Distrust of System Brings Paralysis : N.Y. Schools: Islands of Excellence, Sea of Trouble

Times Staff Writers

In a fifth-floor classroom of Public School 110 on Manhattan's Lower East Side--a soot-stained 85-year-old gray cement building with a leaky roof and a furnace that still burns coal--Antoinette Tierny is teaching sixth-graders math and Roman history.

"What happened in 146 BC?" asks Tierny, a thin, precise, but motherly woman who brooks no nonsense.

Hands shoot up all over the room. "Rome conquered Carthage for the last time," a pupil answers.

"What three continents were they (the Romans) on?" Tierny continues.

"Asia, Africa and Europe," another sixth grader replies.

"Carlos, why was Julius Caesar able to become powerful?"

"He was a general and won lots of wars."

Three o'clock is fast approaching, and Tierny reminds her students of their homework assignments as they gather up their books. She glances toward the wardrobe. "Who left his sweater?"

As the class prepares to file out, the teacher pauses a moment to reflect. "They say a lot of bad things about the New York City school system," Tierny, a 17-year veteran of the system, tells a visitor. "They should say nice things."

Not a lot of nice things are being said these days about New York's public schools--once the pride of the city and a national model for urban education. Scenes of enthusiastic learning like those in Tierny's classroom are increasingly rare and have been replaced by other more surrealistic scenes.

In one school, tutoring sessions for children are held in a classroom that is a converted restroom. In another, the guidance counselor works in the gym shower room. Theater stages sometimes have no curtains. Throughout the system, many custodians earn more than principals.

With 936,231 pupils, 104,646 employees, nearly 1,000 buildings and a budget of more than $5 billion, New York's school system is one of the largest and most troubled bureaucracies in the nation.

Studies Identify Problems

Studies show that one third of all pupils never finish high school. Each guidance counselor is responsible for 1,000 cases. There are only 171 truant officers to chase 200,000 truants. The last time the health department made a survey, every public school in the city had at least one health code violation. Fully half of the structures are over 50 years old. Roofs leak, paint peels from walls, thousands of windows are broken.

Some of the city's 32 local school boards have come to rival New York's old Tammany Hall, heavy with patronage and cronyism. There are charges of fraud in school board elections. Ballots have been destroyed or lost; teachers and supervisors have been asked to circulate petitions for candidates and engage in other political activities on school time.

"According to numerous witnesses . . . it is believed that supervisory personnel have obtained their positions by paying bribes to community school board members and that affiliations with a political club or organization is mandated for advancement," a Bronx County Grand Jury Report charged.

"These widely circulated beliefs severely hamper morale, have a corrosive impact on the educational system, and work against the notion that success within the system is based on

New Chancellor Selected

After a prolonged and contentious talent search, Richard R. Green, superintendent of the Minneapolis schools, took office on March 4 as New York City's new schools chancellor, with responsibility for the entire troubled system. To relieve overcrowding and raise standards, he has suggested that New York offer classes 11 months a year. He has criticized the physical condition of the schools and has promised to abolish time clocks for teachers--a symbol to many of the teachers they were not viewed as professionals.

Experts say the new chancellor's most difficult task will be to change a deeply entrenched culture, while encouraging the dedication of those teachers and administrators who are responsible for islands of excellence within the system.

For all the problems, they say, perhaps one third of New York's local school districts function well. One example: This year, the highest honors in the nationwide Westinghouse Science Talent Search were given to two students at Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School, one of the best public high schools in the country. Another New York school, Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, produced 11 Westinghouse semifinalists.

"There are enormous problems in this system as there are in every major urban school system in the United States," said Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of New York's Board of Education. "At the same time what has struck me . . . is how much strength there is in the system as well."

Test of Process

But just becoming a New York City teacher can be frustrating and time-consuming. When she was president of Hunter College in Manhattan, Donna E. Shalala decided she would test the process. She telephoned the Board of Education to explain that she possessed an education degree and wanted to teach in a public school and requested information.

"It took me an hour to get through," Shalala, now chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, recalled. "Someone took down my name. I still haven't gotten the stuff."

Her experience is not unique. Despite a teacher shortage, and although it has worse working conditions and lower salaries than many nearby suburbs, New York is the only city in New York state requiring two tests to obtain a permanent license to teach. Sometimes the complete certification process takes five years.

In a recent report, the Educational Priorities Panel, an oversight group of 25 foundations and nonprofit organizations, criticized the Board of Education for treating teachers as "expendable commodities" and potential recruits as "supplicants at the palace door."

For others involved in New York's school system as well as for teachers, frustration is written in large letters on the blackboard.

"It's like trying to hug an octopus to get hold of the system," said Neill S. Rosenfeld, an official of the United Federation of Teachers.

New York's problems are common to many other big inner-city school systems struggling to educate increasing numbers of economically disenfranchised and minority students.

Like New York, most major cities face severe shortages of minority teachers and principals--as enrollments of minority students continue to grow. Studies show that about 5% of black college students say they intend to be teachers, contrasted with over 25% of minority undergraduates in 1970.

"There are no problems here that are different than problems in other school systems," said P. Michael Timpane , president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "They are just more complicated--and so complicated in fact that they lead to a kind of paralysis in trying to solve them."

"It is a system with an unsurpassed ability to have nothing happen despite enormous efforts," he continued. "This has lead to a very profound cynicism by the people, especially at the lower levels . . . . They believe even people who say they are promoting their welfare have got some other agenda. That, I think, is at least somewhat distinctive in the New York City schools. The profound distrust is perhaps at the bottom the most difficult thing we are working on."

Contributors to Decline

Many things have contributed to the decline of New York City's public schools. Among them are:

--The flight of the middle class to the suburbs.

--A bruising teachers strike in 1969.

--Delaying of badly-needed building maintenance during the city's fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

--The influx of new immigrants, many illiterate in their native languages.

--And the 1969 division of the school system into 32 semi-autonomous districts, with uncertain central management from the Board of Education.

There were other factors as well. As housing costs in the city became prohibitive, many teachers were forced to move to the suburbs, shortening the extra time they could spend with students. And even if teachers had extra time to spend, schools were closed promptly when classes were over unless enormous fees were paid to custodians to keep buildings open--a practice that continues under the current union contract.

Now, at many schools, if teachers wish to prepare for classes before 8 a.m., they must sit in their cars or in restaurants because they can not yet enter the building. At one school in Queens, when some teachers tried to get in before classes started, the custodian retaliated by locking doors and the electrical box so the lights could not be switched on.

A Parent-Teachers Assn. group in Manhattan also painfully discovered how the system works. To raise money for music and library services not provided by the Board of Education, the PTA collected $161,000 using the school cafeteria on Saturdays for fund-raising benefits. But it had to pay $40,000 of the total to the custodian to keep the cafeteria open weekends.

Less Parental Involvement

Experts say another factor in the decline of many schools has been the growth of single-parent families and an accompanying decrease in parental involvement in school activities and student supervision. Fewer parents also have been available to lobby legislators for better schools. As the clout of middle-class voting parents diminished, elected officials were less accountable on the education issue.

"We went through a very long period of time when there was no organized voting parent constituency, and I think the result is that people haven't really demanded much out of the schools," said Stanley S. Litow, executive director of New York's Interface Development Project Inc., a nonprofit research agency.

The result of all this has been a culture of neglect and distrust, where guerrilla warfare often is waged against a muscle-bound, sometimes defensive, distant bureaucracy at the central Board of Education. The board occupies the old Elks Club Building on Livingston Street in Brooklyn and is a hierarchal world unto itself. Employees often have little sense of the total picture when they are assigned projects.

"People are sent to their individual offices, in effect, to do piece work . . . . When I first came here I went on a tour," recalled Wagner, the board's president. "On the eighth floor in the high school division--and this is literally true--the people working in the first office I went to were essentially doing the same thing as the people in the last office I went to. I am convinced there was no contact, one with the other."

" . . . It is also a place based on mistrust. You can see people who have known each other for 30 years on one level get along very well, and on another are very distrustful of the other's being more in the chancellor's favor or the (board) president's favor."

"It is very hierarchal. I guess the analogies that come to mind are the Kremlin, the Pentagon and . . . that of my own church, the Catholic Church. A board resolution is equivalent to an encyclical. A chancellor's circular is the equivalent of a doctrinal ruling."

Whatever the board achieves must be superimposed on 32 separate school districts, created during the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s. Adding to the fragmented nature of the system, the board has direct control over high schools, but not over elementary schools.

"In effect, in 1969 we got the worst of both worlds," said Wagner as he spoke with The Times in his office at the board's headquarters. "We got a kind of political decentralization of the school system breaking up. We got 32 different districts and at the same time, created a central bureaucracy that was even more mistrustful of what was happening out in the local areas, so it chose to second-guess and monitor and not support the schools."

Survivors in the school system have learned to thrive by bending the rules to create the best possible environment so that students can succeed.

At one school in Queens, the principal juggles personnel from different educational programs to see that the cafeteria is supervised during lunch period. He also has to scramble to make up a deficit of $6,000, just to cover basic expenses such as maintenance for the copying machine, paper and chalk.

"You have to sell cookies and ice cream and pretzels," said the principal, who asked not to be named. "That's not what we're all about. I'm supposed to be the instructional leader of my building, not the person who sets up minor businesses to stay afloat."

Examining how and why some districts have improved provides a prescription for change for the entire system under the new chancellor.

One day recently, Bernard J. Mecklowitz, the superintendent of District One in Lower Manhattan, and his evaluation team visited P.S. 110--the school where Tierny teaches her enthusiastic sixth-graders. The purpose was to brief teachers on the elementary school's strengths and weaknesses.

District in Shambles

When Mecklowitz took over District One with its 18 schools in an extremely poor area a decade ago, education there was a shambles. Patronage predominated, financial controls were minimal, curriculum coordination didn't exist and reading scores were down. Each school went its own way and standards sometimes varied even within the same school. Some parents associations fought with principals. Teachers rarely conferred. Discipline was a serious problem; drug pushers had managed to enter some of the schools.

"It was like the Confederate States, or the original 13 Colonies, with each school doing its own thing on its own terms or worse, each teacher doing his or her own thing without any regard to any direction or goal," Mecklowitz recalled. " . . . The characteristic of the district was suspicion."

The day he took office, the teachers union came to Mecklowitz and demanded that a junior high school be closed because it was unsafe for children. Bands of rowdies were running through the halls tearing things down and setting fires. A few days later, the new superintendent received a letter from the Board of Education warning the district had a $1-million deficit and demanding that Mecklowitz fire 52 teachers to bridge that gap.

An audit by Mecklowitz showed the $1 million was misplaced, not misappropriated. The teachers' jobs were saved. Security officers were sent to schools to curb vandalism, and decorum improved. The new superintendent quickly replaced the principal in the public school that had the biggest problems.

Others improvements took much longer. Parents associations were strengthened; the new superintendent began meeting regularly with teachers. Planning in each school was instituted to establish goals and priorities for the classroom. A list of new programs and teaching strategies was developed.

Such autonomy bolstered local initiative. Pre-kindergarten programs began. A special school was set up for students who were failing. Neighborhood institutions such as settlement houses, private schools and businesses were recruited to help teachers strengthen their own professionalism. A team of parents and teachers traveled upstate to Johnson City, N.Y., to study an innovative master learning program, which later was applied to some of District One's schools.

"I think one of the things that is key is programs are not implemented from the top down," Mecklowitz explained.

Sound fiscal management returned. To help principals meet their goals, Mecklowitz assigned a liaison from his office to each school. The liaisons expedite principals' requests and, at the same time, help identify difficulties and focus resources on problems.

Many Problems Remain

Despite all the effort in the district, problems remain. In some schools, reading scores are still too low. Manhattan's Lower East Side remains a poverty area where schools face an extra challenge. Children from homeless families living temporarily in welfare hotels are brought by bus each day to attend classes. Like other districts, many of the schools need major repairs. But in the decade that Mecklowitz has served as superintendent, important progress has been made.

His approach is not unique. Some of what he has achieved is common to other local districts that have been successful and can serve as models for change for the entire system.

"I really believe the chancellor can turn this system around," said Mecklowitz, voicing the opinion of many others in the schools. "I don't believe this is an impossible system . . . . The potential is there for this huge educational snowball that will transcend all the garbage that has been the impediment for so many years."

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