamaica High School has followed other schools by starting something called “Credit Recovery.” A pupil who has failed a class can make up an entire course by showing up for three mornings for three hours during winter or spring break. The academic standards have fallen so much that teachers now joke that vehicles better roll up their windows when they pass by our school or they will have a “drive by diploma” thrown in their car. We understand why the SAT scores are down. Standards are virtually nonexistent. Kids are smart. They know this. We know we are not alone and that what is happening at Jamaica is occurring in many other buildings. We are told by administration that if the graduation and promotion numbers don’t improve, the DOE will shut down our school and get rid of us.

Only the State can turn this around. It will take a great deal of courage for the legislature to stand up to a super well funded public relations machine. But stand up you must or another generation of students will be subjected to a sub-prime education with virtually no rules or regulation. Schools need democracy along with checks and balances. It’s the foundation for our US governmental system and although far from perfect, it clearly is better than any other alternative.

First, neighborhood schools should be an integral part of every community as they are in the suburbs from Pre-K through high schools. School choice is fine for people who do not wish to take advantage of the neighborhood school but a strong group of elementary, middle and high schools that serve each community must be a central part of any new school system. For this reason, only the State should close schools. If a school isn’t working, the city has an obligation to fix it, not close it and start all over. Fixing schools means giving a school the resources such as lower class sizes, modern wiring and sufficient guidance and secretarial services we need.

Next, the idea of market forces running education is absurd and leads to the phony diplomas we’ve been referring to that really cheapen the work of the majority of students who work hard to succeed and live by the rules. Public education is government at the grassroots level and the teachers, parents, and at the high school level, the students must be empowered. Real democracy starts at the school level.

I echo what many people have already said to this committee that School Leadership Teams should have power over budgets and SLT’s should be involved in school based hiring too. The current system gives principals as middle level managers in a business model the responsibility for all hiring. It has led to a return of patronage on a grand scale. The Pendleton Act was passed to put in competitive civil service tests for hiring federal jobs in the 1880’s and end patronage. In the schools today, if you have a license, I would rather know someone than be competent. If you don’t have a license and want to be a chancellor, just get a waiver. That must be stopped.

At the school level, SLT’s with oversight from a Superintendent should be empowered to hire principals and others in schools. If the legislature can’t accept this democratic hiring, then return to job placement from competitive civil service tests and lists as just about every other city, state and federal agency does. The business model hasn’t worked in business and it isn’t working in the schools.

Furthermore, we need to have real democracy at the district and central levels. Only in five cities in New York State are parents not entitled to a say in who runs their schools. We need to have some kind of direct elections for some central board members and local school board members; for why should minority residents in New York City, as in the other four largest cities in the state, be denied the democratic input that citizens in every other school district enjoy? Money certainly could be set aside to publicize the importance of school elections that could be held on Election Day in each district. Elected reps should pick Superintendents with the Central Board having veto power. The Chancellor should be selected by a school board who would only have a minority of mayoral appointments. As Diane Ravitch told this Committee, the Chancellor must be accountable to the students and parents, not the mayor. As long as the Mayor has a say in the funding, he/she will still play a major role in the school system.

I realize that this plan would take a tremendous amount of political courage for the legislature to implement. However, think of the alternative. If the State approves a continuation of the current system or some little adjustment that puts some checks on the Mayor that will more than likely just be ignored, you will be effectively sentencing the school children of New York for the next generation to a school system where making the numbers look right and not education will be the school system’s primary goal. I hope you heed one school’s story as a symbol of what is wrong and listen to us on how it could be improved.


Anonymous said...

James, well said. A word of advice, if the State Assembly contacts you again be very careful of who in ICE speaks to them. I would hate to see your wonderful ideas dismissed because they are presented by someone who is eccentric like Angel Gonzalez or Marion Swerdlow.

Chaz said...

I hope you are successful.

Under Assault said...

James, the details in your statement are really interesting. Most members don't know anything about the things you talk about, nor a whole lot of CLs either.

To Anon. 11:53, there's nothing wrong with eccentricity when it's coupled (as it is with the two individuals you mention) with intelligence and political experience. If there were fewer sheep in the system and more people willing to duke it out, we wouldn't be in the sorry place we're in now.

You may of course have been just taking a swipe. One of these two is not ICE and never was.

Anonymous said...

eccentric = a polite way of saying "crazy"

Anonymous said...

Some of this stuff in these comments is truly funny. I hope ICE has a bit of a sense of humor. I think Obama would call it gallows humor.

Anonymous said...

Swerdlow is not in ICE.

Anonymous said...

eccentric= a non-polite way of red-baiting.

Anonymous said...

I don't think James is red. Where is that coming from?

Anonymous said...

Swerdlow and Gonzalez are both in ICE.

Anonymous said...

James...You are certainly a viable asset to any member in the UFT...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I am in agreement with James Eterno, he has a grasp of the political reality in schools today. We need to organize in each school and win over the membership to support a democratic union.
To Anon:11:53 Divide and conquer, the tactics of opportunists and careerists. OR Unity?

Anonymous said...

Swerdlow is in Teachers for a Just Contract.