Fought For PPA
I found myself unusually cheerful as I monitored reports coming out of the Chicago teachers’ strike. A powerful show of force in the streets, I mused, was long overdue on the issue of education in America.
A friend of mine, however, pointed out that I had fought tooth and nail to keep open a charter school, my son’s, just recently. Charter schools are seemingly antithetical to the views of Chicago strikers, who see the charter movement as an attack on public education.
Faced with this contradiction, I searched from within for answers.
I felt a connection with the striking teachers as they fought with City Hall and pointed to two issues that were important to me – class size and an overemphasis on standardized testing. However, the battle for education in the Rockaways, where my son goes to school, would not lend itself to longwinded debates or ideology alone, but rather to more practical demands.
Earlier this year I wrote to School- Book about the fight that I and other parents of students at Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School had put up to stop its closure. Despite protests, petitions and even a meeting with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the Department of Education would not heed the voices of the parents. The closure went ahead as planned until Advocates for Justice, a social justice law firm, and school lawyers were able to secure a restraining order to keep the school open in the short term.
This temporary restraining order, however, did not guarantee the school’s future as the very real possibility of closure, hinging on the ultimate decision of a Queens judge (though negotiations continued), still loomed over the school. During the hectic months of the previous school year, parents scrambled to make contingency plans, the school administration balanced a legal fight with all the business of running a school, and our children took grueling year-end tests.
Some of the consequences of being left in legal limbo (our charter was not renewed but technically we were still open) were that many students and teachers left the uncertainty of PPA and we also lost our lease on a wonderful facility we had secured two years prior.
In hindsight, I realize now why our battle was such an uphill one and I can appreciate how uncanny our eventual victory actually was.
Peninsula Prep is a charter school. As parents mobilized to reach out to education activists, politicians and the media, we soon felt the stigma that comes with the label of “charter.” I might imagine that those fighting against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also feel the political stigma that comes with being part of a union (frequent targets of media). In our case, no union-leaning groups or elected officials felt comfortable helping us even as the absurdity of closing one of the Rockaways’ strongest-performing schools was apparent.
In fact, it was the altruism of Advocates for Justice, the Queens chapter of National Action Network, and others that gave parents some level of support. Truly, we were on the opposite sides of the political coin with Chicago teachers, yet we all felt like we were fighting for the same cause. I myself was conflicted between my personal politics and the drive to support this charter, if not all charters.
A casual observer might make the mistake of assuming PPA parents are loyal charter advocates. Some may be, some may not. We are, more accurately, advocates of Peninsula Prep and its amazing principal, Ericka Wala.
We fought for PPA because of the state of public education in the Rockaways and the support our teachers and staff worked hard to earn from us. This doesn’t mean we despise district schools or that we oppose the teachers’ union.
We are examples of the voices and faces that usually get left out of the Manichean discussions on education ... that is, until we fought back.
Peninsula Prep is now open and currently teaching the Rockaways’ youngest citizens important values that supersede the general curriculum. One of these is determination, which we will continue to need. The possibility that the school will be closed midyear still exists.
My son Jadyn is now enrolled at a district school. My experience at PPA allowed me a chance to experience education in a unique way and lent me some new perspectives on charters, which I had previously been hostile to.
A close partnership with the principal and solidarity with parents, forged in the battle for the school, convince me to continue to advocate for the school and further develop a parent-run after school sports program there.
A lesson I learned is that apart from a parental instinct to protect your child’s school, standing up for education is a civic responsibility as well. So at a time when parents need a restraining order to have their children taught at their school of choice (a choice that included the emotional and material costs incurred in our struggle), we can only set the best example possible for our children and continue to fight for education, not unlike what is happening in Chicago.