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The rise of a new kind of education - Empowerment schools give principals free rein, but others find fault

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Take a look at the new face of education. Veronica Conforme, deputy chief executive officer of the city Department of Education’s (DOE) empowerment schools, attended a meeting of District 21’s Community Education Council (CEC) to offer insight into the eight-month-old program. At P.S. 329 in Coney Island, parents listened as Conforme described what makes empowerment schools different from those operating under the traditional school structure. “They’ve expressed that there’s a lot more work to do,” she said. But “80 percent of empowerment schools said they were happy to join.” Applying for empowerment school status was risky for the dozens of Brooklyn schools that did so last spring. The perks of being in the program are extra cash – each school received about $250,000 – and more power for principals when making school-based decisions, such as hiring staff and creating the curriculum. But with extra power comes added responsibilities. In exchange for bigger budgets and autonomy, school principals must sign “performance agreements” with the DOE, promising to show significant improvement in student test scores from one year to the next. If students fail to excel, principals could be reprimanded, possibly terminated. But one local principal said the responsibility is worth it. Barry Fein, principal of I.S. 96 at 99 Avenue P, said, “If I’m going to be held accountable, let it be for something that I [implement­ed].” “It’s not for everybody,” he said of the program, “but it does work.” He said, “the transition to empowerment was easy.” With one exception. A support system was created for schools making the switch to empowerment, as they would no longer operate under the supervision of regions or districts, but since the office’s workers were just learning the ropes of the new positions, they were unable to assist principals looking for guidance, Fein said. As a result, he said, “I went back to the people that I used to work with at the region for help.” But for all the praise about empowerment schools, there have been some kinks in the system. With a lack of oversight from regional supervisors, parents have reported that some empowerment schools take their sweet time responding to calls. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein recently told The New York Sun, “There are issues to be worked out.”

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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