M.S. 223: Tightrope walking in the South Bronx

There is a wonderful moment in Jonathan Mahler's arresting New York Times Magazine story this morning about an inner city public school, when its entrepreneurial principal wanted to start the school day ten minutes earlier than the union contract called for.? Instead of yet another account of union intransigence,?Mahler quotes principal Ramon Gonzalez:

The research says it's better to start your school day later?? But those researchers don't live in my neighborhood.

As Mahler writes, Gonzalez's neighborhood is in the poorest Congressional district in the nation and most of his students live in one of five sprawling nearby housing projects.? Violence is a big part of his students' lives and the reason for starting school earlier is a nod to the realities of the street: he wanted to create more time for tutoring after school so he could get the kids home before dark.?

The?story is deftly reported and admirably written, and the Times should be applauded for allowing Mahler the space to show the nuances of the small victories and major challenges that illustrate some of the?secrets of ?Gonzalez's success; there is no secret sauce,?it seems, other than that of grinding dedication, intense focus on details,?and hard work.? The title of the story is apt: The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx. After seven years under Gonzalez, who opened M.S. 223 in 2003, as?one of Joel Klein's first new schools, ?student proficiency levels in math have jumped 360 percent and in English by 200 percent; not bad, except that that still leaves 40 percent of the kids below the proficiency bar in math and 70 percent behind in English. ?Not something to brag about in most schools districts,? notes Mahler, "but those numbers make 222 one of the top middle schools in the South Bronx.?

Former schools' chancellor? Klein makes an important cameo appearance, so Mahler can give him credit for ?the notion that New York should not aspire to a have a great school system but a system of great schools run by talented and empowered educators.?? And the?here here?is about that empowered educator, Gonzalez.?

It's a great read, with a bittersweet ending (will Gonzalez be punished for his success?) that I will not give away.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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