Monday, February 24, 2014

The current sad state of Murry Bergtraum High School - the result of 10 years of DOE failure

John Elfrank-Dana
John Elfrank-Dana has been a teacher and chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum High School for many years, as well as an adjunct professor at Fordham University.  He blogs at Labor's Lessons where this was originally posted.

Murry Bergtraum High School has been in the press yet again. This time in response to a NY Post article two weeks ago about the school's so-called "Blended Learning" program. The article today was about a bunch of letters students wrote  in defense of the program and school's administration, but many were riddled with grammatical errors. It makes one wonder how the administration let this happen, as we know it was orchestrated from the school's principal-appointed Brand Manager.

Why weren't the letters at least proofread before they were sent to Chancellor Fariña as well as the NY Post reporter, Susan Edelman? This madness is symptomatic of the larger failure of education reform in the city.

It's important that we not forget the background that got us here.

Set up for Failure: Murry Bergtraum has been a school that has been set up for failure since the early days of the Bloomberg administration. High academic and social need students were dumped on the school throughout the closing process of other schools. Bloomberg wanted the small schools to have a good shot at success so students whose family had no plan were sent to large schools like Bergtraum and Washington Irving. Diane Ravitch cogently explains how Bergtraum has become a nerve ending for the failed Bloomberg and Klein educational policy.

Lack of Security: In the last three and a half years the school has been under siege from incompetent administration that failed to provide enough security to ensure a school tone conducive to success. Teachers have complained and I have filed numerous security grievances and complaints that not enough was being done to reign in the school's worst behaving students. You can witness numerous fights online at various social media sites.

Incompetent Administration: Three years ago we saw the infamous bathroom "riot" in response to then Principal, Andrea Lewis' misguided attempt to punish students for fighting by banning use of the restroom for the rest of the day for 2300 of their classmates. That's how the students heard it over the PA anyway. She was removed in August of 2012.

Now we have suffered through the worst school opening in Murry Bergtraum's history this year with botched student programming and a principal, Lottie Almonte, who just never takes responsibility for anything. And like the School of NO, PS 106, in Queens scandal, staff who could escape did. Over 51 staffers at Bergtraum including: all assistant principals of instruction, all the secretaries and other teachers and guidance counselors, most at the top of their game, ran to the welcoming arms of other schools over the summer never to look back. Staff polls on both principals have shown a strong vote of no confidence only to fall on the deaf ears of Bloomberg's Department of Education.

Curricular Gimmicks Rather That Solutions That Work: Rather than reducing class sizes, adjusting the admissions policy so students with high academic and/or social need come from the neighborhood so families can be integrated into their schooling and receive social services, we got gimmicks. The latest is so-called Blended Learning. But, when you blend anything you need at least two parts. In this case it should have been traditional classroom instruction with computer-based instruction. That's not what was happening. Instead, students were given a log-in to an online class and sent their way with a deadline for them (or whomever they hire) to complete the online packaged lessons. Before that was the Leadership Academy 3 years ago which, like the current "Blended Learning" program was a credit recovery scheme that failed to meet state requirements.

The spin will be from pro-charter folks that is shows how public schools can't work. The spin will come from anti-teacher union groups that the school's teachers are to blame. But, given the facts presented above and the accounts embedded therein from those of us who lived it those biases just won't get off the ground.

The fact is that many of our students write well, and are going to have successful careers in college and the work place. It's a big school. There's well over a thousand young people in that building. But, the struggling students in numbers too large have not been served as they needed to be. They shouldn't be sent half way across town to go to school, they need more social services and their homes need support. They need small class sizes and real curriculum. Just like the kind of schooling the children of President Obama and NY State Ed Commissioner King receive.

But, ed reform in NYC and most of the rest of the country has been reduced to a high stakes numbers racket where district administrators look the other way to give principals the message - "get the numbers up any which way you can." Teachers are pressured to pass at least 80 percent of their students or else face the consequences of possible U or Ineffective ratings. The teachers union has been less than aggressive at reigning in bully principals in recent years.

"Just transfer if you don't like it" seems to be the implicit and sometimes direct response to staff from the UFT. The result, our students get junk education and when the evidence hits us in the face like those letters in the NY Post did this morning everyone is talking and anticipating- what's next?

Hold your heads up high, students and staff of Murry Bergtraum. You are stronger for what you have endured.


Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. As a student in the 90s, it really hurts me to read this. I remember you from my years in Bergtraum I was never in your classes but went on school trips and school programs with you. I am glad that you still care about Bergtraum. Hope it improves.

Anonymous said...

As a Bergtraum alum who graduated in 2006, I am very grateful that you have written a detailed account regarding Bergtraum's failure. I've kept wondering for years what went wrong.


Wow. As a proud graduate of Bergtraum, I find this article troubling. I remember we had to take an entry exam to Bergtrau . I turned down Brooklyn Tech to attend Bergtraim with my friend . There were alot of good times, even had a DJ at lunchtime My man Michael Patrick. Bergtraum need to get back to the basics and strengthen their curriculum and monitor who attends. Lonnie Knox class of 1979......

Anonymous said...

I graduated in the first class of Bergtraum. We started out in a small building before we moved into the big building where it stands now. We were small and everyone knew everyone. We had a great administration. What a sad state of affairs to see my alma mater go downhill.