Volume 80, Number 36 | February 3 - 9, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

U.F.T. prez, C.B. 1: New projects must factor in students

By Aline Reynolds

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew is just as fed up with the city’s Department of Education as some Downtown education activists are. School overcrowding, standardized testing and student teacher evaluations were among the union president’s main talking points at a special forum Community Board 1 held last Wednesday evening at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in Battery Park City. D.O.E., Mulgrew said, has created and perpetuated many of the problems that are plaguing public schools in Lower Manhattan and around the city.

“We cannot allow this really unscrupulous, disgusting behavior to stop us from being a part of the work that might help us help children in the long run,” Mulgrew told the local parents and activists at the forum.

Mulgrew became union president in August 2009. He previously taught English for several years at a public high school in Brooklyn and has a master’s degree in special education from CUNY’s College of Staten Island.

C.B. 1 Chairperson Julie Menin reiterated her criticism of D.O.E. for failing to plan ahead to avoid overcrowding in Lower Manhattan’s K-to-12 schools.

“We’ve organized this town hall because of the number of important issues that have arisen in our district recently,” Menin said, citing the rise in population and other factors that have contributed to school overcrowding in the area.

Schools are bursting at the seams all around the city, according to Mulgrew, who said he hears “nothing but frustration and anger” from the public school teachers he represents.

“Congratulations. You’re the epicenter of overcrowding,” Mulgrew told the audience.

The problem, Mulgrew explained, lies in the fact that the city lacks a systematic urban planning process. New York doesn’t require developers, for example, to outline potential impacts their projects could have on local neighborhoods, such as creating a population boom.

C.B. 1 passed a resolution last March urging the city’s Charter Revision Commission to enforce standards for developers seeking to build in a community, such as taking into account the effects a proposed development would have on schools and other local infrastructure.

Instead, Menin said, new developments in the area are routinely approved without attention to school capacity. The city, she said, has “an attendant duty to provide the estimated number of school seats” that will be needed as a result of approving Downtown construction projects.

Mulgrew said he would be pushing the City Council to pass legislation to modify the planning process pertaining to new developments.

“We’re always looking for better ideas, to figure out how to move education forward,” he said. “We can no longer go to the D.O.E. for that. That’s really sad.”

Mulgrew accused D.O.E. of misleading the Downtown community by making false promises about new classroom space that was supposed to be reserved for neighborhood children.

Lower Manhattan parents were dismayed by D.O.E.’s recent decision to designate two unused classroom floors at 26 Broadway for an unscreened, nonselective Upper East Side high school, rather than open up a second Millennium High School there. The department also allocated six vacant classrooms at the Tweed Courthouse, on Chambers St., to a charter school rather than to a district elementary school the community said it badly needs.

Menin pointed out that, even with the new schools that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Overcrowding Task Force helped found, the Lower Manhattan area faces severe seat shortages in the coming years. The Tweed Courthouse and 26 Broadway, she said, are education spaces the community cannot afford to lose.

“It broke my heart that we lost the space at 26 Broadway,” said Erica Weldon, a Millennium High School parent.

Menin told her and the other distraught parents to rest assured that the community board would not remain “silent” on D.O.E.’s recent decisions.

Mulgrew said D.O.E. should focus on finding district seats for all public school students before worrying about screened versus unscreened schools. The U.F.T. president took a more neutral stance on charter schools. While the fundamental concept of charter schools is sound, he said, many of them are not working, and some are wrongly casting aside special-needs students who underperform on standardized tests.

“You can’t just open charter schools and not give them support and help in instruction,” said Mulgrew.

Growing class sizes have become widespread across the city, Mulgrew reported, and the U.F.T. has taken legal action to try to mitigate the problem. The union sued D.O.E. early last year for failing to allocate more than $760 million that the department secured from the state since 2007 purportedly to reduce class sizes. The case is currently pending in State Supreme Court.

“The class size at every grade in every level has increased dramatically since the money was sent here,” Mulgrew said. “It’s inexcusable.”

Mulgrew also noted that larger classes are making it more difficult for public school teachers to do their jobs effectively. D.O.E. did away with its Teaching and Learning Division, thereby no longer offering teachers the structure and support they need.

“Teaching and learning in the classroom is the fundamental main piece we should all be concentrating on,” said Mulgrew. “It saddens me — it makes me feel the administration is getting to the point where it’s pathetic.”

Paul Hovitz, chairperson of the C.B. 1 Youth and Education Committee, remarked that teachers spend “inordinate” amounts of time on test preparation.

“How can we re-create a well-balanced education for our children?” he asked Mulgrew.

The solution, in part, Mulgrew said, is to modify the city’s student progress report system, which now hinges on English and math test score results. Harvard University recently audited the state’s system, he said, and concluded that the progress reports are useless.

Mulgrew worked with David Steiner, commissioner of the state Education Department, to craft the state’s application for the federal Race to the Top program, with the aim of using the funds to focus on a more well-rounded curriculum, rather than merely teach to standardized tests.

Mulgrew said “real learning” doesn’t happen when teachers simply try and drill students to memorize facts for a test.

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