For 5 months of the school year I wear my hat as the coach of the boys’ basketball team. It has been the most pleasant surprise of my career. Most of my time is spent learning: about the game, about my boys and about winning and losing. I also get to learn a little bit about many other schools. We have to play every game on the road, traveling to over a dozen schools during the season. The schools are mostly in Manhattan, although we have the odd out-of-borough game from time to time. Although we are only at each school for a few hours, the little bits and pieces I have seen of each one says a whole lot about the Bloomberg system and education deform in general.
Many of the schools we visit are typical Bloomberg. They are large buildings that used to house large high schools. These high schools were institutions within their communities. When I was growing up, kids could identify themselves with the large high schools they attended. We were either Seward or Brandeis or Erasmus or Tech kids. Telling someone what high school you went to was a shorthand way of identifying your community, your lifestyle and your friends all at once. It was one of the ways New York City youth communicated with each other, part of the urban dialect that nobody but us understood.
So imagine the sadness I feel when we visit one of these schools from my youth, only to see that it has been chopped up into 5 small schools. We aren’t visiting great institutions as I knew them growing up. We are visiting husks of great institutions. Schools used to be named for great statesmen and American heroes. Now each of the five schools in these big buildings have names like “Academy of Social Peace” or “Young Women’s Writing Academy” (These are not real names. The real ones are a lot more ridiculous). They have traded in using school names to celebrate our heritage for using school names as way to market each school. The funny thing is that the “Academy of Social Peace” does not have to offer any programs on “social peace”, and it damn sure isn’t an “academy”. None of that matters in Bloomberg’s system. It is all about using the business strategy of marketing in what should be a public institution.
Then there is the way we are greeted. In the few large schools that have not been chopped up, me and the team check in with the School Safety agents who then direct us to the gym. I meet the opposing coach and he shows the boys where to change and what bench we will use during the game. The coaches in these schools tend to be veteran teachers, excellent coaches and consummate professionals. These are the rare types of schools. I can count the number of them we have visited on one hand.
The much more common type of school is the Bloomberg 5-in-1 monstrosity. We are not so much greeted in these schools as much as we are herded, questioned and interrogated. “What school are you from?” or “How many are you?” and “No spectators!” or “Wait here for an escort to the gym.” Sometimes there is the metal detector to deal with. Someone from one of the schools in the building (we never know which school or what title this person holds) might take a head count of my team and try to match it up to our roster of players to ensure the numbers match. You never know, a random hooligan might have slipped into our ranks without me noticing. On one hand, I understand that school buildings have a duty to monitor who comes and goes. On the other hand, I feel as if whatever administrator made the policy (and it could only have been an administrator) mistrusts my ability to monitor the group of boys I am with. I feel the Bloomberg hate for teachers and students in the way we are treated, not to mention the hate that many administrators have for us.
One of these buildings I am particularly familiar with. I used to teach in the neighborhood and I have coached many games there. It is a Bloomberg monster school with one of these ridiculous visitor policies. The teachers at the school are generally very young, most likely TFA “grads” with one foot out of the door. The coach of their team is one of my least favorite people. He is extremely young, wears horn-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, tight sweaters, Chuck Taylors and spiked hair. He is a model of the hipster gentrification overtaking the neighborhood in which his school is located. Unlike the more professional opposing coaches, he does not shake my hand or look me in the eye or do anything beyond gruffly unlock the locker room for my boys. During the game he yells, screams, jumps onto the court and loses his bearings to such a degree that he ends up at our bench when it puts him in closer proximity to the action of the game. He is unsportsman-like and unprofessional, in both dress and demeanor. I had been running an imaginary office pool in my head where everyone takes bets on when he will quit teaching. Recently, to my surprise, I discovered that this man was not a teacher at all, but an Assistant Principal. There is no way that he can have more than 3 years in the classroom. The fact that such an un-educator-like person can make it to AP says everything you need to know about the Bloomberg system.
The last time I was in this school, a staff member there struck up a conversation with me. He was an older gentleman who definitely had the air of someone who has earned his stripes in New York City public schools. Almost as if he knew his audience, he immediately launched into a tirade against the young, petty and incompetent administrators in the building. “They aren’t educators” he said, “they have no business running a school.” If these are the same administrators that came up with the Draconian entrance policy, then he is right. The best barometer of their incompetence is my team. Whenever we are treated like criminals, my boys get this sheepish look on their faces as if they really have done something wrong. They are all good kids and fortunately do not receive this type of treatment back at our school. They bear their treatment patiently. I could not help but wonder what it is like to be a student at one of these schools who receive this type of harassment every day. You walk into the building and immediately you are searched, questioned and barked at. If my boys could be made to feel guilty for a moment, what must a kid feel like who is treated like this as a matter of policy?
“Academies” may sound nice but they are not welcoming communities for kids. Rather, they all reflect Bloomberg’s callous disregard for inner-city youth and their teachers.