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Confusion Reigns over Klein’s Proposed School Restructuring
By SUZANNE LA BARRE


New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein announced details of a controversial school reorganization plan Monday, April 16, ending months of anticipation—but doing little to tamp down puzzlement surrounding the third systemic overhaul in five years.

When classes convene in September, several "school support organizations," or HMO-like resource networks, are slated to supplant the department's 10 regional superintendent offices. Principals hire one organization using school site funds. That organization then acts as a business consultant of sorts, helping secure curriculum resources, draw community support or assist with testing goals, depending on each school's needs.

The idea is to foster choice, Klein said at the Panel for Educational Policy meeting at I.S. 230 in Jackson Heights on Monday. "It's going to empower the schools to meet the needs of students," he said. Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been widely criticized for ignoring educators’ concerns and exercising top-down governance.

But so far, the reorganization poses more unknowns than knowns. "I can't figure the plan out at all," said Deborah Meier, a longtime New York City educator, in an email. "It strikes me that it's part of—and perhaps the final stroke in—dismantling the NYC public system in ways that will make it hard to put back together again."

At minimum, people are eminently confused. As part of the reorganization , principals can join one of nine “partnership organizations,” in which schools collaborate with a select nonprofit group; one of four theme-based networks led by local educators, called “learning organizations”; or one “empowerment network” for schools that agree to greater accountability in exchange for more autonomy.

Principals will be asked to pay as little as $29,500 to pair with the least supportive offering, the empowerment network, and as much as $145,215 to partner with the Baltimore-based nonprofit Success for All Foundation, which boasts a comprehensive restructuring program for low-performing elementary schools.

To add to the intricacy, each of the nine partnership organizations has a different area of expertise. The Washington D.C.-headquartered Academy for Educational Development, for example, specializes in assisting middle schools, while Learning Innovations at WestEd, with offices in Massachusetts and Vermont, excels at teacher training. Manhattan-based New Visions focuses on small schools, and has opened 83 schools citywide since 2002. The American Institutes for Research in D.C. focuses on effective data use. The nine organizations were culled from 36 groups that applied for the contracts.

The four learning organizations, each headed by a former regional superintendent, feature different themes and prices. Judith Chin, of Region 3 in Queens, is expected to lead a network on “integrated curriculum and instruction” intended to help prepare students to meet the demands of a global marketplace. Her fee is $47,500 a school. Kathleen Cashin, of Region 5 in Queens, will helm the "knowledge network" focused on expanding student erudition for $42,438 a school. Laura Rodriguez of Region 2 in the Bronx could charge as much as $55,000 a school as head of the “leadership” learning support organization, which builds internal capacity. Marcia Lyles of Region 8 in Brooklyn is slated to help schools collaborate with local nonprofits and groups as director of the “community” learning support organization. She plans to charge $33,750, $39,850 and $66,675, depending on services needed.

Klein insisted that a principal symposium on April 23 at the Grand Hyatt, in addition to informational fairs he intends to hold throughout the city, will shed light on the options.

Principals, who are encouraged to consult with teachers, parents and community members, must pick a network by May 15. That isn't much time, critics say, especially given that principals are bound to their network for two years.

"It's very ambitious," said Kristen O'Brien, dean of students at I.S. 230. "Perhaps too ambitious. ...Principals are going to be asked to make a really big decision and not really given a lot of time to make such a decision."

Theresa Costello, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 76 in Queens, agreed. She voiced her own confusion over the changes. "I'm just trying to figure it all out."

The teachers’ union seems equally baffled. United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tentatively blessed the plan in a statement Monday, commending the networks’ collaborative approach, while warning that the union will monitor the situation. “...Because of all the layers here, we need to make sure there is cohesion, transparency and accountability," she said.

The city’s principals’ union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, has not released a position. A union representative could not be reached for comment by press time.

The new arrangement is exclusive to New York City, the largest public school district in the nation. Klein is confident the experiment will work. "It's an exciting transition in the way we do business in New York City," he said.

Moments earlier, though, even he admitted the business plan had holes. "Obviously," he said, "a lot of the details have to be worked out."