What Bloomberg left out

March 7, 2012

New York City teachers Emily Giles and Janet Stephens describe the reaction to the mayor's "State of the City" speech at the South Bronx school where he gave it.

THIS JANUARY, the Morris High School campus in the South Bronx experienced an unexpected facelift. Doors replaced, broken windows fixed, new paint jobs, new bathroom faucets. Students and teachers were abuzz about the repairs. All this? For us?

Of course, the repairs weren't done for students or teachers. Instead, the historic Bronx campus had been chosen for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's State of the City address. The school, the oldest high school in the Bronx, was picked as the site because of its supposed exemplary implementation and success with Mayor Bloomberg's school reforms since his takeover of schools. Morris High School was once one of the largest high schools in the city--it was phased out by the Bloomberg administration and broken into several small schools.

During the mayor's speech, he touted the success of his corporate-based school reform agenda. The irony is that the policies that he bragged have been so successful are the very policies that Bronx International High School, one of the four schools housed in Morris campus, completely rejects. Teachers there argue that their school's success directly contradicts the mayor's vision.

Mayor Bloomberg gives his 2012 State of the City address
Mayor Bloomberg gives his 2012 State of the City address

As a matter of fact, Bronx International High School was one of the 15 percent of schools that rejected the mayor's merit pay pilot program in 2008. The staff saw through the dollar signs to the heart of the issue: test scores and competition among our own staff and between schools. After thoughtful debate, the majority of the staff agreed that those factors were not part of our school's vision.

Quite the opposite is true. The school uses portfolio-based assessments and presentations, rather than final exams. The Regents exam remains a constant reminder of the test-taking environment of the larger school system, but teachers and the administration do their best to balance preparation for the Regents with relevant and exciting curriculum. Test scores are an unfortunate reality, not what drives instruction.

Furthermore, the teaching and learning environment is truly collaborative. Teachers plan in teams, observe each other's classes and run their own professional development sessions. Students also learn in groups, are encouraged to help one another rather than compete, and spend more class periods in conversation rather than individual work.

Teachers and staff understand that providing services to English Language Learners requires more foresight, support and time than current reforms are able to provide. These elements of the school are some of the reasons that it has been an A-rated school according to the Department of Education's own grading system since 2008.

Contrast that environment with the learning environment created by Bloomberg's testing-based "reforms," which narrow the educational experience to multiple-choice answers, warehouse-challenged students, and remove arts and music from the classroom.

BRONX INTERNATIONAL is a school that serves only students that are new to the country. During the State of the City address, the mayor paid special tribute to students that work extra hard, but take more than four years to graduate.

Interestingly enough, Bronx International was just added to the state's "Schools in Need of Improvement" list for that very reason--that the four-year graduation rate is too low. Unfortunately, the state does not consider the fact that many students new to the country simply need more than four years to learn a new language, master content in that language and adapt to a new culture.

Last December at a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bloomberg explained that if he could do anything he wanted with schools he would, "cut the number of teachers in half," and that "double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students."

Bronx International has a class size average under 25. And while educators there would agree that great teachers are important, they recognize that great teaching comes from experience and collaboration, not competition, Ivy League schools and punitive administrative measures.

Teachers at the school were not the only ones to respond negatively to the mayor's charade. A student at the school collected quotes from his classmates to write up an article. One 12th grade student asked, "Why only some students have to see the mayor, why not us?" (Only about 10 students from each of the high schools housed in the building were invited to attend the speech, along with a handful of teachers.)

Another student said, "What really impressed me is the way my school looked today. The front wall is repainted, the bathroom is fixed, and we don't have access to it." And finally, when asked about her experience attending the speech, one 10th grade student responded, "The mayor didn't even shake our hands. He talked all about students in his speech and then he shook everyone else's hand and didn't even look us in the eye." That about sums it up.

A few days before Mayor Bloomberg arrived on campus, students wanted to know if it was true that that the mayor of New York City was coming to our school. Once this information was confirmed, the students had other questions. One girl asked, "Is that why they're painting the front of the building?" A boy wanted to know, "Is that why they're fixing the lights in the auditorium?" Another student inquired, "Is that why they're fixing the broken window in the Social Studies classroom?"

There were many more such questions, but the one that struck the deepest was: "Why are these repairs for Bloomberg? Why not for us? We come here everyday. He's only coming for one day."

That question stayed with us for the rest of the day until we felt it was necessary to take a stand. On the day Mayor Bloomberg visited our building, it rained. Yet a group of teachers from our school still went outside and marched with signs that bled from the rain.

We cannot speak for the other teachers, but we marched for our students; who come to school every day, with chipped paint and broken windows; who come to school even though there have been shootings blocks away from the building; who come to school days after losing a parent; all in the hopes of receiving an education that will open up opportunities for their future.

We marched because Bloomberg's educational policies do not support our students or others like them around the city. We didn't have the opportunity to meet Bloomberg, nor did we catch a glimpse of him, but like our inquisitive students, we have a question: Would you send your daughters to our school?

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