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The Civic Scene

This school year started with high hopes for improving the city school system. Principals were given autonomy over the way money was to be spent. They were also promised more money so they could help failing students and a bonus if students' test scores improved. There was the threat, however, that if their school received a failing grade, they would be removed or fired.

Since every school has a Leadership Team of parents, teachers, students and staff, the principal has a group to help make choices. Many schools chose to start after-school programs, purchase special materials and pay professionals to work with students who need help. But due to the recession, city revenue has fallen, so there has to be cuts.

Each public school is losing money. The things budgeted to help failing students are being cut; everything else is required by law or union contract. Before you criticize the United Federation of Teachers contract, know that it is the contract which mandates the lower class sizes of 32 in elementary, 33 in middle and 34 in high schools, unless a superintendent waives the rule.

This year's different tests have already been given, so you might say that you could cut those special make-up programs. But many students are deficient in the skills needed to pass those tests next year and need to develop the skills to succeed in our high-tech economy.

The economic downturn decreases the amount of money the state and local governments spend. Unlike the federal government, local governments can only borrow. By law, they have to limit their debt. The mayor is right about cutting expenses, but schools need money if they are to improve their students' learning skills. The mayor has to figure out how to help schools.

Principals are under pressure, so they pressure assistant principals, who pressure teachers, who pressure students. Sounds like the Army.

The one problem is that 30 percent, 40 percent or 50 percent of the students do not care about school. Some are worried about abuse, drug pushers, gang pressure, shootings, negligent parents, terrible living conditions, getting food to eat and diseases. The federal government's money allocation to our state depends on testing from the No Child Left Behind Act, so everyone is pressured more.

Students have all kinds of electronic gadgets which can block out the real world. Some teachers, under pressure by children who cannot or will not learn and who are not helped by budget cuts, would be happy to let some students slip into their make-believe world.

I know of one teacher who worked for months to convince a parent to put a hyperactive boy back on medicine. The principal did not bother the teacher. When the boy was back on his medicine and able to sit and learn, they put him in another classroom.

Parents, students and teachers complain that students take too many city and state pre- and regular tests. Ironically, the city can rank a school as a failure, but the state can say it is passing or vice-versa.

The city Department of Education has changed its structure three times in the past three or four years, and now critics say it should be changed back to school districts where parents can have a larger voice. Many parents either come from a country where they had no say or are too busy to be involved. Only about 10 percent of parents voted in school board elections, fewer in poorer neighborhoods.

The UFT claims that many schools were given $153 million to reduce class sizes, but half of them did not. The money came from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which claimed that the city received less money for schools than the rest of the state. The DOE says it reduced class size. Only parents really know.

There are complaints that parents do not come to meetings. Beyond elementary school, most parents never went to meetings or parent-teacher conferences. Schools try with flyers, phone calls, letters, bulletins or newsletters. Every school now has a paid parent coordinator to help maintain contact with parents.

And the cell phone controversy has created such ill feelings that some want to change the system in 2009 when it comes up for review. For the next two weeks, however, we will write good things.

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