Children Lost in Our Schools


I have visited many elementary and secondary schools around the country, but by far the most effective principal I have ever known was Elliot Shapiro at P.S. 119 in Harlem. I spent most of 1965 there, reporting on the kids, the teachers, and him.

He was known as the principal of the neighborhood. When, for example, heat wasn’t being supplied to buildings where some of the kids lived, Shapiro tracked down the owner and told him that he was about to be confronted with a picket line. The heat came back.

People I knew in Harlem had told me about other principals who believed that kids growing up in poverty and on tough streets could learn only so much, because their environment eventually diminished their capacity for schooling. This is a view still held by some principals and teachers.

When he first came to the school, Shapiro told me, “I had expected that children, growing up crowded together in broken homes, would present problems similar to those manifested by neurotic children. I have discovered that, on the whole, they do not. Most of the children here are as ‘normal’ as children in middle-class neighborhoods.”

Some of the children did have problems at home, and they brought those with them to school. Shapiro, who knew every student by name, was more than a principal to children who needed support. I’d often find troubled kids in his office. Usually he’d been listening to them for a long time.

A number of those particular children would, these days, have been carelessly placed in special education classes. As a November 24 Daily News editorial pointed out: in 1975, there were 35,000 kids in this city’s special education classes. Now, in the administration of Chancellor Rudy Crew, the number has risen to “a staggering 161,000—a 350 percent increase. Yet only 10 percent of the rolls are made up of the severely disabled children for whom the label was created. Once kids are branded special ed, only 2.3 percent of them make it back to regular classes.”

There is more to the scandal—and it is a frightening scandal—of those classes. In the November 21 New York Times, Anemona Hartocollis reported:

“The Federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has challenged Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to show evidence that thousands of black and Hispanic students are being properly placed in special education programs—saying that a Federal analysis shows evidence of discrimination that Dr. Crew has failed to report or investigate.” (Emphasis added.)

Hartocollis added that children in those classes seldom receive a diploma “even though the vast majority have only minor impairments, not severe handicaps.”

Rudy Crew, Rudy Giuliani’s loyal chancellor, has—as I indicated in last week’s column—failed the children in this city’s schools in many ways. But the most telling indictment of his reign is this Times summary of charges by the federal education department:

“In nine districts, the study found that black students were more than twice as likely as white students to be recommended for the most restrictive special education classes—from which they were least likely to be transferred back to the mainstream.

“Federal officials said that even among districts with the same rates of poverty, there were wide discrepancies in special education placements that appeared to be based on race or ethnicity.”

A spokesman for the highly paid chancellor says that new Board of Education statistics will soon show improvement in special education. How much reason is there to ever believe in the credibility of Dr. Crew’s statistics?

In a November 28 editorial, the New York Post noted that Crew takes pride in the alleged fact that the city’s students do somewhat better in the Board of Education’s reading tests than in tests administered by the state. But, the editorial pointed out, there have been “allegations of widespread cheating that attended administration of the [city’s] exams.” Allegations serious enough to lead “schools watchdog Ed Stanick” to immediately begin a probe of those charges.

There is a longstanding practice—
hardly limited to this city—of “teaching to the test.” In New York, principals and teachers, aware that the chancellor places great importance on the results of the city’s test, take more time preparing the kids for that test.

Moreover, Crew tried to get state education commissioner Richard Mills to lower the passing grade in the state test so the results of the city’s test would look better. (New York Post, November 28.)

As for the special education classes, the Times reported that “eight schools with extremely low reading and math scores had transferred large numbers of students into special education in 1996–97….The scores of special education students on standardized tests are not used to determine school ranking. So moving children into special education could sharply raise the overall scores of those schools.” (Emphasis added.)

In more than 30 years of writing about this city’s schools, I have seen many instances of principals, superintendents, and members of the Board of Education covering up their own failures to the continuing damage of the children they purportedly serve.

But Rudy Crew is in a cover-up class by himself. That he continues as chancellor is largely due to his fealty to Rudy Giuliani, who is a shameful accomplice in the callous neglect of the children of this city. Forty percent of the students who enter this city’s high schools
never graduate. Of these, 10 percent eventually gain General Equivalency Diplomas.