Night of Outrage: Thousands Protest NYC School Closings

by Michael Hirsch and Micah Landau

The Brooklyn Technical HS auditorium was packed for the Feb. 9 meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy. Photo by Dave Sanders

In one of the angriest demonstrations yet against Mayor Bloomberg’s failed education policies, thousands of teachers, parents, students and community members turned out to protest school closings at a Feb. 9 meeting of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy at Brooklyn Technical HS.

Despite virtually unanimous opposition, the panel approved the Department of Education’s bid to close 18 schools and eliminate grades from five others. The decision marked the largest number of school closings ever approved in a single meeting. Bloomberg has closed 117 schools since taking control of the school system in 2002, while opening 396 new schools that rarely serve the same high-needs students.

Some 500 UFT members, community allies and elected officials rallied at a press conference across the street from the meeting before entering.

“The entire city is sick and tired of the way the school system is being treated,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the crowd. “Enough is enough!”

Mulgrew also took aim at the PEP. “It doesn’t even do justice to the words ‘kangaroo court,’” he said.

The panel, dominated by mayoral appointees, has never rejected a proposal to close a school.

State Sen. John Sampson, who was among the 28 local elected officials at the press conference, gave the DOE an F for failing students and schools.

“It’s time not only to shut down Tweed, but to remove everyone in Tweed,” he said.

The UFT had initially planned to march to nearby PS 20, where it would hold an alternative “People’s PEP,” but, after police barred those assembled from marching in the street, Mulgrew led the crowd into the PEP meeting.

The UFT contingent starts a march toward the People’s PEP at nearby PS 20.

UFT  President Michael Mulgrew (center) and New York State NAACP President Hazel Dukes (right of Mulgrew) are among those leading the pre-meeting protest. Miller Photography

Inside the capacious Brooklyn Tech auditorium, the rage was palpable. The police were out in force, with NYPD officers standing in a phalanx near the stage and along the sides of the auditorium

Standing on a chair in the heart of the crowd, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said, “We have come here tonight to speak truth to power. The only thing that needs to be closed is the Department of Education.”

His words, not amplified by a microphone, echoed in waves through the auditorium as the crowd repeated them using the “people’s microphone.”

The more than 100 speakers, including many parents, almost all slammed the closings.

New York State NAACP President Hazel Dukes demanded that the DOE keep schools open.

“You’ve hired consultants who know nothing about our children,” she said. “Use that money instead to give schools the resources they need.”

Ernest Uthgenannt, the chapter leader at Grace Dodge HS in the Bronx, had intended to defend the importance of his school’s CTE programs at the “People’s PEP,” but instead told the New York Teacher that they offer “an alternative path” to students who may not be inclined to pursue higher education and in many cases “provide the motivation to get through the academic classes that are necessary to graduate.”

“I’m afraid to think of what might happen to some of these kids if their CTE programs are taken away,” Uthgenannt said, noting his school’s CTE programs are among the last remaining in the Bronx. “They might decide not to come to school at all.”

Uthgenannt said that the DOE placed Grace Dodge in the “transformation” model, a three-year process, in August. “How do they change their minds in four months? What kind of planning is that?” he asked.

Another chapter leader, Mavis Yon of General Chappie James Elementary School of Science in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, told the New York Teacher about the overwhelming — and overlooked — social issues confronting her school, where 98 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Yon said that her school community’s pleas to the DOE for additional “wrap-around” social services at their school fell on deaf ears.

“There are kids who need glasses, but their parents can’t afford them,” she said. “If you can’t see, you can’t read. You just can’t.”

She warned, “Until the DOE realizes you have to educate the whole child, they’ll have similar results.”

Harry Rivas, a freshman at Manhattan’s Legacy HS and a leader in the fight to save it, said that “if you close down the school, you close down the students with it.”

Of the coming four years, Rivas said, “We’re not going to be able to get the support and help we need. And we’re not going to be able to get the proper education we need.”

Natasha Capers, an alumna of PS/IS 298 and the vice president of the school’s PTA, asked the panelists when they will “stand up and do what’s right for New York City children?”

Students “need time, they need love and they need a proper education,” none of which they are getting from the DOE, she said.

Harlem Sen. Bill Perkins condemned “the slow death of space being taken away, piece by piece” from three schools just blocks from each other in his district. These schools would now be squeezed or closed to make room for new co-located schools, he said.

“The DOE often says they are providing these new schools to offer choice,” Perkins said. “If you live in this part of the city, you will have no choice as a result of them giving all of our public schools away.”

Educators from schools labeled “persistently lowest achieving” also turned out in force at the meeting after the mayor threatened to close 31 of these schools and remove half of the staff in each.

Brett Green, a music teacher at Grover Cleveland HS, which had been in the federal “restart” model, said that Chancellor Dennis Walcott, in a recent visit to the school, promised the school community, “I can see your progress. I will do what I can to help your school. It will not close.”

The mayor’s vow to close the school, Green said, has left students, families and teachers “demoralized, to say nothing of being thrown into complete and utter turmoil.”

At the end of the long night, true to form, the mayoral appointees voted to approve all the closings, while the representatives from Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn dissented. The Staten Island representative voted in favor of the closings, except for PS 14 in her borough, on which she abstained from voting.

Michael Hirsch and Micah Landau are on the staff of the New York Teacher, where this report originally appeared.


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