Lessons from the Bronx

If you’re interested in improving your neighborhood public school, Jonathan Mahler’s cover story in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine is a provocative read. It’s about a principal named Ramón González and his relative success at the helm of Middle School 223 in the Bronx. And it’s about how the “forces of reform” that you’d think would be supporting him are working against him.

Principal González has a visionary goal: to make his school a place where he’d want to send his own kids.

Here are his circumstances: His school is in the heart of the poorest Congressional district in the nation. Many of the young teachers who come to him through Teach for America are useless the first year and great in the third, but they often leave after the second – at the end of their commitment. The U.F.T. contract allows teachers to miss 10 days of every school year and requires a majority vote each year to start the school day 10 minutes early. Parents are indifferent at best. Like all other public schools, M.S. 223 is responsible for educating the students that no other school – neither charter, nor parochial, nor private – wants to touch. What’s more, an estimated 20 percent of his students need glasses.

Then there’s this:

…The ever-growing number of charter schools, often privately subsidized and rarely bound by union rules, that Klein unleashed on the city skims off the neighborhood’s more ambitious, motivated families. And every year, as failing schools are shut down around González, a steady stream of children with poor intellectual habits and little family support continues to arrive at 223. González wouldn’t want it any other way — he takes pride in his school’s duty to educate all comers — but the endless flow of underperforming students drags down test scores, demoralizes teachers and makes the already daunting challenge of transforming 223 into a successful school, not just a relatively successful one, that much more difficult.

The folks running the reform movement from the top – from President Obama to Arne Duncan to school-system chancellors nationwide – want principals to think like CEOs. Which makes it all the more inspiring that González sees himself as a community activist.

Here is a man so committed to his neighborhood that he returned to it after a great escape – to a boarding school in Boston and then to college at Cornell. He’s committed to turning his school into a neighborhood school. And it makes sense. If the American education system is meant to prepare young people for citizenship in a democratic republic, don’t we need to commit to strengthening the communities in which the value of citizenship takes root?

You’d think. But the movement for reform sees neighborhood ties as a throwback. “His vision for 223 is in some respects anachronistic in the era of school reform,” writes Mahler. And I’ve had the same thought about my flickering fire for making my neighborhood school a top pick for every zoned family.

Like González, I want to make my neighborhood school a place where I’d want to send my own child. But the forces of reform – charters, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, “better” tests, budget cuts – are stifling. Am I trying to hold on to a past that everyone else has let go of? Or am I actually doing the progressive thing?

I have to believe the latter. What do you think?

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2 Responses to “Lessons from the Bronx”

  1. Believe! Believe! Believe!

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