On a recent morning, Ramón González, the principal of M.S. 223, a public middle school in the South Bronx, arrived at work as usual at 7:30, stripped off his coat and suit jacket, deposited his tea and toast from a nearby diner on the cluttered conference table in his office and hustled down the hallway to the school’s back door to greet arriving students. González had a busy agenda for the day. Among other things, he needed to get to work on a proposal for the city’s Department of Education to expand 223 into a high school.
At 10, González was finally about to sit down at his computer, when he was interrupted. A young teacher came into his office in tears, unable to figure out what was going on with an eighth grader who had just transferred to 223 from a public school in Florida, was way behind in class and had been wandering around the school’s hallways between periods, looking lost. González knew almost nothing about the girl. Like many of his students, she turned up at 223 with no more than a utility bill to prove she lived in the neighborhood. He calmed the teacher and started trying to figure out what was happening. (When he finally reached an administrator at the girl’s old school days later, he discovered that she had been classified with a severe learning disability.)
Next, González was informed that the three free books that each of his school’s students was entitled to — under a nonprofit program to promote literacy in poor communities — had never arrived. He needed to chase them down. (As it turned out, they wound up at the wrong school.) As he was doing so, he learned that a former teacher who had physically threatened him, members of his faculty and even some students, and whom González had spent years trying to remove from the classroom, was challenging his termination.
There was also the matter of the eye tests. For five straight days, González had been trying to get through to someone at an organization that does free vision tests at public schools and fits children with glasses on the spot. “I can guarantee you right now that at least 20 percent of our kids need glasses,” he told me, after leaving yet another message on someone’s voice mail to “please, please, please call me back.” González, a light-skinned, baby-faced Latino, was sitting at a table in his office, his untouched tea and toast in front of him. Hanging on the bulletin board above him were the school’s last three report cards from the city, straight A’s, and an elaborately color-coded chart tracking all of his 486 students’ test scores. “They’re in their classrooms right now, staring at blackboards with no idea what they’re looking at,” he said. “You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum and the greatest after-school programs in the world, but if your kids can’t see, what does it matter?”
González has been principal of M.S. 223, on 145th Street near Willis Avenue, since the school’s creation in September 2003. One of the first schools opened by Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor at the time, 223 was intended to help replace a notoriously bad junior high school that the city had decided to shut down. Thirteen percent of its first incoming class of sixth graders were at grade level in math and just 10 percent were at grade level in English. Last year, after seven years under González, 60 percent of its students tested at or above grade level in math and 30 percent in English. Not something to brag about in most school districts, but those numbers make 223 one of the top middle schools in the South Bronx. According to its latest progress report from the Department of Education, which judges a school’s growth against a peer group with similar demographics, 223 is the 10th-best middle school in the entire city.
Success stories like this in high-poverty neighborhoods are becoming more common in the era of charter schools, but 223 is no charter. There is no clamoring of parents trying to game a spot for their kids in a lottery, no screening of applicants, no visits from educators hoping to learn the secret of the school’s success, no shadow philanthropist supplying Kindles to all of its students. M.S. 223 is just a regular public school. González isn’t even allowed to see the files of incoming students before they arrive. “You know what you have to do to come to school here?” González told me. “Walk through that door.”
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