Queens’ ed rep reviews two years of changing policy

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Belmonte, a Laurelton resident, watched from the stage, she said.

"The principal was kind enough to invite me to join them. I tried to shake everyone's hand," she said of the nearly 600 students who walked.

But as the graduation marked the end of her daughter's high school career, it also marked the end of Belmonte's term on the Panel for Educational Policy, the entity that replaced the Board of Education two years ago. The members representing each borough must have a child in the public school system to remain in office.

"It's been a landmark time," she said in an interview with the TimesLedger Newspapers last week. "To have been one of the pioneers in this is just amazing."

Belmonte, whose two daughters completed public school educations in the city, and 12 others were named to the Panel for Educational Policy in August 2002 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained control of the school system from the old Board of Education and began a massive restructuring.

"We were really the groundbreakers for the way the law framed out how people would serve on the board," Belmonte said.

As Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein began consolidating school districts into larger regions and coming up with a replacement for the community school boards, the panel members visited schools to see what was working and what was not, Belmonte said.

Among the success stories the panel members found was PS 40 in South Jamaica. The school had been on the failing list for years when the principal decided to look at the community. He found that a large percentage of students came from the South Jamaica public housing project and many were living with just one parent or a grandparent, Belmonte said.

"They started providing all these services at the school for the families," she said. "The school rose with the kids."

The panel quickly ran into challenges when it started looking at school policy, particularly the controversial end to social promotion in third grade proposed by Bloomberg and Klein. The mayor and chancellor wanted third-graders who did not pass the city math and reading exams to repeat the grade or try again in summer school.

"Nobody wants a child to go on when they're not getting it," Belmonte said. "The real question is 'what didn't we do?' How did we fail them?"

But when the March 15 vote came around, Belmonte was one of the few people on the 13-member panel to vote against it, saying it did not include any appeals process or prevention measures. The mayor removed a handful of his eight appointees and stacked the deck to ensure the policy would be approved. The policy passed by a vote of 8-5.

"I was shocked," Belmonte said of Bloomberg's actions. "These people had become my friends and colleagues. What we were trying to do, right to the 11th hour, was to find a compromise and if possible, delay the vote to have more time to find that compromise."

Despite the outrage over the policy and the stress placed on third-graders, some good things did emerge from the negotiations, Belmonte said. She was pleased the department is focusing on the younger grades and that students will have portfolios chronicling their path through school, she said.

"If you're not paying attention to all the idiosyncrasies on what stops them from going to the next level, then you can't remove it," she said. "They'll always be stuck right there somehow."

Now Belmonte's daughter is headed for the State University of New York at Cobleskill to continue her studies in animal care, Belmonte said. She graduated from the agricultural program at Flushing's John Bowne High School, her mother said.

"For my daughter her crowning achievement was learning to drive a tractor - in the city of all places," she said.

As for Belmonte, she does not have any plans yet, she said. But she does have some advice for the next person to represent Queens on the panel. Borough President Helen Marshall must appoint a new member by the July meeting.

"Watch out for the rainstorms because they are going to happen," Belmonte said. "If you can weather the rainstorms, dry yourself out, wait for the sun and be part of that rainbow - that's the good part."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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