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Public and Private Schools

Under topic: administrators

At this time last year, I reported on the South Pointe Elementary School in Dade County, Florida which was to be run under the auspices of a company called, Education Alternatives, Inc. Some of the data are now in on how this school is doing. This is the first public school in the nation to be managed by a private company. The company contends that it can take the most successful innovations in education and improve this public school at the same cost of other public schools. They have a five year contract to prove their claim. The reports, so far, are optimistic. Every student receives an individual education plan, developed with the parents input. The students direct their own studies. The teachers have received extra training to help them understand that children learn in three ways: observing, listening, and doing. Each child's style is different and the teacher accommodates to the different styles. As a result, even students in the same class can be learning at different rates and by means of different projects. So far, Walter Carroll, the deputy commissioner of education is pleased. The children are happy. Three non-readers in the third grade learned to read. The parents are very happy and believe in the school. One parent reported that her son now loves to do homework.

A great deal of money and time has been invested by this company in making education work for all children.

Another school discussed previously in this column is Bronx New School, an alternative public school. A group of parents and teachers created this school last year in the basement of a Bronx church.

Beneficial change should come from the good-will and efforts of those within the system

They fixed up the school, hired a teacher-director, developed an innovative curriculum and became autonomous.

They obtained funds by applying for and receiving grants. They were very successful and were looking forward to this school year until the new superintendent called the school elitist and destroyed the project by merging it with another school in September. The parents fought back. They regained some measure of control, but at a cost. The PTA agreed to withdraw its lawsuit against the community school board and the superintendent. The PTA again will be the highest decision-making body in their own school.

However, the momentum built up has been lost and may never be regained. Further, the teacher-director the parents want will be replaced by a conventional administrator-principal. These parents feel they had to put up a long, difficult and arduous fight to keep their wonderful school which was working beautifully. They wonder why that was necessary. They are not alone in asking such questions. Mr. and Mrs. Reich, a wealthy couple, offered to give a school building in Williamsburg plus a million dollar endowment to the New York City school system. The donors wanted a school that would have parental involvement, be run by a parent-trustee board and be free of bureaucratic controls.

They have been fighting for two years to achieve their goal. In order to create this school within the bounds of the school regulations, a way had to be found to go around, under and over them. The central board officials raised objections about the number of windows per room, the height of the urinals, and the amount of asbestos. Apparently some school officials were unhappy about the minor role they would play in the new school.

The Board of Education recently produced a four-page document which spelled out the Board's educational mandate for the school. So much for parental control. Does this sound a bit like the Bronx New School situation? The Reichs probably will not succeed either. It certainly makes one wonder if school systems with large bureaucracies can ever hope to bring about needed changes in education.

Our problem is not that we lack the "know how" to give all of our children the education they deserve. It is that too many people have a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

Maybe only the successes of private companies like Education Alternative, Inc., who put into practice what is known about good education, will bring about change in public education.

That would be a sad commentary on public education. Beneficial change should come from the good-will and efforts of those within the system, not be forced on it because of the success of those outside the system. It is somewhat analogous to the behavior of American car manufacturers. Ford planned no improvements on its inferior products until forced to change by competition from superior manufacturers in Japan. Ford had the same "know-how" Japan manufacturers had, they chose not to use it until no alternative existed. Public school systems cannot continue to permit the needs of the bureaucracies to take precedence over the needs of its students. Our children deserve better.

First published in 1991