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Joel Klein's 200 Club

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Parents sorting through kindergarten options are baffled. “We’re African-American, and the private schools lack diversity, plus the cost means you give up the dream of ever retiring,” says Glenna Meeks, the mother of twin 4-year-olds. “But everything in the public schools is so precarious. And with the reorganization, you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.” She sighs. “Going to school wasn’t nearly this complicated when I was growing up in Kentucky.”

Carmen Fariña is doing her best to be reassuring. Certainly her track record helps: For ten years, Fariña was the principal at P.S. 6, the Upper East Side’s finest public elementary school. In 2001, she took over Brooklyn’s District 15, which stretches from Cobble Hill to Borough Park, and many of its schools have improved significantly. Those achievements are why, two weeks ago, Fariña was promoted to “super-super”—one of ten administrators selected by Klein to command the ten new “regions” that will subsume the 40 existing school districts. For Fariña, this means she’s now responsible for 80,000 students instead of 20,000, and that for the first time she’ll steer high schools in addition to elementary and middle schools.

Daunting is one word she keeps using as she addresses parents on a chilly Wednesday night in Carroll Gardens. The other words Fariña repeats are I don’t know.

“I’m not being evasive,” she says at the outset. “It’s just that for many of the questions both you and I have, we don’t have the answers.” On one specific topic, Fariña is refreshingly blunt: Asked when the top 200 schools will be announced, Fariña says, “If it were up to me, never.”

It speaks highly of Klein that he’s chosen regional superintendents, like Fariña, who are unafraid speak their minds. But the chancellor’s unwillingness to disclose the particulars of the new educational regime is leading him into gnarly old thickets.

“I pushed my members to be open to change,” says teachers-union president Randi Weingarten. “And they started out being open. But the fear factor is escalating. Everybody has questions, and nobody can answer them. I’m seeing a change in my members from being open to being frustrated.” Weingarten suspects Bloomberg and Klein aren’t hiding the details. “I don’t think they’ve worked things out themselves.”

For school-system veterans, some cynicism is perfectly rational: They’ve seen more educational “revolutions” fade than they can count. When a West Side principal is asked about the chances of the current turmoil driving away highly motivated middle-class parents, she shrugs. "We always get more applications in a recession," she says.

Even if thousands of parents can’t bail out, physically, to Brearley or to the ’burbs, Bloomberg and Klein risk driving out their spirit. Getting that spark back would take more than clever restructuring.


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