Schools Told: Always Room for One (or fifteen) More
Ohanian Comment: As a longtime middle school teacher, I'd like to see the standardistos who think these class sizes will work try it. Lock them up in a room with 37 middle schoolers. And if they try to call for help, make sure they get the voice mail message that the mailbox is full.
BOYS and girls, I apologize for not having enough chairs," said Brent Wyso, the sixth-grade math teacher at Intermediate School 89. "We will be getting more chairs."
On Monday for the first day of school, Mr. Wyso had 37 in a class and had to have several children sit on a bench, holding their backpacks on their laps. Alex Lee, the sixth-grade social studies teacher, ran out of space at his tables, and four children sat on the floor writing on clipboards. Mr. Lee was teaching a lesson on artifacts using an overhead projector, but several students in the back and on the sides had trouble seeing. "It could get worse," he said. "They've told us class size can go to 40."
Two floors below, Ellen Foote, the principal, was trying to reach someone in special education in the brand new, bureaucratically streamlined regional office system set up by the mayor. "I'm getting a voice mail that says the mailbox is full," Ms. Foote said. "I can't even leave a message." She had 15 children assigned to a special education class, which by law is supposed to be limited to 12, and a parent was waiting outside the door with a 16th child. "Excuse me," Ms. Foote said. "Let me tell the dad I can't resolve this today."
Until last week, Ms. Foote had her usual 33 children per class registered. That is well above city and state averages for middle schools, but Ms. Foote has put up with it because she has been lucky enough to run one of the city's small schools (300 students) that researchers say are the best hope for urban education. And she is in a beautiful building in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan.
But just days before school opened, she was informed by city officials that she would be receiving many additional student transfers under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The 2002 law permits children at failing schools to transfer to better schools in the city if there is room. The principal did not know how many would show up. Several who came on Monday had troubled academic records. One child was late 80 times last year at the previous school and failed three classes.
Nor had she been told anything about any extra resources for I.S. 89's newly overcrowded classes and its new students with more challenging problems. On the contrary; Ms. Foote's budget had been cut. Over the summer, she had to lay off a teacher, and will not be offering Spanish to sixth graders. She had to cut back her after-school remedial program to 18 weeks from 30 weeks. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said he wants middle school literacy classes limited to 28. Ms. Foote has 32 to 37 in her classes. "They say these things that have nothing to do with reality," she said. "How could they wait until the week before school to do this? How are we supposed to plan?"
On top of all this, she said, shortly before school started she discovered that a student had been added to her rolls by the mayor's office. "No one even called me," said Ms. Foote, who complained to her regional office. "I said, `I'm already full.' I was told: `There's a connection to the mayor, you have no choice.' "
After a reporter's call, Peter Kerr, a city education department spokesman, said an additional sixth-grade teacher would be added at I.S. 89. Mr. Kerr acknowledged that the decision had happened so quickly "because you called it to our attention." He said that No Child Left Behind transfers had caused "a very serious problem" at many middle schools, and that a memorandum would be sent out to determine where extra teachers were needed to reduce crowding. "We will try to keep class size to 34 at most," he said. "And we know that's not ideal."
It's high. According to 2002 State Education Department figures, the average class size for sixth grades in New York State, not including New York City, is 23. Such disparities are not new, which is why the Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued the state a decade ago, in hopes of winning city schools a larger share of state aid. Gov. George E. Pataki fought that suit at every step until New York's highest court ordered him in June to increase aid to the city. But city principals like Ms. Foote are not holding their breath. The governor's response so far has been to form a blue-ribbon commission to study the matter further.
To take advantage of the federal law's transfer provision, Judy Garcia's child will travel 90 minutes by public transportation from the far northern Bronx to I.S. 89 in far southern Manhattan. The Garcias live near the Westchester County border. It would seem to make more sense to give a child at a poor, failing Bronx school the opportunity to transfer to nearby suburban Westchester, which has some of the richest schools and smallest class sizes in the nation. But the federal officials who drafted No Child Left Behind did not have the stomach to mandate that rich districts help out poor ones.
From the beginning, New York City parent advocates like Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters, feared that No Child Left Behind transfers would overtax good city schools like I.S. 89 that were managing to stay afloat despite limited resources. City officials promised that would not happen. In February, for example, a city spokesman told The New York Post, "The chancellor is committed to complying with the law while not increasing class size."
New York City principals are used to the gap between promises they read in the papers and what they live. The mayor repeatedly cites the reduction and improvement of the school bureaucracy as a top achievement. Yet, not once this summer, Ms. Foote said, was she able to get someone from the Human Resources Department on the phone. "I had to give my new teachers a letter," she said. "Then they had to go to Human Resources and stand in line for two days just to get an appointment" to get on the payroll.
Mr. Kerr, the spokesman, said city officials knew that the Human Resources operation needed improving. He also said that there had been a referral to I.S. 89 from the mayor's office, but that it went through "normal" channels.
As for promising not to increase class size, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said that was really just "shorthand" for saying that the city would follow the union contract of 34 to a middle school class. "I'd like it a lot lower," Mr. Klein said, adding that he was disappointed the governor had not moved faster to resolve the fiscal equity lawsuit. "We've had too many commissions, too many reports, and we need a political solution to this very serious problem."
No Child Left Behind Law Leaves No Room for Some
New York Times
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