The Civic Scene: Klein Hears Parents At St. Albans Meeting

Shirley L. Huntley

January 31, 2008

Editorial feature in The Times Ledger
By Bob Harris

A few weeks ago U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) held a roundtable discussion with Chancellor Joel Klein of the New York City Department of Education at the Robert Ross Johnson Family Life Center in St. Albans. Southeast Queens elected officials, clergy and community leaders were invited. The room was filled with several hundred participants.

Prior to the arrival of Chancellor Klein, the elected officials present made some remarks. State Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-Jamaica) spoke of the need for parental involvement in the school system. This seemed to set the tone of what many speakers had to say.

Assemblywoman Michele Titus (D-Far Rockaway), who has two children in public schools, explained that she had been an attorney for the Department of Education. She also talked about the need for a foreclosure seminar for the people of Queens.

State Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica) complained about the lack of free choice of schools for our children and that parents feel disenfranchised and are asking her for help. She questioned the positive statistics presented.

State Sen. Malcolm A. Smith (D-St. Albans), who is also the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, talked about the $4 billion state deficit and has concerns about how New York City's $14 billion budget was being spent. He urged people to tell Chancellor Klein what they wanted.

Meeks commented that he was not satisfied with the status quo in our education establishment.

Joel Klein spoke for about 20 minutes, then took questions from the audience. He spoke well and had lots of facts. He admitted that there were problems, but told of successes. He has been on the job for 5 years. He said the status quo was not acceptable and that too many students were not graduating from high school.

He boasted that in Districts 27, 28 and 29 in the past four years, 8,000 more students graduated from high school, more than 200 new schools were opened in the city, there are more qualified teachers, salaries have been raised and test scores are higher. On the other hand, I noted in the New York Teacher an article which says that more teachers are currently leaving the system than in past years.

Federal tests show higher scores in English and math in eighth grade. Fourth-grade students are outscoring the rest of the nation, and New York City was named the "most improved urban school district in the United States." He boasted that recently $230 million was moved from the bureaucracy to the schools.

To understand their wants and feelings, 600,000 adults were surveyed and there were quality reviews (by educators from England and Australia). The chancellor admitted that 140,000 students, mostly boys of color, are dropping out of city schools and that we are not competing with the rest of the world: We have an achievement gap.

The first speaker from the audience was the Rev. Henrietta Fullard, who is a former principal and chair of Clergy United for Community Empowerment, based in southeast Queens. She was angry that we have so many dropouts, that we are losing a generation to the prison system and that too much money is given for teacher's salaries. Klein answered that we have to pay for the quality of teachers and that we are building new science labs.

A long line of parents stood behind the microphone. One parent who is a PTA president wanted more parent involvement, while others complained about their problems with the system. A parent from PS 40 spoke about the needs of the school and said that children are not given transportation to attend desired schools.

It is interesting that about 40 years ago, as a young, idealistic teacher, I became involved with the UFT More Effective School program. There were eventually about 60 schools with their own district, class size of 22, aides, guidance counselors and many innovations that our schools have today. PS 40Q was one of those schools. The program was disbanded, naturally. Today we are starting over again.

Other parents said things such as, too many Long Island residents come to teach here because they can't get jobs on Long Island, while others said that one should look at prison statistics, not test scores, to see how well the system works. Some said that local parents were not surveyed. Another complaint was that the Parent Center was moved from nearby Merrick Boulevard to Long Island City. Yet another said that the District 29 office was too crowed and too small, so parents have no functioning office.

Pastor Charles Morris wanted help for IS 109 Principal Shango Blake, who was removed last September over allegations that he misappropriated about $30,000. Klein answered that there was a complaint he had choked a child also. It seems that Blake hasn't been even charged yet, but sits with hundreds of other teachers and supervisors doing nothing while earning their $40,000,000 in salaries. Professor James Blake called for a quick ending of his son's ordeal.