The New York Times, Dec 22, 2004
by Samuel Freedman
Nick Licari had just finished teaching his favorite class at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, instructing seniors in the fine art of political debate, when he descended the staircase and collided with a rather different form of disputation. Dozens of teenagers, scores of them, went surging past him, some throwing punches at each other, some enjoying the show, others trying vainly to flee.
Amid the maelstrom, Mr. Licari caught sight of a special-education teacher shouting into a walkie-talkie to summon the security guards. A friend from the social studies department yanked one combatant out of the fray. When Mr. Licari tried to order a spectator to leave, the boy snapped back, "I'll smash your face." There must have been a hundred brawlers and gawkers refusing to disperse.
Only after a dozen students had been dragged off, many in handcuffs, did Mr. Licari have time to process the whole episode. He had seen fights in 25 years of teaching at Thomas, but until this day, Dec. 8, he had never seen such brazen resistance to adult authority. The worst part, though, was that Mr. Licari had predicted an outbreak like this months ago.
Back in June 2004, when Norman Thomas had received its student roster for the current academic year, Mr. Licari realized that the school, already overcrowded, would be growing by several hundred pupils. With an official capacity of about 2,050, Thomas would be admitting more than a thousand freshmen alone, pushing the school's total near 3,000. Hundreds of those incoming ninth-graders, whose neighborhood high schools were being shut down or scaled back, had not even applied to Thomas but merely been assigned to it.
So Mr. Licari, the chapter chairman for the United Federation of Teachers in the school, set aside the usual labor-management spitting match and wrote a joint letter with the principal, Steven M. Satin, to the Department of Education. And in that letter, dated nearly six months before the December incident, the men warned, "Looking at the register we now face in September, we feel it is dangerous for our students and staff, creating an overcrowding situation that dooms us to failure."
The violent manifestation of such failure may not be routine in New York City's high schools, but the pattern of conscious overcrowding by the Department of Education has indeed become routine. As troubled large high schools have been closed or reduced in size, often to accommodate minischools being inserted into the buildings, an array of traditional high schools from Columbus and Walton in the Bronx to Washington Irving in Manhattan to Cardozo in Queens to Midwood in Brooklyn have topped their capacity by as much as 50 percent.
It is no secret what conditions like that do to a school. As Norman Thomas has swollen over the past six years from an enrollment of 1,800 to the current 2,981, its students' performance on the English Regents test has fallen and their attendance rate has slipped. Earlier this fall, an independent arbitrator found the school had exceeded size limits in 108 classes, calling it an "egregious violator." Students go without desks, chairs and books; filing into the cafeteria at lunchtime takes 15 minutes; a math teacher who wants computer time for her classes to prepare for the Regents test cannot find a single period when a lab is available.
The Department of Education has its own explanations for the situation at Thomas. Both Michele Cahill, a senior counselor for policy, and Stephen Morello, the chief spokesman for the department, portrayed the rise in enrollment as the confluence of two divergent factors -- both the unintended consequence of reforming other high schools and a deliberate decision to move the lowest-performing pupils out of the worst high schools and into those, like Thomas, that have been at least functional.
But no longer can cases like Thomas's be rationalized, or even resolved, as if they are individual aberrations. These problems are systemic and the questions that must be raised are of a systemic nature. Chief among them is whether there is anyone in the hierarchy of the Department of Education who understands and can effectively represent the interests of traditional high schools.
Like his predecessor Harold O. Levy, Joel I. Klein came to the position of chancellor without a career in education. One of his two major aides, Carmen Farina, earned great respect as a principal, but of an elementary school, P.S. 6 in Manhattan. The other aide, Michele Cahill, made her name as a proponent and underwriter of minischools when she was a program officer in the Carnegie Foundation. The regional superintendent in charge of Norman Thomas, Peter Heaney, formerly served as an elementary-school principal in Brooklyn.
Only recently, more than two years into his tenure as chancellor, did Mr. Klein select a former principal, Jean Claude Brizard, to serve as executive director of high schools, starting Feb. 1. One can only hope that Mr. Brizard has the clout commensurate with his title and that he uses it soon.
Ms. Cahill and Mr. Morello dispute the perception that traditional high schools have lacked advocates at the department. Her portfolio at Carnegie, she said, involved grants and reform plans for both large and small schools. A holdover from Mr. Levy's administration, Rose Albanese-DePinto, headed the department's office of secondary school reform until September. Most of all, they contend, too many conventional high schools were graduating too few of their pupils, as few as 20 or 30 percent.
Still, even at the best, mini-schools can provide only a partial solution. Even if all 200 of the new or proposed ones flourish, a vast majority of New York's high school pupils will still attend large, traditional schools. The Klein and Bloomberg administrations cannot possibly succeed in their ambitious and admirable goals for public education if large high schools remain the stepchildren of the system, whether being closed or being overwhelmed.