Just underneath the standard American flag, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pins a red schoolteacher’s apple to his lapel. It matches the apples on his cuff links, as well as his attitude toward teaching in New York: “If you care about kids, this is the place to go,” he said at a press conference Thursday morning.
But since the economic crash of 2008, the Department of Education has practiced a hiring freeze that has slimmed its annual hires from the usual 7,400 teachers to 2,465 for the 2009-2010 school year. The remaining new hires are almost exclusively pre-existing city employees, said department spokesperson Ann Forte. However, despite a clear dead end, the department’s Teaching Fellows program (NYCTF) continues to recruit and train the same number of recent college graduates to become New York-area teachers.
The NYCTF’s mission is to attract high-achieving individuals into the New York school system. The summer fellowship offers a $2,500 nontaxable stipend; its website tells fellows to expect an annual salary of more than $45,000. “We tend to send our recruits to hard-to-staff schools where, historically, we’ve had trouble sending quality teachers,” Forte says. Despite the hiring freeze, Forte says NYCTF is taking on the same number of fellows as always–they’re just not guaranteed jobs anymore.
Even when jobs do become available, the drain on resources may explain why one former fellow says she missed out on NYCTF’s promised support system. Marta Fieweger, 23, was a fellow in the summer of 2009 before taking on a job with fifth-grade children at General D. Chappie James Elementary School of Science in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
“My field training class was lacking in the skills I’d need to be a full-time teacher,” says Fieweger. Her summer fellowship consisted of field trips and “was essentially an enrichment camp.” When she began teaching in the fall at General D. Chappie James, Fieweger struggled to make lesson plans. “The 12 students were all on different levels, and I didn’t know what to do. I asked for help, and the only person willing to help me was a math teacher. But I had to plan for every subject, for 12 different kids.”
Fieweger says part of the problem was that the school was new, and disorganized. But after feeling lost for a few months, she quit. Now, Fieweger creates fashion jewelry, but misses teaching.
Teach for America spokesman Carrie James said TFA received a record 46,000 applicants this year, and will take on a corps of more than 4,500 teachers for the fall. James says TFA will send 220 teachers to New York City, the most preferred region for 2010 applicants. She could not comment on whether there would be lasting room for the cohort in the Big Apple.
Bloomberg remembers 2002, his first year in office, when the Department of Education couldn’t hire enough teachers. “Parents would try to dissuade you from coming to New York, because suppose you get assigned to a school in Crown Heights, where they used to have race riots. “We had difficulty at that time enticing 12,000 young people out of college to come and teach here.
“Now, if you come out to Crown Heights, it’s a plumb job.”
If he shows up wearing a sweater, you notice he’s wearing a sweater. Not that it’s not a nice sweater–it’s a great sweater, a solid sweater, possibly cashmere–and not that other people aren’t wearing sweaters–who doesn’t love a good sweater?–but come on: This is Michael Bloomberg. He’s the mayor of New York City. He’s a billionaire 18 times over. Derek Jeter calls him “Mike.” Mike Bloomberg, wearing a sweater.
“When you see him on the street, he doesn’t carry himself with an air of someone who’s that powerful or has that much money,” says Allen Brawer, consultant for several New York City labor unions. Brawer has worked with the mayor since his inauguration in 2002, often across a bargaining table on behalf of the sanitation union. Brawer remembers anticipating Bloomberg’s first move to help the city rebound from the post-9/11 recession. “The first thing he did was raise property taxes 18 percent. Most mayors would have done much more to hurt the workforce than to go out and raise taxes,” Brawer says.
Rather, Bloomberg showed up at a sanitation union’s ceremony honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was supporting a sanitation strike in Memphis when he was assassinated. Bloomberg wore a sweater. Yes, it was cashmere. He chatted the workers up. He lingered around. Bloomberg would become the first mayor to eulogize not just firefighters and police officers who died on the job, but also sanitation workers, and all city employees.
A mythology of normalcy has surrounded Mayor Bloomberg since the moment he stepped down as CEO of his sprawlingly successful company, Bloomberg L.P., to take on the sprawling, success-sprinkled city of New York. Ask a New Yorker what he knows about the handsome 68-year-old mayor, and he’ll tell you that Bloomberg refused the usual mayoral salary in favor a $1 per year stipend. He’ll tell you that Bloomberg takes the subway to work, and that he literally knocked down walls to work out on an open floor with his employees in City Hall. And though many of these soundbites are true–Bloomberg takes a motorcade to bypass the local train, but he is the mayor–the whole truth is a complicated mix, where a respect for hard work and loyalty meets prideful ambition.
Like too many of us, Bloomberg had a mother who prayed he’d become a doctor. He grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, where he claims he spent more face time with the rabbit-ear antennae of his RCA television than with his homework. “I was the kind of student that made the top half of the class possible,” he has often joked in university commencement speeches. Yet he was accepted to John Hopkins to study engineering, before heading over to Harvard for a master’s of business.
He got a Wall Street job straight out of school, which he loved until he was let go 15 years later. Bloomberg’s ambition wasn’t stirred. “The day I knew I was going to get fired, I looked forward to it,” he says. Â “I’d never been fired before in business. I wanted to know what it was like.”
With a $10 million severance package in his hands, Bloomberg started a business, and by 1982, his first customer, Merrill Lynch, had invested $30 million in Bloomberg’s Market Master terminals. In 1986, Bloomberg L.P. became the company name, and soon, a household name as well.
“This is a guy who could have sat down and eaten peanut butter sandwiches for the rest of his life,” Brawer says. “He took on a very demanding, time-consuming job, and he’s out there. That’s a really astounding thing to have out there.”
“It’s funny,” Bloomberg says, remembering his election in 2001. “All the polling that’s ever been done says the public has absolutely no problem with me being wealthy. When you tell them that I made it myself, it’s a big plus.”
Marcia Silverman, a law firm trainer, has lived in New York since the 1950s. She saw the heroin needles turn into farmer’s market booths in Union Square. Before he even took office, Bloomberg won her support when he refused Rudy Giuliani’s offer to stay on as an adviser during Bloomberg’s first term.
“Bloomberg felt like he didn’t need anyone,” Silverman says. “I knew that he felt strongly that he could handle it, and that made me confident. He stands his ground.”
That’s exactly what Bloomberg had to do in March 2003: The mayor seemed to be looking for a fight when he tapped the city’s smokers on the shoulder and asked them to step outside. Resistance ranged from snide comments to a furious smoker in a Superman suit who stormed City Hall with a 12-foot-long cigarette and a threatening sign. Now, the ban is lauded as one of New York’s soundest ideas–not least of all by Bloomberg.
“California banned smoking in public places before New York City did, and no one paid attention. New York City did it, and everybody followed, and that really is true,” he says. That’s a large part of why, Bloomberg claims, the life expectancy rate for New Yorkers has increased at a higher rate than in any other city in the United State.
At a Midtown press conference on a muggy Thursday morning, Bloomberg sat at the head of a long, wooden table on the 44th floor of the Hearst building (“This is the media center of the world,” he notes). Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, New York City fell all around him: Construction capped high-rises, yellow taxis made U-turns, and the Hudson sat.
Bloomberg had been talking about the smoking ban he championed, and had mentioned that the Wall Street bosses who fired him are either dead or Bloomberg L.P. customers. Now, he is telling a story about a fishing trip in Colorado. Bloomberg is still smiling from the punchline (“Mr. Mayor, which letter of the word ‘Wait’ don’t you understand?”) when someone asks him how he responds to critics who allege he butchered a city law to bypass term limits in order to run for a third term. People like Silverman say he “finagled the system.”
In person, Bloomberg is shorter than you’d expect, maybe five-foot-eight, tops. His shoulders slope down, as do the bags under his eyes, thanks to gravity and age and the stress of the job; his approval ratings have dipped to 55 percent, the lowest point since 2005, largely thanks to his proposed cuts of city jobs and firehouses to balance the budget. In a poll last month, New Yorkers preferred to raise taxes than to lay off city employees. Also, 57 percent want to go back to the two-term limit rule.
“It’s New York,” he says curtly to the journalist. “You have the right to have an opinion.” If people don’t like it, they should lobby to change the law that allows the charter to be amended, Bloomberg says. “The legislature decided to do it, and that’s what democracy’s all about.”
When asked if he would run for president, Bloomberg says no. He has taken too many stances on too many divisive issues to stand a real chance on a ticket. “Mayors generally seldom go on to any other office,” he says. “You can say ‘higher office,’ though I’m not sure there is a higher office, because it’s a job where you can really measure performance, you’re always on. It’s a very exciting thing, but also a very demanding thing, a competitive thing, with enormous responsibility.” Though at first take it sounds like Bloomberg’s assessing the presidency, he is actually referring to being the mayor.
He keeps his arms crossed tightly across his navy jacket the entire time he speaks. Today, after all, Michael Bloomberg is wearing a suit.
On a September day in 1987, a stack of six hard-covered, heavy-bound books landed on Patricia Palao’s school desk. This was a dilemma. It was the first day of the second grade, and Palao was a quiet girl; earlier, at recess, she had been too shy to ask why a game called “Steal the Bacon” involved no discernible pork products. And now there were these books.
Palao, who had immigrated to New York City from the Philippines just that summer, had never seen a textbook before. There were no textbooks in the Philippines for kids that young. “I thought they were mine to keep, that I was always supposed to have them on me,” Palao says. So for the next month, the three-foot-seven, 45-pound sliver of a girl toddled home from school each day under the weight of 40 pounds of books (and one plastic yellow headband).
“I was a sight to see,” laughs Palao, now 30. “Finally my parents were, like, ‘You can’t have that much homework.’ A girl in class showed me where everyone kept their books, under the desks.”
When Palao immigrated to New York under her mother’s work visa, she spoke only broken English. Her idea of an extracurricular activity was chasing mutt dogs around her father’s coconut farm. Now, Palao wears skinny jeans, Puma sneakers, and cropped cardigans. The hair she tucks behind her ears keeps making a break for her eyes. She lives in Queens, speaks spotless English, dates a Boston native, and works at Cambridge University Press, where she does graphic design–for textbooks.
Thirty-seven percent of New York City’s population is foreign-born, compared with just 12.5 percent of the entire U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey. But unlike most major cities, New York lacks a single dominant immigrant culture: 26 percent of immigrants hail from Asia; 23, the Caribbean; 19, Europe; 15, South America; and 12 percent from Central America, as well as others. Because no immigrant subculture is expansive enough on its own, New York City immigrants tend to learn English and assimilate into American culture at high rates.
“Go to Bronx and Queens and parts of Brooklyn,” says Dr. Jacob Vigdor, author of From Immigrants to Americans and professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. “There are large immigrant populations there, but if the Dominican immigrants want to speak to the Korean immigrants, what’s their common ground? It’s likely to be English.”
In cities like Los Angeles, more than half of the immigrant population arrives from Mexico. As a result, there are few incentives to learn a language beyond Spanish. “This is how the multinational character of immigration in New York feeds into assimilation,” Vigdor says. “Different groups converge in English and American behavioral and social norms.”
After Palao stopped carrying her weight in textbooks, her transition was seamless: In the third grade, she began devouring Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume–and, of course, anything Sweet Valley High. By high school, she was an active member of student government, a cross-country runner, a reporter for the school paper, and a mentor and tutor to a younger Hispanic classmate. Sure, there was some culture clash within her family (“My parents very, very against dating,” says Palao, lowering her chin and voice a little. “I had a secret boyfriend.”); but everyone was pleased when she was accepted to Fordham University to study business marketing.
Young children have an easier time adapting to a new language and culture than adults; researchers even see a difference between children who immigrate at six and at 10, Vigdor says. In 1985, the New York City Department of Education helped found the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a system of high schools designed to aid recently arrived immigrants in their assimilation to American culture. This year, the valedictorian of the Manhattan International High School is headed to Stanford University. “He spoke very limited English when he started with us,” Principal Alan Krull says.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has always been an outspoken supporter of immigrants to his domain. “It’s very hard to give up your language and your culture and your friends and go 3,000 miles away to a new country,” he says. “The only people who do that like the challenge, and that’s exactly the kind of people we wantâ€¦It’s the reason our city is successful.”
Palao received her lawful permanent resident status, or green card, at 18 as she headed off to Fordham. When the time arrived to renew her status 10 years later, she and her family decided to apply for citizenship. To pass the test, Palao memorized the original 13 colonies, the number of representatives in the House, and counted the stars on the American flag. She answered questions like, “What is the Constitution?” and “Who helped the Pilgrims?”–facts she remembered from her grade-school textbooks.
The thing about Palao is that she plays ukulele in a chamber rock band. She loves the food at the new Mets stadium, and she’s thinking of moving down to Brooklyn. Much like anyone else, she still doesn’t understand why “Capture the Flag” is sometimes called “Steal the Bacon.”
Sure, the test made her a citizen, Palao remembers. But New York City had long ago made her an American.