June 2009 Upfront

The battle for control

Two decades after the first set of district takeovers, the question of whether urban mayors should be in charge of school governance has become a never-ending political tug-of-war.
What if all of that huffing, puffing, and sweating went into collaborating instead?

On one side, you have supporters who say that mayoral control provides more accountability and stability at the top. On the other, you have opponents who point to test scores that have not improved, and a startling lack of community oversight and input into decisions that affect children and student achievement. And neither side budges from its stance.

It is, simply put, a no-win situation that returned to the headlines when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made a series of controversial comments in support of mayoral control. Duncan, who worked as superintendent of the mayor-controlled Chicago Public Schools before he became secretary of education, said he supports the mayoral takeover of Detroit’s school system and believes that the state legislature should extend New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over the nation’s largest school district.
“Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven’t had that leadership from the top,” he told The Associated Press. “That lack of stability, that lack of leadership, is a huge part of the reason you don’t see sustained progress and growth. Given how far every city has to go until every child receives a high-quality education, we need to push on this very, very hard.”

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education during the administration of the first President Bush, agreed initially with the prospect of mayoral control in New York. However, she has since become one of Bloomberg’s largest critics, blogging and writing frequently on the folly of having one person in charge of the city and the schools.

“Education requires some form of democratic governance, and that is the role of a school board, whether it is appointed or elected,” Ravitch wrote in USAToday.

And, to a degree, Duncan agreed with Ravitch’s assertion. Speaking at the National School Boards Association’s annual conference in April, the education secretary was quick to point out that community involvement and collaboration are necessary for success.

“It’s a false choice to me to say you need a strong mayor or a strong board,” he said. “A piece of the answer is strong leadership at the top.”

Two school board members who serve in NSBA leadership positions said they agree in principle with Duncan’s comments. Barbara Bolas, NSBA’s immediate past president, and Steve Corona, immediate past chair of the Council of Urban Boards of Education, said board members need to ask the “tough questions about what we as adults can do to make our schools better.”

In a joint statement issued on the final day of the NSBA conference, Bolas and Corona said: “In some of our most challenged cities, what our school districts need is the support of not only the mayor, but the business and faith communities, nonprofits and charitable organizations, and the social services agencies so that school boards and superintendents have the tools to empower our teachers and administrators to do the very important business of increasing student achievement.”

However, the statement noted that NSBA is “firmly opposed to mayoral takeovers of public schools.” Without collaboration, it said, long-term sustainable reform will be difficult to achieve.
“We need a system that allows for community oversight and input,” the statement said. “Oversight and input which, too often, mayorally controlled districts do not have. For the mayors who truly put children first, a collaboration between the mayor and school board can and will work.”

Bloomberg, who appoints eight of the 13 members on the city’s board, told reporters in April that he has no qualms about his stronghold on the school district’s governance. “Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much,” said Bloomberg, a strong opponent of local school boards and local school governance. “They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in.”
Bolas and Corona disagree with Bloomberg’s contention.

“School board members are directly accountable to their communities, based solely on the performance of their schools, while mayors are not elected solely on their management of education,” they said in the statement. “Further, what makes school boards unique is that they provide community governance of schools, assuring that education is a foremost priority.”

Joseph Viteritti, editor of a new book, When Mayors Take Charge, notes that school governance is “not the same as school reform.” Viteritti, who chaired the Commission on School Governance that reviewed New York City’s takeover efforts, writes that mayoral control is “an enabler that allows district leaders to set and achieve sound objectives, but it is not a guarantee of either.”

“Structure,” he said, “is not a remedy for failure.”

Resources available for dealing with swine flu crisis

As health officials declared that a pandemic is “imminent,” school districts are responding to the nation’s swine flu crisis by closing their doors to stop the spread of the virus.

As of April 30, more than 100 districts in 14 states had closed at least one school, including the Fort Worth school system in Texas, which shut its doors to 80,000 children at 140 sites for 10 days as a precaution.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the swine flu crisis has affected more than 100 people at least 12 states. Richard Besser, the CDC’s acting director, said health officials hope closing schools will prevent the virus from infecting an entire community.

"We want to make sure that school closure is in fact lowering the risk of spread in a community," Besser told ABC News. "The goal is not to send the children out into the community."

Swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by type A influenza that regularly causes outbreaks of influenza among pigs.  Swine flu viruses do not normally infect humans, but the cases in the U.S. and other countries prompted the World Health Organization to declare that a pandemic is "imminent."

Resources and regular updates are being posted at www.nsba.org.


David Cullen.
Twelve Books.
405 pp.

Bullied by their peers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold came to Columbine High School April 20, 1999, seeking revenge. They targeted athletes and Christians in their killing spree before committing suicide.

It’s a familiar and, in many ways, comforting version of the Columbine shootings, repeated for the past decade. Unfortunately, not much of it is true.

In fact, many of things we’ve come to believe about Columbine are false, as David Cullen reveals in his book, published in April to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the worst K-12 school shooting in U.S. history. Cullen, who reported and wrote about Columbine for the online magazine Salon from the beginning, read through journals, school assignments, police documents, and eyewitness reports.

The story Cullen recounts is more complex and unsettling than the misperceptions. Harris and Klebold weren’t targeting jocks or Christians. They wanted to kill everyone.

Columbine was, in fact, a failed bombing. The two teenagers set various bombs around the building, as well as in the parking lot of the school. Cullen says their intent was to blow up the school and kill the police, EMTs, and the media who showed up at the scene.

Nor were the teens bullied loners. They had a wide circle of friends, participated in school activities, and in the case of Harris, was more likely to bully than to be the victim.

It’s easier for us to understand two normal boys harassed into retaliation. It makes the tragedy seem preventable. However, Cullen offers a chilling diagnosis of the two boys that pushes the incident beyond prevention: Harris was a psychopath—a charming liar who fooled even his parents—and Klebold a depressed teen in thrall to the older boy.

For anyone striving to understand how this tragedy happened, Columbine is a must-read. I first heard about it from Principal Frank DeAngelis, who recommended it when I interviewed him for an article that appeared in the May 2009 issue of ASBJ.

Cullen’s focus stays mostly away from the school; DeAngelis is the primary source from the administrative team. The ASBJ article presents another side—the view of the school leaders who were there.
As both illustrate, there are many sides to the Columbine story. Cullen’s book, however, likely will prove to be a definitive tale.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Be nice, or else
In Scarsdale, N.Y., teens are getting a lesson in empathy as the district works to curb fighting and misbehavior and teach them to be better citizens and leaders. “As a school, we’ve done a lot of work with human rights,” Michael McDermott, the middle school principal, told The New York Times. “But you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has to go together.” Students have complained that the district has no business telling them what to wear, and some question whether the district is overreaching its boundaries. But empathy lessons are spreading across the nation, as schools and organizations worry about the pressure on students due to testing and the race to college.

Homework advertising
Selling advertisements on student homework? That’s what is happening at Idaho’s Pocatello High School, where an economics teacher sold ad space to a local pizzeria to get 10,000 sheets of paper for his classes. The teacher, Jeb Harrison, said he was trying to teach his children how advertising works while raising money for much-needed supplies after Pocatello residents rejected a school levy earlier this year. As of early April, there had been no complaints from parents, and the restaurant had seen a small uptick in business.

Local control improvement
A small Western Kentucky school district that rejected state aid and launched its own in-house program to improve student achievement is gaining attention for its remarkable improvement. The Union County School District, which serves 2,300 students, rejected a state assistance team and instituted a number of changes, including replacing some principals, naming curriculum coaches to work with teachers, and developing its own assessment system. The district, which was ranked 161st in the state in 2007-08, is expected to be in the top 50 when state testing results are released this summer.

Multiracial children
Multiracial children enrolling in public school can check all boxes that apply in a two-step questionnaire with reshaped racial categories starting in 2010. Since the 1960s, students have been designated as one of five racial and ethnic groups: American Indian or Alaska native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Hispanic; non-Hispanic black; or non-Hispanic white. Now, parents can indicate whether a student is of Hispanic/Latino origin, then specify one or more of the following: American Indian or Alaska native; Asian; black or African American; native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; or white. The change is federally mandated for new students, but urged for everyone.

‘No touching’ policy
A Milford, Conn., middle school principal has implemented a “no touching” policy after a student was sent to the hospital after being struck in the groin. The student had to be hospitalized, prompting Principal Catherine Williams to outlaw any and all physical contact. “Physical contact is prohibited to keep all students safe in the learning environment,” Williams wrote in a letter to parents, who said they were outraged by the “ridiculous” policy. Williams said potential consequences and disciplinary action may include parent conferences, detention, suspensions, and/or a request for expulsion.

Overactive parents
You’ve seen them. You’ve heard of them. You’ve seen their work. Yes, we’re talking about parents who do their kids’ projects for them. In the Chicago area, school districts are opting for more in-class assignments to keep mom and dad from meddling. “It’s so tempting to get overly involved,” Tom Hernandez, a spokesman for the Plainfield public schools and the father of an eighth-grader and a high school sophomore, told the Chicago Tribune. “Your child is a reflection of yourself … so we’re all very invested. But it’s a delicate balance.” According to the Tribune, teachers say parent help is on the rise for a number of reasons, including the pressure for their kids to get into good colleges.

Parents not active
Texas is facing the opposite problem. The Parent-Teacher Association is reporting slow declines in membership at a time when enrollment is steadily on the rise. Numbers have dropped by 200,000 since 1994, a period in which the state’s schools have added nearly one million students. Cultural differences, changes in family dynamics, and parents who view PTAs as little more than a social opportunity are the reasons behind the decline, officials say. “The whole state is undergoing a diversity change in population, and many come from countries that don’t allow parents into the schools to volunteer,” Joy Weinstein, president of Texas PTA Area 15, told the Dallas Morning News. “PTA is doing a lot of diversity training, so we know culturally how to go out and include these people.”

Retirees and insurance
Starting this summer, health insurance for retired New Orleans school teachers will double, and if they are on the family plan, it will more than double. As a result, many teachers are opting not to retire so they can cover the rising costs. State Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, has proposed creating a permanent fund to help defray the cost for the districts hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, but the state’s budget deficit may prevent the bill from passing. Since a state takeover left the New Orleans district in direct control of just five schools, the ratio of active-to-retired workers shifted significantly, resulting in the increased rates.

Shirts for all
Here’s a nice story: A Greenville, S.C., company that specializes in the design and manufacturing of custom uniforms has provided shirts for all public school teachers and other employees in three counties. The initiative, which resulted in 15,000 employees receiving shirts with a retail value of $800,000, was “an opportunity to give a little something back,” said Tom Merritt, principal and co-founder of OOBE. The giveaway was extended to all employees, and Signatures Inc. gave districts the choice to have either their district logo or individual school logos embroidered on the shirts.

Subsidized lunches
More students need help to pay for lunches as their families face economic hardship. According to the Boston Globe, school officials at several districts in the metropolitan area have reported increases in the number of families seeking free and reduced-price meals. In one district, Framingham, the number jumped 25 percent. “Things are bad,” said Brendan Ryan, food services director for the Framingham School District. “We have a constant influx of applications due to the rate that people are losing their jobs.”

Vaccinations drop
More California parents are sending their children to kindergarten without routine vaccinations, leading health officials to predict that “massive outbreaks” of long-dormant childhood diseases could occur unless something is done. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, vaccine exemptions have more than doubled in less than a decade, meaning thousands of children are enrolling in school without state-mandated shots. The increase, the Times says, is apparently driven by well-to-do parents who are afraid that the shots could expose their children to autism, even though medical researchers have widely discredited that concern.

Virtual problem solving
The Baltimore County school district has partnered with universities, defense contractors, and a video game developer to challenge students with the kind of problem solving that employers might expect. “We wanted students to have an experience that would be more typical of what they’d have, hands-on, in the real world,” Maria Lowry, principal of Chesapeake High School, told the Baltimore Sun. “We’re trying to bring the outside in.” Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are working with the district to cultivate interest in science and engineering. “When students learn about engineering, math, and science in school, it’s abstract,” said Stephanie Hill, vice president of Lockheed’s MS2 Integrated Defense Technologies. “If they can actually apply the skills to a real problem that’s exciting, with real engineers,” she said, “it will encourage the students to not only be interested in engineering and technology but to stay interested.”