In an effort to improve educational outcomes in central Brooklyn, former Congressman Major Owens is proposing a new organizational model, the Central Brooklyn Experimental Education District (CBEED). Owens aims to to localize the efforts of students, parents, teachers and administrators. “A major cause that renders inner-city schools too big to succeed, doomed to fail,” said Owens, “is the bureaucratic distance from the vital school stakeholders.” CBEED would potentially consist of 20-30 schools, K-12. Owens tentatively calls the project a “charter district”, which might include schools in Districts 14, 16, 17, 23, and/or 32.
“School systems too big to succeed should not be replaced by charter schools too small to succeed,” Owens said. “Most charter schools will fail.”
According to Owens, administrative burdens and other nonpedagogical duties will “drag the idealistic charter school sponsors and staff away from the priorities of the classroom into a scramble for fiscal survival. They will all be forced to carry the overwhelming cross of the need for fundraising.” From Owens’ point of view, “It is not surprising that the comparative performance of charter schools has been unimpressive and that many have shut down before the end of five years.”
Owens said, “A cluster of schools operating as a network or a small system has a far better chance to succeed than any lone independent school.” It would be imperative that a small system like CBEED must also adopt two basic principles. Local stakeholders must have a dominant voice in the system. The system must embrace private partners in its policy-making and operations. “Whether it is via straight philanthropy or via linkage with a profit-making school enterprise the private sector must be included,” Owens said.
CBEED’s organizational structure would place parents and curriculum development on an equal footing with the board of directors. Owens calls for several Priority Challenges: special language training, including Portuguese, Arabic, and Chinese; organized affordable sports; opportunities for performing art development; African Diaspora History and Culture; American Black History and Culture; and other local ethnic group’s history and culture. After five years of successful implementation, Owens believes spin-offs could include charter schools, special academies, same-sex schools, military-style academies, weekend high school matriculation, and college-affiliated middle schools.
Embedded within Owens’ plan is affiliation with institutions of higher education. “A further bold and very productive step could be taken by the New York Board of Regents sponsorship of the “Education Park” concept set forth in the 2008 Report of the New York State Higher Education Commission,” said Owens. He named Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn College and Long Island University, and said they should be encouraged to bond with the new district to maximize ongoing technical assistance and research improvement. Partnership with corporate and foundation advisors would be actively sought.
The 2008 Report recommends the Education Parks be run by Education Partnership Zones, with the goal of increasing K-12 student performance and access to higher education through mutually beneficial, innovative education partnerships between high-need school districts and institutions of higher education. This vision seeks to increase the approximately 50% of four-year New York City high school’s graduation rate.
The NYS Legislature codified Education Partnership Organizations (EPO) – also known as Educational Management Organizations (EMO) – last year when it renewed Mayoral Control. The revised state education law authorizes school districts to contract with EPOs to assist in the turnaround of failing schools.
An EPO is defined as a nonprofit organization with a proven record of success in intervening in low-performing schools, as determined by the Commissioner of SED. The legislation would allow school districts more options to comply with new federal Title I regulations.
Major Owens represented central Brooklyn districts in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 2007. During his tenure, Owens served on the House Education and Labor Committee. He wrote of a national vision for 21st Century Education in an opinion piece entitled “Education Mobilization” published in The Nation magazine. He explains why “Central Brooklyn should be granted the opportunity to establish a new model for the nation – a structure with stakeholder sponsors and the right size to succeed.” After 10 years of various management iterations under Mayoral Control, Owens said, “They don’t have anything new to propose. We can look at other game plans.” He said the plan is feasible, recalling that under Chancellor Levy, the city was looking at granting Edison the management of five schools. Owens referred to the administration’s current plan to close a dozen failing schools. “The new chancellor might be willing to try something from the community,” Major Owens said, “because what they are doing is not working.”