Interim Schools Chancellor Harold Levy deserves atleast two cheers, and maybe more.
At the annual Principal for a Day town hall meeting the other night, our likely next permanent chancellor was discussing the problems of the public schools in business terminology that even the many prominent corporate executives in the audience had never dared use. At an event that in the past has ended up as a political rally and booster session for the public school system, Levy finally acknowledged that the system is dysfunctional and needs drastic change.
Levy, formerly an executive at CitiGroup, said school officials had to start thinking of students, parents and teachers as clients. He likened Board of Education bureaucrats to back office staff who should be supporting individual schools rather than trying to micromanage them.
One of the principals for a day complained that Bronx High School of Science alumni weren't allowed to purchase new seats for the school's auditorium because of an obscure Board regulation. Levy replied that if such an insane rule did exist, it was now rescinded. He said his lawyers were poring over the board regulations with an eye toward throwing out many similar insanities.
Levy's candor and openness are a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, he also seems addicted to the idea that the city's school system is so grossly underfunded that any structural reforms he manages to accomplish will be limited in their impact. Levy certainly has good cause to press for a much fairer share of the state's education aid. But the reality is that he has $11 billion to spend on the schools. That's more real dollars per child than any of his predecessors had. Properly managed, it ought to be enough to provide a decent education for every child in the city.
I know it's enough because of what I saw as principal for a day at Frederick Douglass Academy, a combination junior and senior high school at Adam Clayton Blvd. and 149th St. in Harlem. It's a remarkable school that dispels two myths about urban public education â€” the "not enough money" myth and the "black kids can't compete" myth.
Coming mostly from the nearby mean streets, 98% of Frederick Douglass students graduate with a Regents diploma, and 95% go on to college. A recent Newsweek magazine survey listed Frederick Douglass Academy as one of the top public schools in the country, based on the number of advanced placement courses it offers and the students' grades on the AP tests.
Yet Frederick Douglass gets even less money from the Board of Education than many other schools in the neighborhood that have been officially designated as failing, and which therefore qualify for extra resources.
What's the secret of Frederick Douglass' success? A partial answer is that the adults who run the place have constituted themselves as a separate republic of school reform.
Principal Gregory Hodge didn't wait for a chancellor to relieve his school of those onerous board regulations. Wherever possible, he ignores them. And the staff at Frederick Douglass has voluntarily decided that they aren't going to work to the rhythms of the teachers contract.
Instead of work rules, the administrators and staff are guided by the interests of the students. That's why almost no teacher walks out the door at 3 p.m. and why the AP physics teacher is going to be in the building for four days during the spring recess to help his students prepare for the AP test.
Money always helps. But as Levy might learn on a visit to Frederick Douglass Academy, breaking the chains of regulations and work rules is even more liberating for schools.