Friday, May 18, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

Our Town downtown
April 30, 2007

Even with Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein running the schools, two guys who have glossier resumes than you normally expect public school heads to have, even with them at the helm, only about half the city’s high school kids graduated in four years, according to important numbers released last week. That means half the kids didn’t even show up for school or class or something; you almost can’t go to class every day and not graduate from the city public schools. That 50% rate is about the same as the rates in Rochester and Syracuse and Buffalo. Half the kids in those places must have not really bought the program either.

That’s a glum statistic, isn’t it? It’s so flat and predictable it hardly dents our consciousness anymore. And, of course, the rest of the statistics show that the suburbs do much better. You’ve all heard that. And you know there’ll be the mandatory news reports about how much more they spend in Westchester per pupil, and you’ve all heard that the teachers there make more. And they’ll say New York City doesn’t get its fair share. And of course we want our fair share and we want our kids to have schools like Westchester does, or wherever it is that it all seems to work, as seen from here.

But look; we have Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein. That’s big, isn’t it? Bloomberg is a bright mogul and a philanthropist and the good mayor of the biggest place in the country. Klein was a big lawyer in the Clinton administration. That should be the turnaround team you’d dream about. Two mature, accomplished guys in good suits, men used to succeeding, turning their attention to the problems of urban education. Westchester should be so lucky as to have two guys like that in charge of the schools, you’d think. They weren’t just given the reins, they grabbed for them, so fed-up were they by the failure they saw, so convinced were they that they could make things better.

Don’t you wonder why then, even with the two sharp guys running the system, the system scored about like Rochester did, or Buffalo, or Yonkers, places that didn’t have Westchester advantages either? Like major league batting averages seem to top out in the .300’s, no matter what gear or substance or training methods are used, is it going to turn out that 50% is about where urban school graduation rates are going to settle?

We seem to be settling for that number. We try to get our own kids in schools, private or public, where the rates are better. And of course the numbers are way better in Manhattan.
But does that mean we shouldn’t worry about the rest of the city kids? Are New Yorkers so remotely taken up with worrying about Iraq and Darfur and snowmobiles in Yellowstone that they can’t even see the disparities and injustices close to home? How can a borough that has renowned colleges and public lectures on everything from global warming to the Shirtwaist Factory fire not be talking all the time about the failure of the local public schools, schools that may not be where their kids go, but where kids go nevertheless and who need help from somewhere? Schools in the same city, for God’s sake, where the publishing industry is centered, where Harry Potter is published. Schools where the kids of the people who deliver your mail go. Why don’t we demand of ourselves to make the schools work for those kids? We New Yorkers want to save the whale and save Darfur and save the next Penn Station from the wrecking ball and save ourselves from Wal-Mart. We should want to save the 50% of the kids that don’t graduate on time. Shouldn’t we be marching over that? Why do we accept such a high rate of failure where New York City kids are concerned?

-- Bill Gunlocke

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