I was lucky enough to snag a seat at the Mayor’s Town Hall on Education last Thursday, held at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights, Queens. I wish I could say I walked away with a renewed burst of enthusiasm regarding the state of public education in NYC. The Mayor, Chancellor Fariña, and numerous administration members spoke about changes being implemented, pilot programs and an influx of new support for traditional public schools—all wonderful additions. But I kept getting stuck on the one consistent message from Mayor de Blasio when faced with tough questions from the audience:
We’re working on it...stay tuned...we need more money...it’s going to take a while.
I’m a practical person, so I know that any significant changes made to our enormous, well-established public education system will take a lot of time and a lot of money. But when the Mayor stated “We’re going to entirely change this school system,” it left me scratching my head.
How long will that change take? And what army of educators will accomplish this? It doesn’t sound like an appealing job; more along the lines of untangling a giant knot of yarn that my cat’s been playing with for ten years. I’m wary of such optimism, while excited for real progressive reform and new opportunities for children that have traditionally been left out. I get into a tizzy thinking of the many moving pieces necessary to enact meaningful change. But it always boils down to the accessibility of resources- it’s the universal answer for every issue presented at the Town Hall meeting. Time, money, training.
I didn’t hear enough about the new protocols for special education, and one parent was practically ignored when she suggested a better method for making IEP meetings more accessible. The Chancellor did mention adding paraprofessionals to overcrowded classrooms, but only as a means to contain chaos and alleviate the burden on lead teachers. That was a disappointment, especially in light of the initiatives set in place over the last few years to integrate more students with special needs into less restrictive settings. Where appropriate, I wholeheartedly agree that this is the correct approach, although that integrated setting should not mean a class of 30 children with 40% having IEPs. But you can’t accomplish these goals without a well-oiled machine supporting its success. As it stands now, special education needs plenty of work, as there are children throughout the city who are not receiving their mandated services, or who have had their IEPs amended so as to fit into the constraints of their local schools. That is a common practice, although it was not intended to be a common practice. But without support, corners must be cut. One would think that with almost 20% of public school students receiving special education services, New York City would be leading by example, instead of floundering.
Another topic broached at the Town Hall meeting by members of the immigrant community was perceived funding cuts to CBOs that provide services such as health and wellness checks, counseling, English language programs, and financial, legal and immigration assistance. When asking how he was supposed to find low-cost or free English language classes so that he can best support his children’s education, one Jackson Heights father was told that the new Community Schools initiative would address those needs. But there are only a handful of those schools in Queens, compared to numerous schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn. These schools are part of the city’s Renewal program, where struggling schools are given added support bolster performance and school culture, as outlined in the Mayor’s strategic plan. They are simultaneously being added to the Community Schools program. District 24 and 30, where the majority of the audience reside, have only 3 of these Renewal schools. There could potentially be more schools added in the years to come, but for the father in Jackson Heights it was a non-answer consistent with the evening meeting. Another situation where time and money are needed to see city-wide progress.
There are many charter schools throughout the city already using the community school approach, with wrap-around services, community partnerships and an active school culture that embraces parent engagement and adult education. For public schools that are struggling with similar issues, community partnerships can be a welcome resource. And maybe the Mayor and Chancellor should think about urging schools that are not part of the Renewal or Community Schools plan to seek out these partnerships, offering incentives to CBOs to become a fixture within the public school system. I got the sense that the Community Schools initiative, much like PROSE, is a restricted and micromanaged venture, where growth and innovation are discussed, but not allowed to breathe.
You won’t hear the Mayor or the Chancellor recommend charter schools as an option for families. They said they’d rather fix the schools we already have, which of course is the right idea, and significant resources should be applied there. But in the meantime, while all of this time and money is sought to fix the current system, isn’t it also beneficial to have more options for families that need them? The reason why charter schools are able to develop unique learning models and family services is because the reins are loosened. Not all the way...not even close, but enough to spark that sense of entrepreneurialism- to try something new.
by Amanda Lefer, Family and Community Outreach Associate at C3S