A fight for our schools in New York

Megan Behrent reports on the wave of protests that greeted New York City officials' plan to close 21 public schools--and the struggle still ahead.

Choir Academy of Harlem students protest the threatened closing of their school (Grassroots Education Movement)Choir Academy of Harlem students protest the threatened closing of their school (Grassroots Education Movement)

NEW YORK City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein's holiday gift to the public school system--the proposed closure of 21 schools in the city--has not been well received.

In response to the New York City Department of Education's December announcement of an unprecedented number of schools to be "phased out," thousands of teachers, parents and students throughout city have responded by turning anger into action.

Among the big schools that the city is threatening to close are Christopher Columbus in the Bronx, Norman Thomas in Manhattan, Beach Channel in Queens, and Paul Robeson and Maxwell in Brooklyn. All serve populations of mostly working-class Black and Latino students. Bloomberg has closed nearly 90 schools since taking control of the city school system in 2002.

The latest round of proposed closings, along with attacks on tenure and attempts to increase the number of charter schools in the city, has made it clear that Bloomberg and Klein are on the war path. Not surprisingly, union-busting has gone hand-in-hand with the assaults on schools--Bloomberg has made it clear that he is out for blood from teachers and other United Federation of Teachers (UFT) members, who have been working under an expired contract since October.

What you can do

Anyone in the New York City area is invited to attend a rally against the school closures on January 21 at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's residence, 17 E. 79th St. (near 5th Avenue), starting at 4 p.m.

Another protest is planned for a January 26 meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy--at which the panel will vote on the closures--at Brooklyn Technical High School, 29 Fort Greene Place, starting at 4:30 p.m.

The Grassroots Education Movement Web site has more information on the fight to defend public education in New York City. To get involved, e-mail [email protected].

You can find out more about the struggle at these Web sites: Teachers for a Just Contract, Independent Community of Educators and Education Notes Online.

Each closing school will increase the number of teachers stuck in the limbo of the "ATR" pool--a term used to denote teachers who, as a result of school closings, "excessing" or budget cuts, have been forced into a pool of "reserve" teachers while they look for a permanent position.

Bloomberg and Klein have made it clear that they want the ability to fire these teachers--a move that would effectively abolish tenure and job security, making it easier to fire and hire at will. School closings, union-busting and the drive toward privatization are part of the same package of destruction being delivered to our schools in the name of "reform."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BUT THIS time, people are fighting back. At public hearings at each school targeted by Bloomberg and Klein, teachers, students and members of the community mobilized protests and turned out en masse to defend their schools.

More than 500 people showed up to a protest at Jamaica High School in Queens, where chapter leader James Eterno--also a presidential candidate in the UFT elections later this year, running on a joint slate of two union reform caucuses, the Independent Community of Educators and Teachers for a Just Contract--led a spirited rally to defend the school, which has been a center of the community for 118 years.

Likewise, hundreds of teachers, students and parents came to the defense of Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, where teachers and students carried signs saying, "We're not data" and "Save Our School."

Over 500 students, alumni, staff members and parents attended a rally and public hearing in the Bronx on January 7 to protest the proposed closure of two schools housed in the same building: Christopher Columbus High School and the Global Enterprise Academy. In anticipation of the public hearing that evening, demonstrators at the spirited rally in front of the school held "For Sale" signs with Columbus' name on it--to highlight the NYC Department of Education's proposal to replace Columbus with a charter school.

Later, at the hearing, students, teachers and parents presented their arguments against the proposed closings. Leroy Gadson, president of the Jamaica branch of the NAACP, told school officials, "We will not let you kick our kids to the curb. You all quit on us a few years ago, but our kids never quit."

The Department of Education plan to close the high school and keep the middle school at Choir Academy, a world-famous Harlem institution, clearly struck a nerve--a few hundred people attended the public hearing.

At several points, audience members asked the panel to answer questions directly. The panelists at first refused, but backed down when it became clear that the room demanded it. Middle school students spoke passionately about how much they cherish their relationships and opportunities to collaborate, and to be mentored by high school students. One eight-grader referred to the school as "a family," and asked why the Department of Education would try to break up a family.

High school students spoke about the devotion of their teachers, and about the self-confidence they learned at Choir Academy. Several teachers spoke about the difficulties the school has faced, but asked why there seemed to be no effort to help the high school, only a sudden and unilateral decision to shut it down.

Another teacher explained that the Department of Education forced Choir Academy guidance counselors to steer kids from their middle school to other high schools in the city--and then used the drop in middle-school-to-high school matriculation as a reason to close the high school down!

The biggest cheers of all were for those who stated bluntly what was on everyone's mind: that this wouldn't be happening in Westchester, or on the Upper West Side, or anyplace where the students are predominantly Black and Latino. Many believe that the wholesale destruction of public education is part of an effort to drive out Black and Latino residents and gentrify the area.

But it was clear that parents, faculty and students intend to fight this closure. "You will not close my school," one young student defiantly told the panel.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE IMMENSE outrage and anger that has erupted at these and many other hearings around the city is poignant testimony to the potential for mobilizing a real fightback against the attacks on public education that have ravaged New York City's schools. People are tired of being the victims and scapegoats blamed for the failures of public education, while the politicians who systematically underfund and undermine our schools are let off the hook.

While many of these protest have come from grassroots mobilizing at the school level, groups like the Grassroots Education Movement, Teachers for a Just Contract and the Independent Community of Educators have also played a role in fighting for a centralized citywide fightback against the school closings.

Activists from these groups have called for a protest at Bloomberg's house on January 21, along with a coalition of student and parent activists.

And on January 26, when the Panel for Educational Policy meets to announce the final decision on proposed school closures, they will be greeted by a large and angry crowd of protesters, who will demand to be heard. The panel, whose usual job is to simply rubber-stamp the decisions of the mayor--or face dismissal--has come under a great deal of pressure as the movement to stop these closings grows.

Already, the Department of Education was forced to change the location of the panel meeting from Staten Island--the one borough of the city that faced no school closings and is hardest to reach from those that do--to Brooklyn.

The UFT, the union that represents over 100,000 teachers in New York City, is planning a citywide rally at the hearings, which will be an important opportunity for teachers and activists to join in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in closing schools, and make it clear that an injury to one is an injury to all.

This fight is far from over. Regardless of what happens on January 26, we can be sure that the assaults on our schools will go on. We need to draw inspiration from the grassroots protest movement that has erupted around the city over the past month and build a sustained movement that refuses to accept the logic of Bloomberg and Klein and will continue to fight to save our schools. Whether the panel closes all 21 schools, or saves a few, we need to continue to mobilize and build a movement that fights against all school closings, now and in the future.

To build a real fightback against the assault on public schools, we need to continue the fight beyond January 26. At the same time, we need to connect this fight to the battle for a decent UFT contract that can demand an end to school closures and protect the rights of teachers who are casualties in the war on our schools. The 2010 elections in the UFT provide an opportunity to argue for democratic, militant rank-and-file alternative to the failed strategies of the current leadership.

The time is now to build a real fight to stop school closings, demand an end to decades of concessions, and fight for equal funding (and more of it) and quality public education for all.

Ross Hogan and Brian Jones contributed to this article.