A revolt against NYC school closures

February 2, 2010

Alexander Super reports from New York City on angry protests by students, teachers and parents against a plan to close down 19 public schools.

A WIDE coalition of New Yorkers made their voices heard in the last week of January against New York City Mayor Bloomberg's decision to close 19 schools--disproportionately large schools located in communities of color.

The battle came to a head at a January 26 meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), which had final decision-making power on the proposal to close the schools deemed "persistently failing" by Bloomberg's schools chancellor Joel Klein and the New York City Department of Education (DOE).

Supported by a demonstration outside organized by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), more than 2,000 people packed into the Brooklyn Technical High School auditorium to give the PEP a piece of their mind.

Not one of the 340 people who signed up to speak supported Bloomberg's policy. The bitter speeches went on for nine hours--all evening and into the early morning hours, with parents, students and teachers addressing the panel, backed up by interjections from the audience.

The anger was palpable as people vented years of frustrations. As one student demanded of the panel, "Did you know that the Yankees got a new stadium and my school is crumbling?" City Council member Charles Barron, an outspoken critic of mayoral control, declared, "Joel Klein is not qualified to make education decisions, he's not even qualified to be in a classroom." Barron ended his speech to thunderous applause, shouting above the crowd, "We need to get more militant in this town!"

Protesters gathered at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side home to protest threatened closures
Protesters gathered at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side home to protest threatened closures (Grassroots Education Movement)

The PEP members waited out the speeches, and ultimately called in police to ring their place at the front of the room. Finally, with the crowd dwindled to a hundred or so at 3 a.m., the panelists voted to impose the closures--by a 9-4 margin in every case, with Bloomberg's appointees supporting the proposal and representatives from four of the city's five boroughs voting no.

The schools on the closure list--among them, Columbus High School in the Bronx, Brooklyn's Maxwell High School, Jamaica High School in Queens, Beach Channel High School in Far Rockaway, Manhattan's Norman Thomas High School and more--have a mostly working-class Black and Latino student body.

Bloomberg took over the city school system in 2002, and he and Klein have set their sights on attacking the teachers' union and promoting a charter school invasion. The PEP was formed at this point, ostensibly to provide for critical participation by parents, teachers, students and communities.

Before this latest round, the mayor had closed 91 schools. Many were large high schools--in their place came "small schools and charters, often in the old schools' buildings," the New York Times reported.

Now, Bloomberg and Klein can take pride in another round of closures, imposed over the opposition of those who attend and teach in the 19 schools.

STUDENTS, TEACHERS and parents have been upping the pressure for weeks. On January 21, about 400 students, parents, teachers and community members took the battle against school closings and the charter school invasion to Bloomberg's house on the Upper East Side. The event included a spirited picket followed by a speakout.

The protest was organized by the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) and Concerned Advocates of Public Education (CAPE), and was endorsed by a host of other groups, including the Independent Community of Educators (ICE), Teachers for a Just Contract (TJC), the Coalition for Public Education (CPE), the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE), the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF) and the PTA of PS 123.

Before the rally could even take place, activists, with the help of attorney Norman Siegel, had to file a lawsuit in federal court. Plaintiffs in the suit included two students from William H. Maxwell High School in Brooklyn, one of the 19 schools slated for closing, and a parent and student from PS 15. The court granted the protesters a penned-off area on the south side of 79th Street, across from Bloomberg's house.

Students, parents and teachers came from many of the schools slated to be shut down, as well as schools threatened by the charter school invasion.

A packed bus of students, parents and teachers from PS 15 in Brooklyn joined the protest. The DOE has labeled PS 15 as "underutilized" and given an ever-increasing amount of building space to PAVE Academy Charter School. Teachers and parents also turned up from PS 123 in Harlem, which is engaged in an ongoing struggle with the Harlem Success Academy Charter School. Members of AFSCME District Council 37, which represents school janitors and cafeteria workers, came out to the rally as well.

Students played a crucial role in this and other recent protests throughout the city. As Norm Scott described, two students, Rachel Ali from Jamaica High School and Chris Petrillo from Beach Channel High School, have spearheaded efforts to organize other students and traveled to hearings throughout the city to speak out. The voices of students themselves make it difficult for Bloomberg and Klein to claim to be acting in students' interests.

At the PEP meeting a few days later, the UFT, New York City's 100,000-member teacher's union, mobilized a rally outside Brooklyn Tech that attracted upwards of a thousand dissenters from schools and communities across the city.

But while the protest was an impressive show of support, the real show was inside.

At 6 p.m., the PEP meeting began to raucous chants of "Save our Schools," drowning out the roll call and Joel Klein in a cacophony of dissent. Then, the speakers, one by one, took on the DOE.

One issue at the heart of many of the comments was racism. Speakers pointed out that it was predominantly Black or Latino neighborhoods that were being hit with the closures. As one parent demanded of the board, "Let our children learn like your children!"

A representative of the NAACP subjected the charter schools that Bloomberg champions to a withering critique. "These schools represent a new form of segregation and separation," he said. "This is about educational justice!" As a teacher shouted at the panel, "Separate and unequal will not do in the 21st century."

Other speakers challenged the DOE's decision-making process. "The DOE hasn't followed its own procedure," one teacher said, pointing out the hypocrisy of closing schools that rated "proficient" on their quality reviews.

This is the dirty secret behind Bloomberg and Klein's claim that the closing schools are "failing." At least some were able to raise their scores on the mayor's progress report. Teachers at William H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn say their school would have scored just short of a "B" in 2008--but the city abruptly changed the grading system.

Opponents of the closures believe DOE officials want schools to fail--so they can be closed, and charters put in their place. "Monroe was failed not because of our performance," one teacher told the PEP meeting. "but because of our demographics."

Other speakers pointed out how the DOE has starved schools of the resources they need to survive. "You should be there with the services for our school," said a teacher from P. S. 332, a school in East New York slated for closure. As an alumni of Paul Robeson High School said, "Our system has failed our students."

THE CROWD kept a close eye on PEP members and Chancellor Klein. When Klein disappeared while one student was speaking, the crowd started chanting, "Where's Klein?"--and didn't stop until he reappeared. The chant was repeated at 1:45 a.m. when Klein disappeared again.

The meeting's was ruthless in cutting off speakers. An especially fraught moment came when Michael Best, the general counsel for the DOE, turned off the microphone of a speaker from the NAACP.

Patrick Sullivan, a member of the PEP appointed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, challenged PEP Chair David Chang to do the dirty work himself. "If someone is going to turn off the microphone of a speaker from the NAACP, I want it to be one of the mayor's appointees," Sullivan admonished Chang, to the roaring approval of the crowd.

At 11:30 p.m., Sullivan moved to table the discussion and vote, but the motion was defeated again by the solid majority of Bloomberg appointees.

Police came in to defend the stage as the last speaker came to the microphone at 2:45 a.m. By this time, the massive crowd had diminished to a hundred or so. The police presence defending the stage began stretching up the aisles by 3 a.m., despite the fact the auditorium was almost empty.

When Patrick Sullivan challenged the mayor's appointees to defend the closure policy, not one of them, nor the chancellor, would say anything publicly. "They'll find out our position when we vote," one PEP member admonished Sullivan. At 3:30 a.m., nine-and-a-half hours after the meeting began, the panel voted identically on every closure--nine in favor, four opposed.

The audience that remained heckled the panel throughout this final mockery of democracy with calls of "Puppets!" "Cowards!" and "Shame on you!"

Bloomberg and Klein may have gotten away with closing the 19 schools on their hit list, but the crowd of opponents made a mockery of their claim to be looking out for the interests of ordinary New Yorkers. The struggle will go on to stop the DOE from strangling our public schools and handing them over to charter operators.

Bill Linville contributed to this article.

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