Demystifying the ways of large-city schools

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Clara Hemphill thought she knew pretty much everything about ferreting out information under difficult circumstances. Then her children entered the New York City public school system.

"As a reporter, I covered the Vatican, and I was in Lebanon in 1982, and it was easier to get information there," she says.

Ms. Hemphill quickly became convinced that she was not alone. "If I was having trouble getting information about schools, then other parents must be, too," she reasoned.

Thus began her drive to put specific, qualitative knowledge about individual New York City schools into the hands of parents. It became an imperative that spoke to the needs of parents across the United States. When so much of current debate about education centers on school choice, Hemphill came to believe, disseminating information about individual schools was crucial.

Hemphill has now authored three different guides to New York City's public schools - including the newly released "New York City's Best Public High Schools" - all containing anecdotal profiles of successful city schools and basic advice for parents on navigating the city school system.

Although her books do contain basic numeric information about the different schools - figures on average class size, enrollment numbers, SAT scores, and the like - her focus is more on descriptive profiles. "Each school has its own personality and values, and that's the heart and soul of the school that I'm interested in," she says.

She is also involved in setting up an interactive Internet site (www.publicschoolsreport.org) that will feature profiles of as many New York City schools as possible, and serve as a forum for teachers, parents, students, and administrators to share information.

The current site focuses just on New York City, but it's a model Hemphill would eventually like to see replicated nationally.

Shared experience, Hemphill insists, can serve as a powerful vehicle for school improvement. An open forum for complaints about particular schools may help to keep up pressure for improvement. At the same time, it's equally important to share success stories.

"There are schools that found ways to chase the drug dealers off their sidewalks," she says. "There were some parents out in Rego Park [Queens] who did an end run around the bureaucracy and got an annex built in record time," she says. "There need to be ways of sharing these stories so schools can learn from one another."

In the course of her research, Hemphill visited dozens of New York City schools and gained an on-the-ground perspective of the 1.1 million-student, 1,200-school system that few parents - or even city policymakers - would be able to match.

One of the things that awed her about the New York system was the almost exhaustive variety of its school choices.

"There's an agricultural school in Queens where you can learn to milk a cow," she says. "There's a technical high school in Brooklyn with its own subway car where you can learn to do repairs. There are bilingual programs where you can study Hebrew and Japanese and Korean, and you can take advanced calculus in Korean."

But sadly, the range in terms of quality is almost as broad.

"There are also a lot of schools that are as grim and lifeless as prisons," she says, and particularly when it comes to high school, "the gap between the best-performing students and the worst gets really huge."

What she has seen in her survey of New York City schools has not convinced her that free-market competition - allowing parents to choose the schools their children will attend - will be enough to strengthen the public school system.

"Choice works well in an open-air fruit market, but not necessarily for a school system," she says. New York has long been known for its choice system, Hemphill points out, but the basic problem is that there are still not enough seats in good schools.

There's no avoiding the funding issue, she insists. "Of course, leadership and the quality of teaching count more than the budget, but the budget is still important," she says. "No matter how you slice it, we only spend $8,000 per student here, and they spend $14,000 per student in Scarsdale."

Still, what impressed her most in her travels throughout New York's public schools was the strength of what she calls "ordinary neighborhood schools."

She was awed by the teaching talent she glimpsed in some of these institutions. When the city considers where to invest its dollars, she says, "that's where you have to rebuild."

Send e-mail to marjorie@csmonitor.com

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