Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Small Schools

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There’s something to be said about Bloomberg’s small schools initiative, which is that they’re a bright idea completely done in by a backwards implementation.

A small school should make the most of its versatility by shedding the administrative layers that large institutions require. After all, with a limited staff and a small student body, direct action is possible by the head of the school.

Not so in NYCDoE schools: Where once was one principal, six assistant principals and three thousand students, there are now six principals, fifteen assistant principals and three thousand students. Essentially, the demand for hundreds more principals to fill all these new schools has lead to a great number of neophyte administrators – and the principals have been getting younger, thanks mostly to management fast-track programs to fill spots – who mask their relative lack of experience by surrounding themselves with an extra layer of protection between them and the teaching staff, leading in turn to a very top-heavy bureaucracy.

In turn, this means that any funds that could have been used for specialization in small schools or for efficiencies of scale in large schools – such as shop class, special education, gifted programs, or any way to handle with the outskirts of the bell curve – go to administrator salaries, which start at two and a half times that of starting teachers.

In an illustrative anecdote, my most surreal experience dealing with this system came fairly recently: My building has six schools where there was one, which means that over the last ten years rooms had to be sealed off and floor plans changed in order to create a sense of cohesiveness of all the individual units within the larger “campus” building.

This means that classrooms became offices and storage closets became classrooms in certain cases, but in one specific instance it meant that two adjacent rooms from two separate schools were sharing the same circuit. This was not a problem until recently, where due to Bloomberg’s technology budget, the schools have been stocking up on more and more computer labs with circuits that are not meant to handle that kind of power draw.

One of the social studies classrooms in my school has seven computers, a printer and a SMARTBoard. The teacher complained of tripping the circuit breaker every few days, always around noon. Come to find out, the adjacent former classroom was converted by a neighboring school into a teacher’s lounge, where they put four computers, a refrigerator and a microwave oven, which meant that every time somebody would nuke their lunch in that school, our classroom would go dark.

Simple fix, I thought: I have plenty of extra hundred-foot extension cords, thanks to the internecine warfare concerning the auditorium, so I marched on into that school with the intent of moving the microwave to a different circuit. The custodians thought it a good idea, because it meant less work for them, and you generally make friends with custodians so that what little work they do they think of you first. However, the neighbors’ school secretary had other ideas. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To plug the microwave somewhere else.”

“You can’t do that. You don’t have permission.”

“Alright, who do I ask?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who do you answer to?”

She gave the name of an assistant principal in her school. So I waylaid him in the hallway. He said that he could not make that decision to grant or deny me access; he’d have to take it up with the principal. So, after a day, I was granted an interview with the principal, who immediately called my principal, who in turn asked me what the problem was. After explaining the situation to my principal, she decided that it was probably a good idea, and conferred on the point with their school’s principal, who conceded the matter and allowed me to use said extension cord, with one caveat:

He must personally supervise my plugging the microwave oven in.

The principal of a public high school took time out of his busy schedule to have a conversation about plugging something in, and then walked over the room to see that it was indeed plugged in. While I was performing this “installation,” I asked him, idly, why the four computers in the lounge had Windows 7 on them when they were clearly models with only 512MBs of RAM, explaining that the operating system alone required twice that. He said he’d get back to me on that. Two days later he returned with the answer that a certain program required Win7 and they only had budget for software.*

I wish I could call that example in any way exceptional, as it is, admittedly, quite hard to believe, so I will go one further: This building, as mentioned, has six schools in it, and they must all share the one previously-mentioned auditorium. Each school has, independently, bought its own sound board and light board to control the in-house system to control the auditorium, and those schools where the staff members have become frustrated at the lack of cohesion surrounding the auditorium have also bought portable speakers in order to bypass the house sound.

Similarly, my last school was in a “campus” building with three others and, likewise, each school had their own sound system for use in the single auditorium, which they purchased when the sound technician employed by one of the schools left for greener pastures, and then each hired contract workers every time they needed to put on a show.

No principal was willing to coordinate with any of the other schools’ leadership because that would involve sharing budgets, so in effect we’re all suffering the tragedy of the commons. Bloomberg has essentially solved the problem of having one boss who may or may not be incompetent, by having six bosses, all of whom are incompetent.

*Software, hardware, accessories and supplies are all on separate budget headings and must be allocated independently from one another, crystallized early in the year, immovable, and must be spent, which means that you can have a situation where there is $30,000 in an accessories budget that can be used to buy SMARTBoards but not laptops or desktop computers, or $7,000 in a supplies budget that can be used to buy ethernet cables but not sticks of RAM, leading to overstocked supply cabinets servicing ancient machines.

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