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News and Speeches

Chancellor’s Principal Conference


Remarks of  Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott As Prepared for Delivery
Saturday, May 18, 2013 at Brooklyn Technical High School

Good morning. It’s a privilege to stand in this room with the finest, most talented group of principals and administrators ever to lead our public schools.

I joined the city’s historic mission to reform our school system over a decade ago. It has been my great pleasure to come to know many of you in that time. I’ve learned first-hand what extraordinary challenges you face every day.

Your work is hard and at times thankless. So first, I want to thank you. Thank you for being exceptional. Thank you for supporting our students—all 1.1 million of them. Thank you for supporting our teachers—all 75,000 of them. Thank you for stepping up time and again.

We have been through a lot together, and your accomplishments have been remarkable.

This school year alone, you transitioned thousands of students with disabilities into classrooms where they now learn side-by-side with their non-disabled peers. You deepened Common Core instruction in your schools and managed new state tests. And you continued to prepare teachers for a new evaluation system.

In a true demonstration of New York City grit, you accomplished all of this in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Hurricane Sandy severely damaged scores of our buildings and displaced so many of our families. And the school bus drivers’ strike interrupted instruction for students throughout the city.  You, your staffs and teachers responded to these events with compassion and countless acts of kindness.

One principal drove staff to a store so they could buy items to donate to the relief effort—and then volunteered at a FEMA shelter. Another insisted on sharing her building with a displaced school, even though it meant doubling up students in every classroom.

A teacher gave his own coat and gloves to a student who lost everything during the hurricane.

A custodian rounded up colleagues from other schools and spent a weekend pumping hundreds of gallons of water out of his school so it could open the following Monday.

In our moment of crisis, you and so many of your staff made New York City proud. As you do every day, without fanfare. I’m honored to thank you for it.

All of us are here today because we care deeply about the future of our students. We’re here to make a difference—one classroom, one student, one day at a time.

And as we consider all that we’ve done together over the past 11 years, we can say with confidence—and immense pride—that we have changed the educational landscape of this great city.

We’re now at a critical juncture. The race for mayor has recently focused on our reform of the schools system. And it’s become increasingly clear to me that the fate of our schools is hanging in the balance.

I haven’t endorsed anyone in this race, and I don’t plan to. I know all of the candidates and I believe they’re good people who love this city. But some of the talk I’ve been hearing lately concerns me.

I’ve heard proposals to halt the reforms that have turned this system around. To weaken mayoral control, to turn the clock back to a time when accountability was an empty word.

I’ve heard endless proposals that would benefit the teachers’ union, but not our students. I’ve heard promises to return to an earlier time when principals had far less authority to run their schools.

What these promises have in common is that they would hurt children in the service of political interests. And I find that disgraceful.

Many of the candidates want the Department of Education to halt its policy of replacing failing schools with successful and innovative new schools.

They would have us consign the students who attend them to an awful status quo, and send their students into the world without the benefit of a good education.

There are calls for a sunset provision on teacher evaluations, and an end to the mayor’s majority on the Panel for Educational Policy.

Many of you in the audience lead new schools that couldn't even have been imagined 11 years ago. The popularity of these new schools, charter and non-charter, has skyrocketed in this city, as increasing numbers of parents across the full spectrum of neighborhoods have sought out these dynamic new opportunities for their children.

But instead of increasing the number of these schools, as we’re doing this fall, several candidates have called for a moratorium on siting charter schools—and district schools— in our buildings.

Sharing space with other schools can be a challenge – I get it.  The truth is, most schools in the city are sharing space with another district or charter school and as a result of your hard work and cooperation, these campuses are thriving.

Ultimately, this is not about adults, it’s about the children, and the student outcomes in our new schools speak for themselves. It boggles the mind why a candidate for office would call for an end to this success story, except to appease a union that feels threatened by it.

I don’t like to involve myself in politics. And as I said, I don’t have a horse in this race. My only interest is in the students of this city. And I want to say something as clearly as I can:

To dismantle the reforms of the last decade would be a disaster for our children and this city. We cannot turn back the clock on our students.

We cannot return to the days when a principal’s judgment was subordinate to special interests, when decisions were based upon what was convenient for adults, with no regard for students.

We cannot return to the days when principals did not have final say on hiring – the most basic and fundamental demonstration of leadership.

We cannot return to the days when a so-called “seniority and integration transfer plan” allowed teachers and assistant principals into your schools without your consent… when, unbelievably, there was no expedited disciplinary process for teachers who had time and attendance issues.

We cannot return to the days when favoritism, nepotism and corruption at community school boards were rampant. Remember when board members felt entitled to drop by your school and make quote-unquote “special hiring requests”?

We cannot return to the days before college and career readiness was part of every lesson plan, every coaching session and every parent’s demand for their son or daughter. This is something no administration before us ever took on, and it’s a cornerstone of our reform policy.

And, finally, we cannot return to the farce that was the school budgeting process.  How many of you remember the days when schools didn’t receive their budgets until November? You will get yours this Friday, by the way – earlier than any time in memory.

Today, I’m proud that our schools are no longer an object of derision.  As a result of your work, they’ve improved dramatically over the past decade. And I will not allow anyone to denigrate your accomplishments.

Anyone with plans to roll back the strategies that have led to these improvements will be answerable to the tens of thousands whose lives have been changed for the better.

  • Try telling parents that their children won’t be able to attend high schools outside of their districts anymore.
  • Try telling the thousands of low-income parents trying to get their children into high quality district and charter schools that we’re putting the brakes on choice.
  • Try asking parents if they want their children memorizing rote facts in classrooms instead of analyzing, discussing and writing more. 
  • Try asking the additional 60,000 students who are in college now who likely wouldn’t have made it there without our reforms.
  • Try telling the parent coordinators hired by you— with about $75 - $80 million in central funding—that we’re not serious about parent involvement.
  • Try telling the more than 4,000 English Language Learner parents who gathered with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and me at the Javits Center this week that our reforms haven’t improved the lives of immigrant children in this city.

Try turning back the clock on them.

While other cities are selling off buildings because of declining enrollment, families are flocking to our new schools.

We owe this success to you and your determined leadership day in and day out.

Let’s look at some of the progress we’ve made.

Even with our more rigorous requirements, our graduation rates have risen more than 40 percent, to an all-time high of approximately 65 percent.

  • Black and Hispanic students are sharing those gains for the first time in history. Today, 60
  • percent of Black students and 59 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years, up from 40 and 37 percent in 2005. This is an incredible milestone.
  • At the same time, our drop-out rate has been cut nearly in half, and even the hard-to-budge Black-white/Hispanic-white achievement gaps are down: by 21 and 26 percent respectively.
  • Grades 3-8 students have made progress on State ELA and math tests, with scores up seven percent over the last two years.
  • Participation in pre-k has risen by roughly 40 percent.  Starting this fall, 4,000 more children in our neediest communities will have access to high quality, full-day, pre-k.

These are not just numbers on a spreadsheet.

This administration has made it a mission to empower you to run your schools. Today, you’re freer than ever to determine what goes on inside your buildings. You control your own budget, design your own professional development, make independent staffing decisions, select your own curriculum, and set the instructional focus for your schools.

By September 2013, together we will have opened 656 new, mission-driven schools, giving families unprecedented options. We will soon pass the $25 billion mark for capital spending on new or renovated schools. That’s 126,000 new classroom seats since the start of the administration.

Thanks to you, we have “green” schools, single-sex schools, schools that offer careers in software engineering and emergency management, and schools that graduate students with an associate’s degree as well as a high school diploma.

Our 9 through 14 schools have generated national attention. I can’t express to you the pride I felt when President Obama called out your efforts in this year’s State of the Union address and said, “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”

We have certainly learned our share of lessons on the road to reform. But after 11 years of tireless efforts by the people in this room, I’m proud to say that we have arrived at a new day in the history of the New York City school system.

There are now just seven months left to this administration. But our work will not slow down. Reform is always a work in progress.

Two weeks ago, the city and the teacher’s union submitted competing proposals for the rules you will have to follow to evaluate your teachers.

We will continue to work to reach a settlement with the UFT. But we won’t agree upon a system that puts adults ahead of students. And we certainly won’t accept a deal that paralyzes your ability to run your schools.

The rules have to set clear expectations for teachers, provide them with meaningful feedback, help them develop, and remove those who cannot improve and educate our students.

It is critical that we continue to improve the quality of our teaching. Toward that end, I announced this week that we will more than double our investment in teacher development, from $50 million to over $100 million. The money will be used to support new Common Core-aligned curricula and our transition to the new teacher evaluation system.

I know you believe, as I do, that every child in this city deserves a high-quality education, one that allows him or her to graduate from high school, attend college, embark on a fulfilling career, and support a family.

Halting the momentum of this extraordinary transformation would be a tragedy. Doing so just to earn the favor of a powerful union would be an outrage.

This isn’t about politics. It’s about our students, like my two grandsons, who will attend public schools in September and will have choices that I never had.

Our work together has never been easy. But never in the history of the public schools have the rewards for that work been greater.

We are believers. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we won’t quit.

Next month, when thousands of proud families celebrate graduation day with you, you should revel in that milestone. You’ve played a critical role in helping our students realize their dreams.

For those efforts over the last 11 years, I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.