Tuesday, July 6, 2010


and other tell-tale signs that make you yawn at the school board meeting (now called, less democratically, the Panel for Educational Policy)

The most recent meeting was in late June in Manhattan (they rotate each month among the boroughs) at Murry Bergtraum High School on Pearl Street right by the Brooklyn Bridge. I went.

You think you’re at the wrong place when you get there 45 minutes early, even if you’ve witnessed the scene before at other school board meetings. There’s this huddle of cops outside the door and you wonder again if there’s been some problem or if the meeting’s been cancelled because Obama or some other big pol is in town and is being feted there. There are that many uniforms. Certainly more than you’d expect (I wouldn’t expect any) for a school board meeting, where if tradition holds, maybe 50 earnest citizens will show up. Most of them women.

It’s too early really to go in, and I roam around Pearl Street to kill time, wishing there were a bookstore I could duck into. I’m always wishing that. But even in a tonier neighborhood like Tribeca there isn’t one, even with the perfect demographics there. So there wouldn’t be one here. And I make do with a CVS; I go in and look around. I buy a Zone bar. And head back to the school.

Inside there’s a desk immediately up the entranceway’s polished stairs and the guard sitting there makes me feel a little self-conscious (passing by all those cops out front can do that to you) as I eat the last half of my Zone bar and look at signs on the wall. The biggest shows slash marks through a hat and a cell phone. I wouldn’t want to go to school there. I’m not going to say it feels like a prison. I wouldn’t know what that’s like. It’s very clean. But it doesn’t feel like the school I went to or my kids went to. It feels more like the very clean factory my father ran. I expect to see a sign that says ‘hard hat area’.

The guard asks if I’m there to make a comment later at the meeting and when I say no, they point me to the left and I go right where they say to go. I notice a photocopied sign taped to the wall along my way that says Men’s Restroom, near which I figure there’ll be a water fountain where I can rinse my mouth of that dusty sweet taste (no matter which flavor you get) a Zone bar leaves you with. I head the way the arrow on the sign says. And the guard from the table hollers at me, like I’m sneaking backstage. I tell him I’m going to the restroom and he gets OK with that.

The auditorium slated for the 6 to 8pm meeting is dimly lit like a bus terminal. No skylights. Low wattage. Security guards around. There’s a plainclothes cop (you can tell) sitting across the aisle from me. There aren’t many people there. A scattering of mostly African-American women. Up on the stage there is a long table with wings that will accommodate the panel. Each seat has a name plate in front of it, but the table is so far back on the stage that you can’t read the names. The only sign you can read clearly is an electronic one right up at the front of the stage with red LED numbers like a 24-second NBA clock. This one is set at 2:00...two minutes.

In the aisle right near me and in the other aisle at the long end of my row are microphones set up with signs taped to them saying: “Each Speaker Will Be Allowed Up To 2 Minutes.” You wonder why it’s set to two minutes. You’ve been to a dozen of these meetings, and it isn’t like a big time-consuming dialogue is going to take place. Most of the questions are addressed to Chancellor Klein and he’s no more apt to get into a discussion with the speakers than a wooden Indian would be. The questioners are tolerated, at best, at these things. They’d be better off calling C-Span or Boomer Esiason. They’d get more respect.

Once the panel gets seated, you’re disappointed that the microphones in front of them don’t send the sound out your way loudly or clearly. You’d be mad if you took your kid to see ‘Annie’ and the sound was that bad. And the table is so far back that you’ve got to look pretty closely to see whose mouth is moving. It’s not impressive. Nor is the fact that at any time you can look up and see as many as a quarter of them fiddling with their Blackberries. One young member walks in more than an hour late, slides his suit coat off, puts it on the back of the chair, takes his seat, reaches down into the coat pocket and pulls out his Blackberry and starts checking out his messages. He hasn’t been there a minute. No one’s going to say anything to him; the Chancellor’s on his Blackberry more than anyone.

Nothing much goes on. There is a screen above the stage that hypes some national numbers that show the fourth graders in the city have out-performed the rest of the state in reading, which is a good thing. But you think to yourself sitting there that this is New York Fucking City, the home of Random House and The New Yorker and a hundred other literate things I could list. So we beat Buffalo and my old hometown in rural western New York, and we beat Corning. That’s like saying Antwerp beat the other Belgian towns in diamond cutting.

The rest of the meeting is about budgets and the like. It’s boring, especially since you can’t hear what they’re saying very clearly.

It’s really all a yawn and everyone in the room is bored by it, panel included, except for the citizens who’ve written out what they’re going to say, and have timed it to two minutes, because they know about the two minute warning, but after adjusting the mike and clearing their throat and overcoming their jitters, it lasts a little longer than two minutes. But no matter, the bell goes off exactly when their time’s up and they have to stop.

It’s boring because there’s nothing radical going on. Most NYC public school kids cannot read well enough when they graduate (if they even do) to read To Kill a Mockingbird for pleasure, and up on stage more than a dozen adults are considering nothing radical to change that. Charter schools are as radical as they’ll go. Smaller schools are high right now on their priority list. Closing poor-performing schools is championed, as if the building’s structure caused poor reading performance.

You sit there and can feel the sluggishness. It’s like being in church, where no one gives evidence of being filled with the spirit. You want to stand up and say…hey, how come the kids aren’t taught to read proficiently? Here it is another school year over. Another year of failure. Because all the kids can’t read well. They’ve been in the city schools since early fall. They’ve been doing that drill for some years, in some cases for 12 years. And still most of the students can’t read well.

You wish someone on the board could explain that failure. Is it just a part of city life to them that most of the poor kids can’t read? Is it just something we have to accept? Like pigeons and rats? You wish some board member would speak clearly into his or her mike, and take two minutes to say: This is nuts. We’re not doing our job.

Caption: Don’t Take Up Our Time. Speakers are not really listened to.

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