Parents occupy a school to save it

Peter Lamphere reports on a dramatic action by New York City parents determined to remove the abusive principal of Central Park East 1, a historic progressive school.

Parents at Central Park East 1 High School in East Harlem occupy their schoolParents at Central Park East 1 High School in East Harlem occupy their school

PARENTAL ANGER boiled over last week at an East Harlem school as parents occupied the building to demand the resignation of an abusive and out-of-control principal.

Monika Garg took over administration of Central Park East 1 (CPE1)--a historic progressive elementary school--a year and a half ago, and swiftly alienated staff and parents.

With little background in the progressive, child-centered pedagogy on which the school was based, she began disciplinary investigations on every experienced teacher at the school, culminating in the removal of the school's United Federation of Teachers (UFT) delegate, and then Marilyn Martinez, the union chapter leader (a position similar to shop steward in other unions).

A number of parents started the Save CPE1 campaign last year after the first teacher was removed from the school—on charges that were later proven false when the family at the center of the case spoke out. Parents were especially upset that Garg’s investigations often involved interviewing young elementary school students without their parents’ consent or knowledge.

The removal of Martinez, who is a beloved teacher as well as a union activist, sparked a new level of urgency and resistance. Parents and teachers rallied to her defense, packing the disciplinary hearings for Martinez, pushing the UFT to take action.

Some 60 percent of families at the school signed a letter stating no confidence in the Garg's leadership. Parents presented this statement and demanded Garg's resignation at a School Leadership Team (SLT) meeting on April 6.

What you can do

Visit the Save CPE1 website and sign the campaign's petition to show your support and to get updates about the campaign.

Over 100 parents and community supporters, including local City Council member Bill Perkins, packed the meeting, which was forced to move into the school's auditorium. Impassioned parents spoke about the damage Garg had done to the school, through her lack of concern and understanding for the school's pedagogical culture and her removal of some of the school's leading teachers.

It was an explosive meeting. The room was stunned as one parent recounted through tears how Principal Garg had urgently called her to school to say that her child had been abused by a teacher--and then emotionally begged the parent to press criminal charges. When the parent determined this charge to be false, she and her child were traumatized as a disciplinary process she did not want to pursue proceeded and Garg failed to provide counseling or other support.

Due to the Department of Education's (DOE) secretive investigation process, this was the first time that many parents had heard this story--almost 14 months after the teacher’s removal. The room erupted in a standing ovation and shouts of support for the parent.

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AFTER WEEKS of appeals from parents and teachers for support from the teachers union, UFT Assistant Secretary LeRoy Barr finally appeared on behalf of embattled union members and said that the city's education chancellor Carmen Fariña needed to take responsibility for the situation at CPE1. "When a school is facing this kind of crisis," Barr said, "it is the employer's responsibility."

CPE 1 parents were also joined by parents and teachers from other progressive schools and education justice groups.

The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a social justice caucus inside the UFT, has backed the struggle at CPE 1 since the beginning and helped organize support from teachers from other schools.

A small contingent of teachers from a progressive school in the Bronx came and spoke about the role that CPE 1 has played in inspiring and educating other schools.

Kemala Karmen, a parent leader in the movement to opt out of state standardized tests, spoke to the importance of democracy in our schools and lambasted Garg for relying on other administrators to speak on her behalf at the meeting.

Finally, at the end of the meeting, parents stood up and responded to Garg's declaration that she had no intention of leaving by replying that they weren't going to leave either, and initiated a sit-in demanding her removal.

Dozens supporters stayed in the auditorium to join the occupying parents, and an impromptu speak-out ensued.

A substitute teacher spoke about how Garg had secretly given her an unsatisfactory rating without any warning. The rating was overturned when the teacher appealed it, but it was a stunning revelation to parents who had just heard Garg claim that she had never given a teacher an unsatisfactory rating in her career.

Singing civil rights songs, seven parents stayed the entire night in the school, suffering through low temperatures after the principal ordered the heat turned off. For the first six hours they were denied access to the bathroom, until a DOE official discovered the bucket being used as a makeshift bathroom and opened access. Outside the school, supporters kept up a spirited rally until past midnight.

Marilyn Martinez couldn't speak in her own defense at the meeting because she's not allowed on school property. But her presence was powerfully felt as she stood across the street with duct tape covering her mouth and a sign reading "when you can't speak, when you can't breathe, #abusiveadministrators".

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CITY OFFICIALS made it clear to the parent protesters that they had no desire to make arrests and risk potentially negative publicity. But parents are enraged that the police and DOE chose to have a massive show of force at the doors as school resumed the following morning.

Children had to enter or walk past close to a dozen uniformed and armed police officers clustered in the entry to the school. Parents, who are usually allowed to bring children up to the classroom, were not allowed into the building.

Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, co-chair of the schools Parents Association, expressed the anger many in the CPE1 community felt that morning:

Although I begged and pleaded with the police officers as I was watching children cry, they told me that the DOE called the shots. Everyone knew the parents inside the auditorium posed no threat and that a police presence was completely unnecessary. I believe they wanted to intimidate and deter parents from organizing because they know we fear the impact on our children.

But the DOE and Garg, not those of us standing up for justice, are responsible for creating a situation in which young children had to walk through a crowd of police to go to school. They cared more about their public relations image then they did about the safety and emotional well-being of our children.

The parent occupiers decided to end the occupation that morning after being promised an onsite meeting with DOE officials. They spent their early morning hours in the auditorium planning with supporters on the outside for a press conference and large rally of parents in front of the school.

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FOLLOWING THE press conference, parents met with DOE officials, who again told them that they are committed to making it work with Garg. A few days later, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio informed parents that the mayor would not be meeting with them since the DOE is "handling it."

"These administrators repeated the same failed promises they've been making for the past eight months," says Jen Roesch, one of the occupying parents. "In response to media requests, they've said they are putting together a 'panel of experts' to help our school. We already have experts--they are the veteran teachers who are being harassed by our principal and they are the parents who have dedicated themselves to this school."

Garg knows that she has the backing of the DOE, which is why she opened the SLT meeting with a written statement that declared, "Just to be very, very clear I am not going anywhere."

But the occupation was successful in putting a spotlight on the crisis Garg has created. When de Blasio was doing his weekly radio spot on the Brian Lehrer show on April 7, he was asked about CPE1 and replied, "It is a school with a very powerful history. We have a lot of things to resolve... this is unusually strong reaction of parents... I want to understand better what the concerns are."

In fact, the de Blasio administration has been aware of the situation for over a year and done nothing. And this isn't the only situation in which the city's supposedly progressive mayor has stood behind an abusive principal.

There is a similar battle against Rosemarie Jahoda, acting principal of Townsend Harris High School in Queens. Townsend Harris students read a statement of solidarity at the CPE1 SLT meeting, stating that the DOE has "been ignoring our voices all year and we feel this process is rigged. We at Townsend Harris understand your struggle and stand behind you in your efforts."

It will take continued protest and action, from both families and teachers, to keep the pressure up and force DOE action. The Save CPE1 campaign has already achieved unprecedented level of support and activity from families, but it will need to keep organizing wider support from teachers and parents from around the city.

And with the de Blasio administration seemingly determined to ignore the will of the vast majority of the CPE1 community, parents are indicating that this there may be more dramatic actions to come in their efforts to force Garg out and save Central Park East 1.