The limits of democracy in NYC schools

May 16, 2011

Leia Petty looks at the meetings of a New York City body that okays school closures.

THE PANEL for Educational Policy (PEP) meetings are surprisingly easy to get into: No metal detectors, identification checkers or sign-in sheets. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, given that these meetings also double as public hearings for the final decisions made by the Department of Education (DOE).

Upon arrival, you are asked whether you plan on speaking and given a number that will be called on before voting takes place. Unfortunately, this is as far as democracy goes for the PEP.

Hundreds of students, parents, school staff and community members pack these meetings in the hopes of having their voices heard. It may be the only time the New York City's new school chancellor, who heads the PEP, will ever hear the voices of those whose schools are slated for closure and co-location with charter schools.

Dennis Walcott, replacing the much-despised Cathie Black, introduced a recent meeting with a tone of reconciliation, dialogue and understanding. He claimed to "welcome the boos as much as the cheers"--because, he said, it means real debate is happening.

Students and faculty from Bronx Academy Senior High pleading at the PEP meeting for their school to be kept open
Students and faculty from Bronx Academy Senior High pleading at the PEP meeting for their school to be kept open

But for the students at Bronx Academy Senior High (BASH), Walcott's soothing opening stung more and more as the night progressed. Their school was slated to close, and despite the presence of dozens of students, parents and teachers pleading their case to the panel and despite a proposal from PEP member Monica Major to table the decision, they voted to close the school down.

BASH students and staff put together an impressive PowerPoint presentation documenting the school's measurable improvement in the last year under a new principal in order to counter the data used by the Department of Education to justify the school closing.

Students have been protesting their fate for months, packing hearings and attempting to make their voices heard by any means necessary. They sported matching T-shirts and homemade signs and spoke with passion about the need for this school in their lives.

"We're a family," explained Imaan Figaro, a senior set to graduate in June. "It's like a family being broken up. Without this school, we would have been dropouts." In the words of another student who spoke with eyes focused on the panel, "If you close this school, you are closing dreams."

UNFORTUNATELY, THESE students' dreams were not the only ones crushed by the PEP. The closure of BASH brings the total number of schools closed just this year to 27. And more closures are on the way.

Staff from the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) came to protest the pending closure of their school, the only dual-language Arabic school in New York City. The PEP is justifying the closure by claiming that low enrollment numbers demonstrate a lack of interest in the school. In response, staff member Mona Eldahry explained:

The DOE has been working toward closing the Khalil Gibran International Academy ever since it opened four years ago. At that time, anti-Arab voices were making a big fuss in the media, and instead of defending the school, Walcott and Bloomberg chose to attack KGIA. They demanded the resignation of the school's founding principal and replaced her with someone less qualified for the job. Then moved the school without parental input to a neighborhood far from the communities that it was meant to serve, ensuring that it could not function as an Arabic dual-language program.

The closure of KGIA will be voted on at the next PEP meeting.

School communities protesting the new chancellor's decisions were not the only ones present in the auditorium. In many ways, the audience reflected the emergence of two sides taking to the battlefield to debate the question of public schools versus charter schools. Recently, charter schools such as Harlem Success Academy have sent busloads of students, staff and parents to meetings with sound bites given to children to speak in favor of charter schools.

A friend of mine who works in one of their charter schools says that Harlem Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz holds meetings with school staff in order to disseminate talking points to communicate to media. They provide free food and drinks to parents and students who come. Dressed in bright orange, they arrive, with expensive glossy signs, to make their presence known.

Coney Island Prep (CIP), a charter school seeking co-location, sent dozens of students to the meeting with pre-written testimony. I asked José Herrera, a parent of a student in CIP, what he thought about charter schools co-locating with or replacing traditional public schools.

"I see no problem with closing down public schools due to under-performance," he replied. "We should give the space to schools that are out-performing them." Another teacher from CIP stated, "Maybe you should get teachers who know how to teach, and you'll get more kids to graduate!"

This is the logic of the charter-school movement: schools deserve to be closed because they are failing students, and charter schools, because most don't have unions, provide students with more dedicated teachers. It was incredibly insulting to the teachers and staff in the room--reflected in outraged faces and boos--who came to defend their schools from closure to be told that they were simply not "dedicated enough," and therefore to blame for their school closings.

MEMBERS OF the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), an organization committed to organizing against the proliferation of charter schools, held signs that said "Co-locations: Separate and unequal." They were responding to the reality that charter co-locations are not merely about "sharing space" but are part of a means to privatize public education.

Charter schools, while technically public, are run privately, receive money from private corporations and are allotted more money per pupil by the Department of Education. Public schools that are forced to co-locate are rightly concerned about the loss of classrooms, library use and overall space.

Additionally, public-school parents and teachers oppose their children going to school in a space where certain students are privileged with better technology, uniforms and classroom materials. Students from I.S. 303 held a large banner that said, "I.S. 303 is our home!" And PTA president Julia Daniely presented Chancellor Wolcott with a petition with 11,000 signatories opposing the co-location.

Daniely enumerated many concerns, including safety, large classes due to loss of classroom space and the impact on special-needs students who need to stay in one classroom all day. Yet the hours of public testimony failed to persuade the PEP, which voted to co-locate CIP with I.S. 303.

Although the decisions no longer inspire surprise for many protesters, it is impossible to leave these meetings without a bitter taste in your mouth. While the PEP is not the only public hearing that takes place before a school is closed--often there are school-based hearings as well--it is clear that the students, parents and teachers who mobilize to save their schools have little voice in this forum. It is widely believed that the panelists, the majority of whom are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, have already made up their mind before the testimony begins.

The challenge for the growing movement to defend truly public education is to find ways to make our voices heard. Such mobilizations were successful in forcing the resignation of Cathie Black. And it is clear from this PEP meeting that Dennis Wolcott is merely putting a different face on the same agenda. I for one am happy not to have to see Cathie Black's face ever again. But the struggle must continue.

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