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Rallying to defend our schools

New York City teacher John Yanno reports on the gathering wave of protest and opposition to the city’s plan to shut down a record number of schools.

December 15, 2009

THE NEW York City Department of Education announced this month that an unprecedented number of city schools are on the chopping block due to low performance, including several large high schools with a long history in the city.

But teachers, parents and students are speaking out and holding protests to show that they are tired of being the victims and scapegoats for the crisis in education–and they want our schools fixed, not privatized. Now, a protest at William H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn earlier this month is becoming a model for other demonstrations in defense of the schools.

Among the big schools that the city is threatening to close are Christopher Columbus in the Bronx, Norman Thomas in Manhattan, Beach Channel in Queens, and Paul Robeson and Maxwell in Brooklyn. All serve populations of mostly working-class Black and Latino students. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has closed nearly 90 schools since taking control of the city school system in 2002.

A few weeks earlier, the mayor stepped up the pressure on teachers. On the day before Thanksgiving, Bloomberg stood beside Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and announced that the city would immediately begin using student test scores as a factor in determining tenure for teachers in spite of a law prohibiting this practice.

That law is set to expire in June 2010–in addition, Bloomberg wants the New York legislature to make a number of other changes to the law to make New York eligible to compete for funds from the so-called Race to the Top program passed as part of the economic stimulus legislation earlier this year.

One change Bloomberg called for was requiring New York’s school districts to use “data” to evaluate teachers and principals. Additionally, Bloomberg said the state should jettison protections that shield senior teachers from layoffs and make it easier to fire “absent teacher reserves” (ATRs)–teachers who lose their positions due to no fault of their own, for example, when a school closes, or because of declining enrollment within a school.

Currently, ATRs remain on the payroll until they find a placement. But because schools have to find room in their decreasing budgets to cover the cost of teachers’ salaries, they are reluctant and often unable to hire senior ATRs, and instead opt for hiring newer, lower-paid teachers.

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ON DECEMBER 9, teachers, students, parents and alumni of Maxwell, one of the few high schools still offering career and technical education in the city, made it clear that they aren’t ready to see their high school close. They protested in front of Maxwell to demand that the Department of Education fix, not close their school.

Teachers angrily pointed out the city’s hypocrisy–the high school has measured up to even the Department of Education’s twisted view of “success.”

Maxwell was able to pull itself off the state’s Schools Under Registration Review list of “failing schools.” After receiving an F rating on the mayor’s progress report in 2006, the school raised its score to a D. The following year, it met the standards for a C, but the city changed its grading system.

“If the scale had not been abruptly changed, the school would have been just shy of getting a B on last year’s scale,” said Seung Ok, a teacher at the school, delegate in the citywide teachers’ union assembly and member of the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a coalition of teachers, parents, students and community members formed to protest attacks on public schools.

The abrupt change of standards was no surprise to most of the protesters at Maxwell. Many in the crowd criticized the Department of Education for wanting schools to fail–so they can be closed to make way for charter schools.

After the protest, some 200 people filed into the Maxwell cafeteria to listen to the district superintendent explain why the school was slated for closure. When the superintendent started to tell the angry crowd that Maxwell was “failing,” he was met by an angry chorus of “boos” and chanting from the assembled students and teachers.

The overflow crowd was allowed to ask questions and make statements. Some talked about the funding inequality between schools in poorer, communities of color–like Maxwell–and “elite” city schools. One speaker pointed out that when closed schools reopen, either as smaller public schools or charter schools, they often receive better funding and superior equipment, like Smart Boards and LCD projectors–why didn’t students at Maxwell deserve the same, the speaker asked.

United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew came to the meeting. He received a standing ovation from the crowd, spoke forcefully against the closure and promised the union would fight back.

But some in the crowd were skeptical, and they have every right to be. The UFT leadership has relied on lobbying politicians, phone banks and “playing nice” with Democrats as their main strategy for years. But many rank-and-file members who recognize this strategy has failed are beginning to demand that the UFT begin to mobilize its membership to fight. “The real power is with the teachers,” said Brenna Farrell, a teacher at Maxwell. “If we can mobilize all the teachers, we can get results.”

The rally at Maxwell is only the beginning. Teachers at other closing schools are beginning to organize rallies, including Norman Thomas High School, Jamaica High School, Paul Robeson High School, Alfred E. Smith High School and Beach Channel High School. A group of 20 teachers, many from closing schools, attended a recent GEM meeting to discuss a plan for a citywide rally against the closings.

Plus GEM, along with the Independent Community of Educators and Teachers for a Just Contract, two opposition caucuses in the UFT, will attempt to present a resolution to the delegate’s assembly on December 16 calling for a citywide rally.

The UFT’s past strategies have failed to win a fair contract, stop mayoral control or stop school closures. It’s time to use the real power of the union–the rank-and-file teachers, 100,000 strong, who are fed up with Bloomberg’s attacks.

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