From Distinguished To Extinguished
The New York Times, May 25, 2005
by Samuel Freedman

Just the other day, Sherry Zekowski was packing the last boxes for her pending move to Florida from New York. She had nearly 50 plaques from her 34 years in the public schools, and as she retired she wanted to keep only a handful. Her favorite was a thank-you present for having trained a dozen new principals, sharing all she had learned with the next generation.

The truth was, she still felt too young and vigorous to check into God's waiting room -- wasn't that what everybody called Florida? She would have gladly stayed on as principal of the Career Education Center, an alternative school for at-risk children that had been her hub for 15 years, had the mentoring program not been dropped by the Department of Education.

Rose Molinelli, who retired in July 2003 after more than a decade as principal of a middle school in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, knew the feeling. She, too, would have preferred to remain there and continue working with new principals in the same program as Ms. Zekowski did. Instead, she had taken her 32 years of experience and wisdom to a California education company.

"I'd definitely have stayed, had the program still been in effect," she said. "It was the culmination of a career. You glean a lot in that long a period of time, and I didn't want it to be lost forever. It was a chance to give back and share with people who didn't have the background."

The veteran principals who used to teach in the mentoring program had called themselves the "distinguished faculty." These days, in a bitter joke, they have renamed their group the "extinguished faculty." In their exodus from the city school system lies a disturbing reality: the failure or indifference of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein in extensively using the corps of proven professionals who were in the schools under earlier leaders.

What always separated New York City's public schools from those in virtually every other big city was their degree of success and achievement -- measured by scores on national standardized tests; the engagement of a part of the white middle class; and the presence of experienced, capable professional educators. In the case of the distinguished faculty program, that particular baby got heaved out with the bathwater in a process of wholesale reform.

"It's almost as if anyone who knows anything or has been in the system is seen as knowing nothing," Ms. Zekowski said. "That's how it feels. The attitude from the top is arrogant."

For all sorts of reasons, the demise of the mentoring program makes no evident sense. For one thing, it was extremely cost effective, with 50 veteran principals teaching about 500 relative newcomers at an annual price of $1.5 million. For another, it gave dozens of the savviest veterans in the system a reason to stay on the job. And for a third, it gave concrete assistance to the greenest, most vulnerable principals in the city.

Harold O. Levy, Chancellor Klein's predecessor, inherited a seismic upheaval among school administrators when he took office. Only 17 principals of 1,300 citywide retired in the 1999-2000 academic year; the next year, after a new contract provided thousands of dollars in back pay, differentials and bonuses, 143 retired. The number has not dipped below 140 a year since then. An educator of a certain age could fill up a social calendar solely with retirement dinners at Russo's and Terrace on the Park.

Seeing this hemorrhage, Mr. Levy turned to an accomplished principal, Mary Butz, to develop a program to use experienced principals to nurture the neophytes. They would meet in small groups once a month, speak as often as needed by phone, and convene for a full week of intensive study over the summer. The curriculum emphasized the nuts and bolts of school leadership -- union relations, scheduling, programming, safety, budgeting and so on. A new principal could confess a blunder to a mentor without fear of having the mistake wind up in the personnel file.

The principals on the receiving end extolled the program. In written evaluations of the 2002 summer session, one declared, "Bravo!" and another announced, "Thanks a million!" Even a group of African-American principals who complained that there were too few black instructors gave the course straight 5's, the highest mark on the evaluation form.

As another confirmation of the program's success, it received a $3 million grant from the federal Department of Education in 2002. But not long afterward, Chancellor Klein called in Ms. Butz to tell her the program was being canceled and the grant money applied toward a Leadership Academy to recruit and prepare new principals.

Instead of drawing on expertise from within the system, the academy markedly moved outside of it. Virtually all of its $25 million annual budget came from private donors. The chief executive, Robert E. Knowling Jr., was not an education professional but a former executive of a telecommunications company. The course emphasized management skills from the corporate world.

By now, the academy's track record speaks for itself. According to an analysis by Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate, the first class of 90 would-be principals produced only 59 who were ultimately placed in schools. Each individual, including the dropouts, cost $275,000 in training. Mr. Knowling left the academy several months ago. Interestingly, some of the same distinguished faculty spurned by the city's Department of Education two years ago have been snapped up as mentors by private education companies with department contracts.

Meanwhile, with the department's fevered rush to open small schools, roughly 50 a year at the current pace, the demand for principals is only growing.

As for retaining the best experienced principals, one might consider the situation in District 26 in the Douglaston and Little Neck sections of Queens, traditionally the highest-performing district in the city. Within the last three years, the principals of all five zoned middle schools in the area have left or announced plans to retire. This September, the longest-serving middle school principal in District 26 will have had one year of experience.

Stephen Morello, the communications director for Mr. Klein, said yesterday that "the best aspects" of the distinguished faculty program have been included in the Leadership Academy's training for the 375 newly assigned principals. Thirteen mentors in the department's program also served in the earlier one, he said, and two local instructional supervisors were in it.

In certain ways, Mr. Morello went on, the new program is even superior to its predecessor -- with an emphasis on "leadership skills" and with a smaller ratio of mentor to protege.

If so, Ms. Butz, for one, remains resolutely unconvinced. "I wasn't about recruitment," Ms. Butz said. "I was about retention. And if the younger ones could see the older ones being happy and productive, they might say to themselves, 'Hey, this is a career.'"



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