New proposal might fail the citywide high schools

April 30, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

WHAT IN the world are these people trying to do to my beloved City College?

Not only are they trying to do it to City, they're trying to nail our esteemed rivals at Polytechnic Institute. A third school dear to my heart, Carver Vocational-Technical High School, is on the list. My older sister Barbara graduated from Carver in 1966. That doesn't make me an alumnus, but it sure as heck makes me an alumnus-in-law.

Other citywide high schools - Western, Dunbar and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical among them - are being targeted. By what? A proposal emanating from North Avenue school headquarters that would prevent citywide schools from sending students who fail their specialized programs to zoned schools that might better serve their needs.

A school board committee met Monday to discuss the matter. Ian Cohen, Poly's principal, sat two seats from Carver Principal Michael Plitt. City College Principal Joe Wilson was there, as was Dunbar Principal Roger Shaw. Seated at the table before committee members were Western Principal Landa McLaurin and Mervo Principal Irby Miller to give the reasons why the "return to zone" policy of citywide schools is justified.

Andrey Bundley and Laura D'Anna, principals at Walbrook and Patterson, respectively, gave their reasons why the policy should be abandoned.

Bundley stumbled out of the gate, comparing the "return to zone" policy to the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that legalized segregation. But Bundley soon righted himself, suggesting that if students were academically qualified to get into citywide high schools in the first place, those schools could do more to help failing students pass.

D'Anna, responding to the assertion that citywide schools have more rigorous curricula than zoned schools, said Patterson had six advanced placement courses and plans to add two more. Then she stumbled, dredging up that term that has brought about the near-ruin of public education: self-esteem. Students who fail at citywide schools and get returned to zoned schools tend not to like it.

"They're very disillusioned," D'Anna said. "Their self-esteem is suffering."

Well, if this is about self-esteem, let's not flunk students at all. Give them all A's - even those who have D+ averages - and send them home happy. Wasn't this same "self-esteem" argument used to justify the practice of social promotion that the school system abandoned only recently?

Wilson strode to the table soon after and told a story that seemed to address specifically this issue.

"I remember when I was fired from a construction job for sitting down," Wilson said. "I felt bad. Later, I was working in the Cabinet of the Delaware governor when I was told my services were no longer needed. That forced me to do some soul-searching and ask myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I decided I wanted to work with kids."

The moral to Wilson's story is that failures and setbacks should not be the devastating blows to "self-esteem" some would have us believe they are. Instead, think of them as wake-up calls that force you to decide what you want to do with your life and how you plan to do it.

In other words, the fault for flunking out of citywide high schools just might lie with - dare we say it? - the students.

"We've talked to students who've failed," Dunbar's Shaw said. "Most of them said, `I did not apply myself. I was not focused.'"

After debunking the perception of the failing student as victim, the citywide principals then dispelled two other fallacies: the notion that large numbers of juniors and seniors were being returned to zones and the contention that these schools were doing nothing to help failing students.

While Cohen was talking to the committee, Plitt pointed to a list of numbers: 120, 103, 82, less than 70. Those were how many Carver students were returned to a zone school in each of the past four years. The overwhelming majority were sent back after the ninth grade.

Cohen said the percentage of Poly's returnees dropped from 15 percent when he took over to less than 5 percent. Wilson gave similar figures for City, as did the principals of other citywide schools.

The next day, Cohen was asked why, with all this evidence that shows a declining number of students returned to zone schools and bend-over-backward efforts to keep failing students in citywide schools, the issue of abandoning the policy even came up.

"That's a good question," Cohen said. "I wish I knew the answer."

The masterminds at North Avenue must surely have an answer. It looks like they've got some 'splaining to do.

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