2010-02-05 / Columnists

School Scope

Feeling Peppy: The Meaning of January 26
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott The event inspired exhilaration and despair, disappointment and hope. One day books may be written about it. Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson called it “the ugly naked face of mayoral control,” referring to the now legendary January 26 meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) at Brooklyn Tech HS. Nine and a half hour meetings can get pretty ugly. I got on the speakers’ line at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday and didn’t walk out until 3:30 a.m. Wednesday.

For the uninitiated, the PEP is the rubber stamp NYC Board of Education. The mayor gets to appoint eight out of the 13 members who serve at his pleasure. Each of the five borough presidents appoints one and even these people are often forced to go along with the mayor because the BPs are so dependent on the mayor for their budgets. Until recently, only Manhattan’s BP Scott Stringer had the cajones to appoint someone (Patrick Sullivan) who would stand up to the Tweed goons on a consistent basis. By the end of this PEP meeting, three other borough reps had joined Patrick, including our own Dmytro Fedkowskyj, who said, “There very well may come a time when I will raise my hand in support of one of these schools being closed. But I am not there, not because I think closing a school should never be a considered choice, but because I think in order to get to that point, we must first ensure that it is the last choice.”

Leonie, who attends an enormous number of meetings, thought this one “was one of the most inspiring and awful events I have ever witnessed. Inspiring because there were thousands of people there to protest the closing of 19 schools, and hundreds spoke out, for more than eight hours: eloquently, angrily, passionately and intelligently, about why their schools should not be closed and why the administration’s blind and reckless policies would hurt our most vulnerable children. These English language learners, special education students, poor and homeless, will likely be excluded from the new small schools and charter schools that will replace their schools, and will undoubtedly be discharged in huge numbers as these schools phase out, never to receive a fair chance at a high school diploma. Parents, students and teachers cited facts and numbers, personal experience, trenchant analysis and damning evidence of the DOE’s malignant neglect and botched statistics.”

Inspiration came from the fact that 2000 people came out to the meeting, with the UFT organizing 50 buses. Hundreds of articulate spokespersons — numerous students, teachers and parents, many young, black, Latino/a. “I’m not a failure,” proclaimed one student after another as they listed their accomplishments and how their school had helped them. Loads of alumni, many in college, also came to support their schools. Many seemed to take the branding of their school as “failing” as a personal affront.

Paul Robeson seemed to have the largest and most organized contingent, along with Jamaica HS and Columbus. In my rough calculation, the size of activity in the school community seemed related to how much the school principal supported them. The Beach Channel turnout seemed very low in comparison. I’ll

leave you to form your own conclusions. Did you know leadership change was an option to closing Beach Channel, but was not considered?

Most of the activists in the NYC branch of the growing Resistance to the market based education deformist policies of BloomKlein showed up. The Grassroots Education Movement

GEM), one of the groups I helped found a year ago which has been one of the leaders of the Resistance, came out in force with their banner, whistles and high energy. They sat with the mostly Black and Latino/a group, the Coalition for Public Education (CPE), and alliances were being built throughout the meeting.

In addition to the closing schools, the meeting rubber stamped a five year extension of the PAVE charter school

whose founder is the son of a billionaire who gave $10 million to Bloomberg projects) within the PS 15 building in Red Hook despite the pleas of the parents and teachers from the Concerned Advocates for Public Education (CAPE). While being severely disappointed at the deaf ear of the PEP, they came out swinging a few days later: “... one month, culminating in one nearly 12 hour meeting, can both be inspiring and depressing, both a confirmation of our belief in humanity and a questioning of it. If we were spiritually empty, if we were cynical, we would believe that ‘the people’ should just give up, clearly the game is fixed. Luckily we are not, instead we vow to fight, until our last breath, to protect and preserve public education for our children.”

I’ve been attending PEP meetings since the early years and they mostly took place in a sea of anonymity with little attention being paid by both the press and the public. The January PEP and the December PEP before it have drawn much greater attention with lots of press coverage. This outpouring of interest has shined a light in the dark corners where the roaches gather and hopefully there will be greater scrutiny, though don’t be shocked if they try to bury these meetings in the furthest corners of the galaxy (anyone for a meeting on Alpha Centauri?)

Joel Klein and civil rights? Not

Of the significant outcomes of this meeting, none will prove more long term than the breaking of BloomKlein’s manipulation of the Black community, where the claim that closing the achievement gap (sure, by lowering standards, credit recovery and juking the stats) is the great civil rights issue of our time and they are leading the struggle. All the years of Klein traipsing to Black churches every Sunday to cultivate the community came down around his ears on January 26 as one person of color after another condemned Tweed as being divisive and racist, repeatedly using the term “separate and unequal” in relation to the DOE’s favoring charter over public schools. When Bloomberg’s appointee chairman David Chang turned the mic off on a speaker from the NAACP, as pointed out by Patrick Sullivan, the shield set up by BloomKlein seemed to have been seriously breached.

Klein tried to recoup by appearing on a black radio station, leading one black parent to write, “Shame on you KISS FM.” Another wrote, “Joel Klein had the nerve to go on KISS FM radio station and try to explain why he is shutting down schools in the Black Community ... Joel Klein should be indicted for what he has done to education in New York City. He has been allowed to have 4 major reorganizations. He has shut down the Chancellor’s district. He has closed over 90 schools and plans to close at least 100 more over the next 4 years. Our students are not failures, they were failed by the Billionaire Mayor and the unqualified Chancellor.” The beginning of a death spiral for mayoral control?

Many people had their first exposure on January 26 to the frustration of seeing hundreds of speakers have their voices ignored. Some felt helpless and walked away in despair. But for many the learning experience through mass activism energized them and may start the ball rolling toward ultimately putting a stake through the heart of mayoral control.

There is no better example than our own BCHS student activist Chris Petrillo. As the vote for Beach Channel closing went through he was in tears at having failed to save his school. NY 1 reporter Lindsay Christ asked him why he was so upset. “My parents met as students at Beach Channel,” he said (school closings ignore the important role schools play as community anchors). By the time I dropped Chris off at his house close to 4 a.m., he was back on his feet, ready to fight.

A few days later Chris called from the press conference at the UFT, where the NAACP and many other groups had joined the UFT in filing a law suit contending that “the department violated state law by failing to do the required analysis of how school closings would affect the more than 13,000 students who would potentially be displaced, particularly special needs students; by failing to analyze the effects of the closings on other already overcrowded public schools nearby; by failing to give communities and interested groups appropriate notice of local public hearings; and by failing to answer questions at public hearings.”

I have five hours of videotape from the meeting, which I have been putting up on my blog (http://ednotesonline. blogspot.com/).

One of the fun pieces to watch is Joel Klein undergoing five minutes of booing and howling while he tried to give his opening statement. Come on by, get a cathartic experience as you watch.

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