An Elite Public School For the Lower East Side

One of the usual laments about public education in this city is its hidebound bureaucracy, impervious to change and innovation. Layers of administrators and union bosses act as obstacles between the classroom and reform. Or so it seems. An experiment underway on the Lower East Side is demonstrating that the terms “public school” and “innovation” can fit in the same sentence.

An unusual kindergarten-through-12th-grade school called New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math opened last fall thanks to the determined efforts of a principal and parents. While it is too early to pronounce the schoolan unqualified success, it clearly is on the right track, and may offer the Board of Education a model for future innovations. Our public-school system is only going to work if we build from the bottom up, at the school and classroom level.

The school, known by the acronym NEST, has a selective-admissions policy, which has led the neighborhood’s dreary socialists to raise the hoary charge of elitism. The policy is designed to reward students willing to work hard and conduct themselves like young scholars. They are expected to dress properly, read “Beowulf” in the sixth grade and learn the rules of grammar. No gauzy tracts about self-esteem here.

NEST is the latest innovation presided over by principal Celenia Chévere, who has started five other public schools with competitive-admissions policies, including an excellent all-girls academy in East Harlem. A child of poverty, Ms. Chévere knows that excellent public education can lift children to the middle class and beyond. She is exactly the kind of smart, creative administrator New York needs. The prime responsibility of the schools chancellor should be to recruit dozens more like her. We could retake our schools one by one.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Board of Education, and indeed all New Yorkers have a stake in NEST’s success. Let’s hope continued success inspires other principals, parents and children.

Dean Goldstein Of the Columbia J School Makes a Sleazy Turn

Society relies on great universities to stand up for intellectual integrity and scholarly ethics. But integrity and ethics have taken a holiday at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Widely touted as the country’s most prestigious journalism training ground, publisher of the respected Columbia Journalism Review and bestower of the Pulitzer Prize, the Columbia J School has veered far from the straight and narrow path and scampered into the arms of a conflict of interest that would normally evoke outrage in, well, the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review .

The facts are simple and disturbing. As The Observer reported last week, Tom Goldstein, the dean of the Columbia J School, has been moonlighting on the payroll of Bloomberg News since December. There, Mr. Goldstein’s job is to be a sort of ombudsman and keep an eye on possible conflicts of interest which might arise from having Bloomberg News report on Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who still owns the company. That’s a curious setup in itself–to be of any use, an ombudsman needs to be an unpaid public figure, who can offer unvarnished advice. Does anyone really think Mr. Goldstein will offer any substantial criticism of the man who signs his paycheck?

The central issue is that Mr. Goldstein’s greedy double-dipping makes a mockery of everything the Columbia J School ostensibly stands for. What does it say about a journalism school’s impartiality, and ability to objectively assess news organizations in the classroom and in the pages of the CJR , when the dean of that school is collecting a paycheck from a news organization? Will the CJR, which describes itself as “America’s premiere media monitor–a watchdog of the press in all its forms,” take Mr. Goldstein to task for his unscrupulous and unethical arrangement?

Does Tom Goldstein understand he is a walking conflict of interest? That he is setting an atrocious, cynical example for Columbia students? If he wants to keep his job at Bloomberg News, he should resign his Columbia post immediately. Let him decide whose paycheck he prefers, but it cannot be both.

Bob Tisch Takes the Field

Athletics are one of the joys of being young, a way of establishing a lifelong habit of physical activity, as well as building character and introducing one to the importance of concentration, cooperation and teamwork. But New York City public-school kids are growing up in a sports vacuum, where their only meaningful athletic activity is watching the Yankees and Knicks on TV.

Ever since the fiscal crisis of the 1970′s, the city has shortchanged its public-school athletic programs; ball fields and basketball courts have been allowed to deteriorate through neglect and lack of investment. The city spends less than a tenth of what surrounding suburbs spend on their sports teams. Of the 60 public high schools that even have athletic facilities, 50 have fields in such bad shape they need to be completely rebuilt. Just 12 percent of New York public-school students participate in a sports team, putting us at the bottom compared to other large cities. A shocking study by Queens College found that over 50 percent of New York public-high-school kids have a major risk factor for heart disease, mostly from being overweight and under-exercised.

Fortunately some of those in the private sector have stepped up to the plate. Take the Field is a remarkable, nonprofit public-private partnership which designs and rebuilds athletic facilities–baseball diamonds, football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, running tracks–for the city’s public high schools. Under the direction of its co-founder and chairman Bob Tisch, Take the Field has, in just two years, provided 15 schools with state-of-the-art facilities. The organization is on a campaign to raise $25 million–the city has pledged to match each dollar raised with three dollars. The resulting $100 million would be enough to renovate the fields of almost every public high school.

Schools work best if they engage kids in and out of the classroom. Take the example of George Washington High School in Washington Heights. The baseball team won championships and a national reputation despite dismal facilities, threadbare secondhand uniforms and not enough balls for batting practice. The kids who play on the team have graduation rates twice as high as other students at the school, and far higher than the city average. Thanks to Take the Field, the school now has a $2.5 million athletic complex, featuring a beautifully groomed ball field.

Take the Field’s ongoing ability to raise funds will make sure that the city’s public-school kids won’t always have to dodge potholes on the baseball diamond. Those who wish to help may call 521-2232.