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Parents Speaking Out

John Tarleton Sep 10, 2010

MARK TORRES

Mark Torres has participated in struggles to defend public services since his days at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he helped lead a 1989 student takeover of several buildings on the City College campus in Harlem to protest proposed tuition increases. Now a father of three and a middle school teacher in the Bronx, Torres serves as co-chair for the Coalition for Public Education/Coalición por la Educación Pública (CPE/CEP).

My activist involvement started at CUNY, fighting tuition hikes, budget cuts and layoffs that would have disproportionately impacted CUNY’s working-class student body and communities of color. Later, I worked as a health educator at Harlem Hospital. More recently, I have been a teacher for the past seven years. In both health and education, you find very similar patterns — uneven delivery of services and this attack on public institutions.

I think the public sector can work if you have proper accountability, which means that the people receiving the services are the ones in control of the services being provided, who’s hired and who’s providing the services. When you leave it up to politicians, they can be bought by their campaign contributors. Politicians are like a barrel of rotten apples and you have to try and find a good apple. In the schools, the parents are totally shut out. Parents have to deal with all sorts of subterfuge: the leadership of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers), the Department of Education, and on top of that people running around who want to get grants funded to speak for parents.

If you look at the chancellor’s regulations, special ed laws, you have to be a lawyer to understand all these things. They make it especially hard for parents to navigate the system. But if parents work collectively, join CPECEP, and demand what their children need, they’re going to be a lot more successful.

JESSICA SANTOS
Jessica Santos knows the power one parent can have, even under the current system of mayoral control. Since 2009 she and other parents of 40 autistic children at P.S. 94 in the Lower East Side have been fighting and winning against the DOE’s efforts to phase out their presence in the building they share with P.S. 188 near East Houston and Avenue D in order to pave the way for the expansion of a politically connected charter school. In early August, Chancellor Joel Klein invoked his emergency powers to overrule a state order rejecting the city’s plan to expand Girls Prep’s presence inside P.S. 94/188. Days later he rescinded his edict following an outpouring of support for P.S. 94 from local elected officials, some of whom have been strong supporters of mayoral control.

It all started Dec. 8. I was notified by John Englert of the City Council on Special Education (CCSE) of a proposal to expand Girls Prep Charter School inside our school and phase us out. This was two days prior to when our opinion was supposed to be submitted. I notified the parents through a letter I composed that same night. We held an emergency parent meeting the very next day. I composed the letter of reply. We didn’t have all the information regarding the proposals, as there were four at that time. We were upset that our kids were going to be moved into buildings where we never even were given a chance to do a walk through.

Our students are in the fourth through eighth grade and their classrooms are located on the fifth floor of the P.S. 188 building. My son starts the fifth grade this year. He receives speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy twice a week, which has helped him drastically improve his motor and socialization skills and become more independent.

We didn’t have the money for PR to do what Girls Prep was doing, holding all these press conferences at City Hall and putting out articles and advertisements in the papers. Our parents are a small group. Without the mobilization of other parents and supporters, it probably would have been a lost cause.

I’m grateful that a lot of elected officials came to our defense recently when the chancellor tried to invoke his “emergency powers” to overrule a state order preventing Girls Prep from expanding further in our building. They are starting to see the abuse of power that has gone on for some time now. Ever since mayoral control was established, they do whatever they please without regard to process or parental involvement or any consideration towards kids – and not just special needs kids.

I’m pretty sure there’s gonna be a lot more upset parents sooner or later. It’s about time we start mobilizing and realizing that something needs to get done. Too many of our kids are failing or are falling behind.

MONA DAVIDS
Mona Davids, along with her fellow parents at Co-op City in the Bronx, fought a bruising battle 18 months ago to bring a charter school into an already existing public school. She hoped that the new school would provide her sixth-grade daughter a better education. However, “all that glitters is not gold,” as she told The Indypendent. In 2009, the 35-year-old businesswoman founded the New York Charter Parents Association, the first and only independent charter parent association in the city, becoming a leading advocate for the rights of the city’s 45,000 charter school parents and a constant thorn in the side of the charter school industry.

My daughter loves her school and her teachers. However, the school has had some serious growing pains, and if there was more support and oversight from the DOE my school wouldn’t be having the problems that it’s having. We had a 21 percent student attrition rate during the school’s first year. Parents have withdrawn their kids from our school due to a lack of textbooks, bullying and their special needs children’s Individualized Education Plan’s not being met. Charter leaders’ response when parents have concerns is, “If you don’t like it, take your child out.”

Charters are the new gold rush for business because there is zero investment and a guaranteed revenue stream, which is our kids. I would have to say about 30 percent of the charters here in the city are honest. The other 70 percent have issues.

When I entered charter land, I was shocked to find out that we don’t have parent associations. Ninety-nine percent of parents have no idea that a charter school is governed by the charter that the school’s founders laid out for what type of curriculum they’re going to have, the disciplinary and hiring policies and so on. When parents ask for the charter, the schools respond through their attorneys telling the parents, “Okay, we’ll give it to you and because it’s a public document we will charge you 25 cents a page” for the charter and the bylaws, which run anywhere from 600 to 1,200 pages.

Charter board meetings can be hard to access too, since they are held at the homes or places of business of board members. We have had instances where parents would show up at the board member’s beautiful luxury condominium and be denied entrance by the doorman. That’s how ridiculous it got.

This spring we won some charter reforms in Albany. State legislators were completely shocked when they met our parents. It was the first time any charter parent had visited them who wasn’t working from a script that only spoke about more funding and raising the cap on the number of charters in New York.

Now, charters can no longer turn away special education and English Language Learner kids. Board meetings have to be held at the school. And we won the right to have independent Parent Associations, but only at schools in New York City. According to the law, the chancellor is supposed notify charter school leaders of our new rights and set up the regulations governing the PAs but so far he has not acted.

The charter lobby and many school leaders vehemently opposed our charter reforms and continue to undermine our efforts to hold charters accountable to the public and the parents.

At the end of the day, it’s really important for us that district and charter parents know the pros and cons about charters.

The next monthly meeting of the New York Charter Parents Association will be Sept. 30 at 6:00 pm at Brooklyn Borough Hall. For more, see nycharterparents.org.

LISA DONLAN
In the aftermath of New York’s 1970s-era meltdown, parents in School District 1 (CSD1) on the Lower East Side rallied to improve their struggling schools while preserving the community’s diverse social fabric. Lisa Donlan got involved in 1995 when the first of her two children entered pre-kindergarten and she joined the school PTA. Donlan was still active as PTA President in CSD1 (New York has a total of 32 school districts) in 2003 when she saw Mayor Bloomberg’s new Schools Chancellor Joel Klein speak to a Lower East Side audience about his plans for transforming public education in New York.

Joel Klein came to P.S. 20, near the corner of Essex and Delancey, and he got up on stage and in so many words said, “Listen, what’s been happening in New York City public schools is a disgrace and disaster. We’ve had corruption and inefficiency and just the worst kind of racism and I am here to be the voice for the voiceless. And so what I’m doing is I’m closing the school boards and I’m closing the district offices and I’m creating these new regions and it’s gonna be centralized and standardized and we’re imposing this curriculum.”

And he got booed off the stage. A number of people emailed him. A few messages were exchanged but he basically just stopped listening. I didn’t understand how you could come along and be so arrogant as to just undo 15 years of policy work that had been effective in a number of areas including expanding parental choice while creating more racially integrated schools, and just undo it like that without knowing anything about what we’re doing here.

Most of the reforms the DOE has proposed were just experiments with business models. It’s voodoo economics applied to education by people who know nothing about education. They have these management theories and their attitude has been “Let’s try it.”

We have a very strong sense of community in District 1 that hasn’t been destroyed by these neoliberal reforms but it has been chipped away at. Each school is now considered a stand-alone fiefdom. There’s a spirit of competition, competition for resources, rooms, space, students, the dollars that come with students and on and on and on. So rather than a community coming together and saying, “Well, what do we do about there not being enough resources?” it is each school for itself.

Lisa Donlan is currently the President of Community Education Council 1, which represents parents at 31 schools in the Lower East Side and East Village.

Eight Groups Putting the Public Back in Education

Coalition for Public Education / Coalicion por la Education Publica (CPE/CEP)
Formed during the 2009 campaign against reauthorizing mayoral control of New York City’s public schools, the Coalition for Public Education/ Coalición por la Educación Pública focuses on building a human rights-based education system and society. The coalition also looks to work with other groups and individuals fighting for social justice and against poverty, racism, sexism, class oppression, police brutality and war. For more, email cpe-cep@hotmail.com or call 212-348- 5732. Website: forpubliced.blogspot.com.

Grassroots Education Movement (GEM)
Last winter GEM helped spark raucous protests against Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to close 21 public schools. Since then it has assisted in building school-based committees and mobilizing educators, parents and students to fight back against destructive corporate and governmental policies. GEM works both within and outside the United Federation of Teachers, publishes a bimonthly newsletter and holds community forums on topics such as the growth of the charter school industry. Website: grassrootseducationmovement. blogspot.com

Educational Justice (CEJ)
Led by parents, the foundation-funded Coalition for Educational Justice works to reduce inequities in the city’s public school system. CEJ collaborates with unions and established community-based organizations such as Make the Road by Walking, whose members include culturally diverse parents, community members, students and educators. CEJ is the largest parent-led advocacy group in New York City. Website: nyccej.org.

Independent Community of Educators (ICE)
ICE is a caucus within the UFT opposing the ruling Unity Caucus. Its members have organized and/or participated in demonstrations supporting excessed teachers and against mayoral control, closing schools and the last two contracts in which the union leadership has ceded ground on a number of key rights. Knowledgeable and experienced union leaders in ICE are willing to assist colleagues when asked for help. Phone: 917-992-3734. Website: www.ice-uft.org.

Teachers for a Just Contract (TJC)
Teachers for a Just Contract is a group of chapter leaders, delegates and rank-and-file activists who have been organizing and disseminating information to UFT members since the early 1990s and who campaigned against the 2005 contract agreement reached by the union’s leadership. To receive email updates from TJC, send your name, non-DOE email address, school and borough to JustContractUFT@aol.com or call in that info to 212-831- 3408. Website: teachersforajustcontract.org.

Teachers Unite

Teachers Unite is a membership organization of public school educators building power to demand that the UFT stand for educational justice and to win social justice demands for low-income and working communities of New York City. This fall, Teachers Unite kicks off its Leadership Program for teachers who want to bring progressive change to the union and bring democracy to our schools. Get involved in making real change to New York City’s educational landscape while working in partnership with community organizations. To sign up for TU’s low-traffic listserv, go to teachersunite.net/supporter.

New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE)

New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) is a group of current and former public school educators committed to fighting for social justice in our school system and society at large, by organizing and mobilizing teachers, developing curricula and working with community, parent and student organizations. To get involved, attend NYCoRE’s Oct. 1 meeting at NYU/82 Washington Sq./3rd fl. Press Lounge. RSVP at info@nycore.org. Website: nycore.org.

Class Size Matters
One of the best-established parent activist groups in NYC, Class Size Matters has worked tirelessly to keep the need for lower class sizes at the forefront of the debate about how to improve schools. CSM’s list serve has more than 3,000 members and it is always brimming with insightful analysis from the group’s executive director Leonie Haimson. Website: classsizematters.org.

—Indypendent Staff

To read our web-exclusive “A Parent’s Guide to School Involvement,” click here.