Thursday, May 17, 2007

No Cell Phones In School? How About No BlackBerries?

Our Town downtown
July 24, 2006

The Panel for Educational Policy is what they call the school board here and they had a ‘public meeting’ last week at the Tweed Court House at 6:00 p.m. We happened to notice it that day on the city’s web site where we’d gone looking for something else. Our eyes just landed on it. There’s no bold type urging you to look at the announcement, or to come to the meeting. Barnes & Noble puts more work into signs and window displays and web site announcements for author readings at which they might not sell 10 books than the city put into letting you know the school board was having a meeting that night and you’re all invited.

As a result maybe 20 people out of a city, of what, more than 7,000,000 million people were there in a meeting room that was so impressive—like everything about the building—that they could have held a private art auction in it. High, arched windows, chandeliers, upholstered high-backed chairs, optimistically (or cynically) arranged for an audience five times the size of the one that showed up. In the back of the room was a lone TV camera.

Up front was a string of tables put end-to-end to make one long table for the Panel of 13 to sit at with Chancellor Joel Klein in the center. Each member had a name tag in front of them and a bottle of Crystal Geyser water. Two big windows were behind them. The meeting started on time.

It very quickly became, despite the chandelier lighting and the rich fabric on the nice chairs, like any other meeting. An agenda was referred to and projected onto the wall (above an old fireplace? Can’t remember, but it was that kind of room), and there were four points on it, none exciting. One point, a little embarrassing actually, was about the 58.2 percent graduation-in-four-years rate (which we’ve refused to applaud here). Klein was pleased with this rate, while acknowledging that much still has to be done. One older panel member told the Chancellor, ‘…by the way, your numbers were wonderful.’ 58.2 percent is wonderful? Hell, an autistic high school kid from Rochester hit six three pointers in a row in a real game, and Joel Klein and a board member are pleased that 58.2 percent of their students graduated in four years?

Going through the agenda took them maybe 35 minutes. A couple people read reports about the budget and about how parents who have difficulty easily understanding English can be helped by the Translation Unit. A few panel members made a few remarks and that was that.

While all this was going on, the Chancellor was fiddling with his BlackBerry. The whole time! He looked like an uncle with a transistor radio at his niece’s graduation trying to get a Yankee score. Occasionally he’d look back at the what was projected on the wall and turn back to his BlackBerry, like the uncle, noticing in the program that they were still way too early in the alphabet for his niece to go up for her diploma, going back to his game.

Klein only put it away when it came to the last part of the evening, ‘Public Comment’, which meant it was time for anyone in the audience to go to a microphone and ask a question or make a statement. Five or six people did. A couple of the speakers scolded the board and the Chancellor for this or that. The Chancellor responded to the criticism by just going on to the next questioner. The whole public portion of the session took maybe 15 minutes and then the meeting was adjourned. By the time we left the meeting, stopped in the rest room and walked out onto Chambers Street, the Chancellor was already in front of the black car waiting to drive him away.

When the meeting started on time we were impressed by the group’s professionalism. But the BlackBerry, and the lack of engagement with the public representatives in the big room and the quick getaway, made us cynical about even that. Did it really matter to the Panel for Educational Policy or to the Chancellor that anyone showed up at all?

-- Bill Gunlocke

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