Friday, March 5, 2010

Sullivan Responds to Village Voice and Pedro Noguera

School co-locations may be the most controversial topic in public education in NYC right now. The same day the Village Voice article “Inside a Divided Upper East Side School” appeared, I was asked as a member of the city’s central school board, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), to approve the co-location of fifteen schools in Board of Education facilities throughout the City.

Unfortunately, the Voice squandered an opportunity to responsibly examine this issue, instead providing an appallingly inaccurate portrayal of the co-location of two schools, the Isador and Ida Straus School (PS 198) and the Lower Lab School (PS 77). And as a parent of two students at Lower Lab, I especially question the cited criticism from Pedro Noguera, the NYU professor and SUNY trustee.

First, I certainly agree with the Voice that Chancellor Klein’s policy for admissions to gifted and talented (G&T) programs, including Lower Lab, has been a disaster. Standardized tests introduced ostensibly for purposes of equity have resulted in less diverse classrooms and the shuttering of programs in low income neighborhoods. I voted against this policy change when the Chancellor sought PEP approval. G&T admissions decisions should have more holistic criteria and allow children to enter at higher grades by creating different entry points.

But the Voice proceeds to ignore the facts in attempting to portray Lab as a school favored with superior resources and facilities. Some of the more egregious misrepresentations:

The article is subtitled: “Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door”

The entrance intended to be the primary student entrance is used by PS 198. It opens onto Seabury Park and connects directly to the main floor with classrooms and administrative offices. The back door connects 3rd avenue with the basement. Lower Lab students enter here and climb two or three floors to their classrooms. Both schools previously used the same door but at some point the administrations thought that was too crowded and Lower Lab, as the smaller school, began using the 3rd Avenue door for the safety of the children at both schools.

“Throughout Straus, the biggest challenge of having almost 30 kids in a room seems to be controlling the chaos.” … “But the teachers in Lower Lab have a major advantage: They have an adult-to-student ratio half that of Straus's.”

Classes at PS 198 average 23 with lows of 17 and 18 in Kindergarten. There are actually only a few “close to 30”. Class sizes are dramatically smaller at PS 198 than Lower Lab. All Lab classes are at 28 except 5th grade at 25. The statistics are readily available on the DOE web site had the Voice cared to check its facts.

The DOE reports the pupil to teacher ratio at PS 198 as 12 to 1 and Lab at 18 to 1. While Lower Lab has fourteen teacher’s aides funded by the PTA, they don’t reverse the pupil teacher ratio. Teacher’s aides are no substitute for small classes. Controlling an elementary school class of 28 kids is hard and the dynamics in the classroom the Voice observed can and do happen at any school with large class sizes regardless of the race, income or ability of the students within. PS 198, by keeping its early grade class sizes small is providing an environment for learning that research has repeatedly shown is more effective and beneficial to students.

The Voice makes numerous references to inequity of resources between the two schools. One parent at PS 198 is quoted: "We know they get better stuff and more money in Lower Lab".

The per capita spending is much higher at PS 198, $2,700 more per child, reflecting the fact that city, state and federal funding formulae provide higher funding to lower income students. PTA fundraising for teaching assistants comes nowhere near to closing this gap.

Finally, the Voice trots out NYU’s Pedro Noguera to deliver the final rebuke that the Lower Lab School violates the constitution: “What we have here is really Plessy at work: separate, without even being equal—but very much separate."

Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruling overturned in Brown vs. Board of Ed, permitted racially segregated schools. Noguera blithely asserts racial discrimination is perpetuated by the DOE in 2010. But let’s look at the facts. The PS 198 zone has enough students to fill roughly a third of the building. Any magnet, G&T or District 2 program placed in the remainder of the building is likely to reflect the demographics of the wider Upper East Side in contrast to the demographics of the immediate zone.

Noguera cries foul but doesn't offer solutions. How would he use this space were Lower Lab actually to close or move out? He heads the SUNY committee that authorizes charter schools, including the six granted to Eva Moskowitz's chain, the Harlem Success Academies. Perhaps that's his solution. I find it puzzling that Noguera would condemn the practice of middle class parents raising funds for their schools while championing charter schools sustained by massive unrestricted donations from hedge fund moguls and conservative foundations. It does seem an interesting coincidence that the Voice published his criticisms the same day I voted to oppose the co-location of two of his SUNY charters in Board of Ed buildings.

Ultimately school buildings belong to the people. Communities, and the Community Education Councils that represent them, should decide which education models best serve their children. Magnet schools, G&T programs and charter schools can all be options for public school families. Issues of equity and access must be examined with real evidence and focused on achieving real solutions, not with the intention to inflame and divide as the Voice has done.

Patrick J. Sullivan
March 5th, 2010