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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 12/15/2010

Joel Klein's business model and the drowning of Nicole Suriel

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marc Epstein, a history teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y., for the past 15 years, and a former dean of students. His articles on school violence, curriculum, and testing, have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and he blogs for the Huffington Post. He also contributed to A Consumer's Guide To High School History Textbooks, edited by Diane Ravitch. Epstein earned a PhD in Japanese - American Diplomatic history.

By Marc Epstein
With New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein out the door of the Tweed Courthouse, having deployed his golden parachute successfully over Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation headquarters, a little bomblet was dropped by the Department of Education.

For those of you with short memories, the news release resurrected the tragic drowning of sixth grader Nicole Suriel that occurred during the last week of school this past June.

It seems that the principal of Nicole's school has been fired. He was not relieved of his job because of the poor judgment he exercised in the events that led up to her drowning, however.

That wasn't deemed of sufficient import. He did lose his job because he had hired his daughter's "babysitter" as the parent coordinator of his school.

In the corporatist mind of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Department of Education, this conflict of interest was just too much to tolerate.

Culture matters, in education as well as everywhere else. When mayoral control of New York's public schools was granted to Bloomberg by the state legislature, he vowed to transform a culture of failure and bring the successful business model that had made him one of America's wealthiest entrepreneurs to the running of the schools.

Klein, his pick to run the schools, quickly staffed his education headquarters with MBA's, and established a training academy for principals headed by none other than Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.

Their ideal candidates to lead schools would come from outside the field of education and have limited classroom experience. This would demonstrate that management, not education, was the key to running a school.

Accountability would be measured by student test performance, with data the key determiner of student and teacher performance.

But when it comes to a school, a higher level of responsibility is required by law and demanded by the common sense concerns of parents. It is enshrined in law under the Latin term "in loco parentis" (in the place of a parent).

Run a school like a business and you quickly lose sight of that essential responsibility. After all, what business acts in place of a parent when it comes to overseeing either its clients or employees?

The awful consequences of this flawed business ethos was in evidence with the accidental drowning of Nicole Suriel, a sixth grader at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering, in Manhattan, on a class outing on June 22.

The class traveled to Long Beach, New York, where no lifeguards were on duty. Only a teacher, her boyfriend, and a volunteer intern accompanied the class.

Nicole's school was one of the new "small schools" that had an enrollment of only 350 pupils. It promised increased attention and educational enrichment that only an intimate environment could provide.

In record time, the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation completed its investigation and issued a report on the incident. Blame was assigned to all levels of administration in the school and the teacher in charge of the trip.

Klein summarily fired the teacher, who had only one year on the job. The assistant principal was demoted to teacher and the principal placed on a two-year probation period.

The New York Times
reported that teachers in the school vigorously protested Klein's decision. Their view was that the principal had created a climate within the school that made this tragedy an accident waiting to happen.

No guidelines for trips were given. In this case there were no signed parental consent slips. Insufficient numbers of chaperons were assigned to this trip and countless other excursions, according to faculty members.

A former faculty member said one of the reasons she left the school in February was because of the pressure of taking field trips in June. "I feared having to go through that again," she said. "This is not a one time-event; this is a pattern. I always thought something could happen, though I never imagined it being this awful."

Writing in his New York Times column "About New York," Jim Dwyer attributed the tragedy to the "shadow world of private fundraising... that is now part of public school budgets."

It seems that the school was under enormous pressure to raise funds utilizing all their entrepreneurial wiles to fund activities that the Department of Education doesn't provide for.

We were told that the assistant principal decided not to accompany the class in order to attend to his pressing budgetary duties. He was under the gun to utilize funds ($26,000) that had gone unspent before the close of the school year.

He quickly consulted with the principal and decided on a trip to Long Beach for the class as a reward for their fund-raising efforts. He left the first-year teacher to supervise the trip.

The common thread that runs through all the reports appears to be the aggressive, high-pressure management style that permeates the school culture.

The immediate reaction among faculty members in my school was, "How the hell did this happen?" We never take trips in June in our school.

Here are the written and unwritten rules that were either ignored or never learned:

Rule one: No trips in June. The year is winding down. You have to prepare for exams, and the warm weather tends to make the kids more active and rambunctious.

The second rule is that nobody goes without a consent slip signed by the parents and all of the students' teachers.

The third rule is that you never allow an untenured teacher to run a trip by him or herself.

And finally, no teacher would take kids to an unguarded beach in bathing suits, and no administrator would approve or suggest it.

The problem with this: The new sort of thinking should be obvious. As much as our new "Masters of The Universe" would like to bring a post-industrial, computer age order to our schools, teaching remains a labor-intensive endeavor.

That means that years of experience teaching kids, along with years experiencing the myriad of life's problems, should remain a prerequisite for school administrators, rather than a disqualifying entry on their resume. All of that is either held in contempt or has been lost in this newly minted educational culture.

The swift response of the chancellor in assigning blame managed to put the matter to rest once school recessed for the summer. By firing the principal in the midst of a tumultuous transition to a new school's chancellor now, the massive PR machine at the Tweed Court House is attempting to cover over the life and death of Nicole Suriel almost as quickly as the waters off of Long Beach did.


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | December 15, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Marc Epstein, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  joel klein, mayor bloomberg, new york city schools, nicole suriel, nyc schools, school reform, student drowning  
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Next: What Rhee wrought


Thank you for laying bare just one more example of the anti-teacher, anti-experience culture that is so in vogue. Where's the documentary film maker to expose this travesty to the Hollywood limousine liberals (Baldwin, Reiner, etc) who think that charter schools with overpaid CEOs are the answer to failing urban schools. The author is correct. This would NEVER have happened at a school run by an experienced educator. I hope the family names Bloomberg directly in the lawsuit.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 15, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Appears the rules were both unwritten and not read if written.

Posted by: educ8er | December 15, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

It sounds like somebody knows what he is talking about. Better not listen to him cause he's a teacher.

Posted by: mamoore1 | December 15, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Too bad no one outside the world of teachers will read this story. I'm sorry for that little girl's family. Basic common sense would've prevented it. But basic common sense doesn't exist in public education anymore.

I honestly don't even know why you waste your time, Valerie (other than to give real teachers some toe-hold of appreciation). There are deep, societal reasons for the state of inner city schools, and the 'reformers' are using these schools during their brief moment of existence to further their careers and personal wealth.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 15, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

This is like Arne Duncan and Derrion Albert.

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 15, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Nicole’s death exemplifies an appalling tragedy that should not have happened. What about common sense and sound decisions? Clearly, as the culture shifts to focusing on fund-raising and money - ethics, laws, and policies are no longer important.

If conflicts of interest are on Bloomberg’s radar, Klein should be investigated for providing Murdoch with inside information about NYC’s multi-million dollar contracts with Wireless Generation.

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | December 15, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Involved adults lacked common sense--that's clear, and the results were tragic.

What's also clear is the desperation that must have inspired the author to seize upon this tragedy in order to make points against Klein and school reform. It's ineffective and, frankly, a twisted, pitiful rant.

The guest column suggests that one pocket of anti-reform is out of ideas and out of gas.

Remember that it was generations and legions of ed Phd's, some ed school-trained teachers,
and virulent unionistas, and incompetent Bd of Ed members who led the once-great NYC system to decades of steady decline. You can't blame that or this tragic death on MBAs and business people who are trying to fix what the ed community destroyed.

Posted by: axolotl | December 15, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse


You midss the point. Corporate America will gladly kill anyone, including children, to increase it profit. Bloomberg and Kleinb brough this mentality to the schools. This is the result, much like the BIA schools I've referrenced before, the philosophy seems to be: "We'll 'save' them even if we have to kill every last one."

Posted by: mcstowy | December 16, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

The persons who should be held accountable for this girl's death are Bloomberg and Klein! They are the ones who support the "principal academies" funded by corporate mega millionaires. These academies enable inexperienced administrators with very little class time to lead schools. I cannot even imagine in my right mind how a field trip (swimming none-the-less) could take place without permission slips and adequate staffing!

Posted by: teachermd | December 16, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Did the principal of this school go to one of the principal academies? Did he have prior experience in the classroom?

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 16, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

No, mcstowy, you ole curmudgeon: it is ridiculous to claim they are bent on killing young people for profit. I have not heard anyone claim that since the Soviet Union damned our country. Have you ever thought of moving to, say, Cuba, N. Korea, eh? They have little in the way of capitalism, which the rest of the world is embracing. Where do you belong? Thanks for making me sound like a Republican, which I am decidedly not.

Posted by: axolotl | December 16, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

I wrote the following, title Demoted To Teacher on my blog at the time:

The tragic death of a 12-year-old pupil on a field trip with The Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in Harlem to a beach last month has now been investigated and punishments have been meted out. The first year teacher who was on the scene and allowed students to go into the water despite signs indicating there was no lifeguard on duty has been fired. That’s not surprising and may well be appropriate, though news reports suggest the teacher’s colleagues feel she has been made a scapegoat.

However, as written in The New York Times, the principal and assistant principal, while disciplined for failing to obtain required permission slips and not planning the trip properly, still have jobs. The principal faces probation. The assistant principal was demoted from his administrative role….TO TEACHER!

Demoted to teacher. Both the Times and the New York Post used the word demoted in their reporting. Where does this language come from? Does anybody realize what they are saying? Guess we know what people really think about teachers, despite empty rhetoric to the contrary. Sounds like the military. Cut the stripes off and return the offender to the lowest possible rank, in this case teacher. Certainly lets teachers know where we stand.

Wonder which lucky kids will have this embarrassed, resentful ex-administrator teaching them next year. He loved teaching so much he became an administrator? What an inspiring message this sends to teachers and students alike. What a fine way to help attract, nurture, and retain outstanding teachers.

Do we now change the old adage to, “Those who can’t administrate, teach? “

Bill Williams

Posted by: briobrio33 | December 16, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

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