State decision puts Dewey back in limbo

June 3, 2011 Heather Chin
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Students and staff atJohn Dewey High School in Gravesend were cautiously optimistic atlast month’s news that they – along with eight other city schools –would be matched with a non-profit management company as part of athree-year, federally-funded educational “restart” program.

Now they are back inlimbo as New York State has ordered the city’s Department ofEducation (DOE) to resume negotiations with the teachers union andresolve the issue of how to implement teacher evaluations beforegoing ahead with the “restart.” The two parties have five moreweeks to reach a deal. At stake is $6 million per school, as wellas the school’s futures.

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This has left the DOEblaming the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) for the delay, andthe UFT accusing the DOE of trying to undermine and oust teacherswithout due process. On the ground and in the classroom at Dewey,though, the atmosphere ranges from “cynical” and “demoralized” to“indifference,” say some teachers.

“This is par for thecourse,” said Michael Klimetz, a veteran physics teacher at Deweywho has won awards for excellence in teaching science. “It’s notabout just reforming schools – that’s not even 10 percent of the[city’s] objective. [It’s that] people categorically refuse tochange and listen. It’s another instance of an ‘us vs. them’mentality between teachers and the DOE. It’s a natural adversarialrelationship.”

Intertwined withthe skepticism is a belief that Dewey shouldn’t even be on thecity’s list of “persistently lowest achieving schools” and thatwhat the school is struggling with is not poorly performingstudents and teachers, but an outdated structure.

“They usedifferent metrics to measure success,” said C. T. Chan, a 15-yearveteran who teaches AP Economics and bilingual Social Studies.“They don’t differentiate between the kid who goes to a two-yearcollege and a four-year college. [They don’t want to] give kids allthe same opportunities because it [supposedly] drainsresources.”

Over the past 15 orso years, teachers have retired, new teachers have come on board,enrollment methods changed, and the student and neighborhoodpopulation has shifted to include a growing immigrant andsecond-generation population.

“We proposeddifferent schedules, an engineering program, a Confucian institute,but the DOE is stonewalling,” said history and psychology teacherJames Harmon, who says fellow teachers have signed petitionscalling for certain program additions to cater to students’changing needs, but were either ignored or told their effortsfocused too many resources on minority populations.

“Darwin has taught usthat you have to adapt,” said Klimetz. “[For a variety of] reasons,Dewey’s program has failed to keep up with those changes.”

So is “restart”the answer? Or something else entirely?

“I think [the DOEand UFT are] probably going to play chicken with each other and aswe get closer to the school year, [they will] reach some sort ofcompromise,” said 18-year social studies teacher Wade Goria. “Butwhy there would have to be this kind of pressure is an unnecessaryand destructive process. I don’t think it’s going to put Dewey’sfuture in jeopardy, but it certainly creates more problems than itsolves.”

“What we care aboutis our school’s issues,” said Chan.

Harmon agreed,adding that, “The union [deals with] the politics. Our thing isbeing in front of the classroom, being here for the kids.”

The DOE and UFT hadnot responded to calls requesting comment as of press time.

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