PBS Documentary "Schools That Work" and Manhattan District 2

From: Betsy Scherl
Sent: Sunday, March 27, 2005 12:11 AM
To: Hedrick Smith Productions
Subject: "Schools That Work"

Dear Mr. Smith:

I was saddened to discover that your company is producing a documentary entitled "Schools That Work" that will profile certain schools, including District 2 schools in Manhattan as a "model of reform."

As a parent of two children who are or have been in "the trenches" in the District 2 schools, the title does not comport with the reality of what exists. The amount of damage that can be done by such a documentary is enormous.

I feel compelled to tell you a bit about our District and my personal experiences. District 2 is a large district that covers about of Manhattan and includes some very diverse areas, both ethnically and financially. I have children who are currently in third grade, first grade and a younger one who will enter kindergarten next year. As a summary, I will tell you that, in fact a better title for your documentary might be "How Our Schools Fail Our Children." Simply stated, our schools do not work. They fail not only the academically motivated child but also the child with learning differences.

There is very little teacher directed "teaching" and a lot of group discovery, both in reading and math. Reading is taught via whole language (even though the school claims "balanced literacy") and the basic skill sets in math are often not taught at all. There is no organized spelling curriculum and no real writing program. Simply stated, the important fundamentals are not taught! My eldest, an academically motivated young man, has experienced boredom in school since second grade. According to District 2; he is part of the "miracle." But the only "miracle" here is that I realized how poor the curriculum offered in District 2 was early enough to intervene. .. .I tutor him in spelling (considered to be too mundane to teach in an appropriately organized fashion and many District 2 children are poor spellers due to a poor phonemic awareness); and I extensively tutor him in math (Kumon and a Johns Hopkins Distance Educational Program). He still laughs about his math homework.... to him, the funniest assignment last year was "write a story about 300-200." If I didn't find it to be so sad, I would laugh too. The challenge is certainly not there for academically motivated children. It is no longer any wonder to me why families might chose to home school. My son will move on to private school next year which I am hopeful will provide him with more academic motivation.

My daughter has learning differences and spent one year in an integrated classroom in District 2 school before moving off to a special school. She requires a "real" phonics-based program (as opposed to "balanced literacy") and District 2 was unable to offer that to her. Her District 2 school last year had no consistent approach to the teaching of reading and therefore, they were unable to even detect that she had many red-flags for difficulty learning to read. (This happens at countless schools throughout the District; the schools should be able to identify children who may have decoding difficulties as early as kindergarten or first grade and intervene with programs that emphasize phonemic awareness ...however, the District 2 schools identify late, too late in my book. When children struggle for so long to learn to read without the proper curriculum, it is a tragedy for them, and results in low self-esteem, an inability to read in all subjects and great difficulty in keeping up academically with their peers. It is my understanding that District 2 schools do not refer students for remedial help until after they have shown failure for a long period of time; this is simply unacceptable.) In her current school, she now has intensive work each day with vowel sounds, letter sounds, blends, digraphs and she is slowly but surely putting each phonemic part together in order to be able to read. The math that she receives in her special education school is not a constructivist math; the school is careful to ensure that children who have difficulty reading will be unable to succeed in a math curriculum. The District 2 constructivist math curricula are so "loaded" with English and reading, the end result is that children with reading difficulties also have difficulties in math. Her current school understands that all children can benefit from learning basic skill sets and working to improve these skills. My daughter often says to me after she has completed a basic worksheet "look mom, I'm really good in math."

District 2 has lost its way due to progressive ideology espoused by educators with agendas, either personal, financial or political. Our children are the biggest losers in this system. I remain ever hopeful that there will be positive change and to solid curricula in both mathematics and English, a focus on basic tasks that our children need to become literate, textbooks (I haven't seen one of those in years),etc. But, it won't happen soon enough to help the current needs of children in District 2 schools. Please understand that presenting a story espousing the wonders of reform would be woefully inadequate without including the failures of such a reform. How many children need to fail before things are changed? There are many, many unhappy families who are struggling to succeed in a fundamentally flawed system . . . a one-sided documentary that presents some kind of "miraculous change in inner-city schools" would be factually inaccurate and has the additional danger of causing other school systems to think that these reforms are worth duplicating. I assure you, I do not wish these reforms on any other city.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions on this issue.

Betsy Scherl

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