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The Influentials: Education

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John Sexton and Arun Alagappan.  

Joel Klein
Chancellor, New York City Department of Education
Klein has brought a corporate ethos to the New York public schools. When Mayor Bloomberg dismantled the community school boards and consolidated power in the Department of Education, Klein used his newly minted authority to make sweeping changes: Elementary education was overhauled and a new universal curriculum was put in place, social promotion was abolished, principals were given greater autonomy, and Klein successfully negotiated a new teachers’ contract that brought city educators’ pay to near parity with their suburban peers. It’s too early to grade Klein’s ultimate effectiveness, but at the very least, Bloomberg and Klein have done for the New York public-school system what no one had done for some time: They’ve restored a sense of hope.

John Sexton
President, New York University
Sexton is an educational impresario, and he’s made NYU the most exciting three-ring university in the country. When Sexton was named president of NYU in 2002, the school rated maybe a B on the national college-excellence curve. Today, it’s considered an A-plus, beating out its hometown rival, Columbia, and all the other Ivies for the past two years as the country’s top dream school, according to a Princeton Review survey of high-school seniors. The Brooklyn-born Sexton, who was the dean of NYU’s Law School before becoming president of the university, engineered the transformation by investing $350 million in the arts and sciences, launching a seven-year, $2.5 billion funding drive, and wooing teaching talent away from the Ivies. In the process, he’s brought a renewed intellectual luster to the city. He’s also attracted higher-caliber studentsstudents who figure to go on to reshape New York and the world.

Arun Alagappan
Founder, Advantage Testing, Inc.
Like it or not, high-end, one-on-one academic tutoring is a fixture of contemporary New York, and Alagappan is the father of the business. Twenty years ago, Alagappan, a Princeton philosophy major and Harvard Law grad, left the white-shoe law firm Sullivan and Cromwell to found Advantage Testing, a boutique tutoring service for college-bound high-school kids. Today, Alagappan and 100 fellow tutors work with up to 2,000 kids each year in subjects ranging from core academics and essay writing to SAT prep. Despite law-partner rates (Alagappan charges $685 for a 50-minute hour, although staff tutors charge less), a year’s wait is not uncommon for Alagappan’s services. Alagappan insists he doesn’t track test scores; regardless, Advantage has inspired dozens of high-priced imitators, and, for better or worse, transformed the precollege landscape.

Randi Weingarten
President, United Federation of Teachers
The leader of 140,000 active and retired teachers, Weingarten has the power to stop education reform in its tracks, or at least slow it to a virtual halt. The Brooklyn-born former high-school history teacher and Cardozo-trained lawyer has used her position to oppose everything from schools chancellor Joel Klein’s focus on standardized testing (in contrast to true learning) to his proposed principal-accountability plan. She’s railed against private-school tax credits and the Department of Ed’s increased funding for charter schools at the expense of traditional schools. That said, Weingarten isn’t beyond compromise. She agreed to a longer school day and more tutoringkey planks in the Klein reform platformin exchange for better pay for her teachers. As head of both the UFT and the Municipal Labor Commission, a union coalition with more than 365,000 members, Weingarten has influence that reaches beyond the schools: She can swing close to a half-million votes.

Robert Hughes
President, New Visions for Public Schools
Hughes’s archipelago of small, highly focused public high schools is spearheading the changes in the city’s secondary-education system. One of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein’s key second-term experiments is developing small, specialized schools that use a single focussocial justice, urban planning, sports management, fine artsas a fulcrum for learning. Hughes’s New Visions has helped create 112 small middle and high schools, and is the DOE-appointed overseer of Klein’s New Century High Schools Initiative, a multiyear, multi-million-dollar project funded by, among others, Bill Gates, George Soros, and the Annenberg Foundation. The operating theory of New Visions schools is that the smallness keeps kids from getting lost and the specialization makes learning more engaging. Graduation rates for New Visions seniors, most of whom would have attended overcrowded, understaffed local schools, beat city averages by up to 30 percent.

Geoffrey Canada
CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone; founder, Promise Academy Charter School; and co-chair, Mayor’s Special Commission on Poverty
Canada is proving that poor African-American kids can succeed, despite grim socioeconomic odds and traditionally low academic achievement. Canada’s 60-block-square Harlem Children’s Zone, a web of programs that serves more than 9,000 kids, integrates after-school enrichments like tutoring, chess, and music; family support services like housing and legal advocacy; and social programs like child-rearing classes. Since 2004, the Zone has also included Canada’s charter school, the Promise Academy, a K12 DOEapproved school with a school day that’s an hour longer and a school year that’s a month and a half longer than the city’s standard public schools. Canada grew up poor in the South Bronx and flirted with petty crime, but a teacher took the time to set him on the right track, and he eventually graduated from Bowdoin and earned a master’s in education from Harvard. He started the Zone with the help of Soros’s Quantum Fund manager and fellow Bowdoin alumnus Stan Druckenmiller (who, along with other private, corporate, and government sources, funds the program). The Promise Academy has produced remarkable results. In September 2004, only 11 percent of the kindergarten kids, all chosen by lottery, tested above grade level. By June ’05, that number had risen to 80 percent.

Clara Hemphill
Founder, InsideSchools.org
Empowering parents. When Hemphill couldn’t find the information she needed to choose a public school for her young son, she set about finding it for herself, then sharing it with the rest of New York. Today, her Website, InsideSchools.org, offers an educational mix of information about New York’s 1,500 public schools. The Website’s school profiles detail test scores, of course, but they also describe the culture of each school, giving prospective families insights on teaching styles, homework, and discipline. There are also policy papers, parent alerts, and nuts-and-bolts guides to school admissions, testing, and other education essentials. InsideSchools.org doesn’t pull punches; you’re as apt to read about barren science labs at a given school as you are to read about a great principal.

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