For the fourth time in the last three years, I attended a school closing Panel for Educational Policy meeting at Brooklyn Tech. At last Thursday's meeting there were 23 schools facing the chopping block or grade truncation. The script is familiar. Masses of people come from the schools slated for closure to advocate for their schools and protest the closures. DOE officials respond that these schools are horrible places and families need better options. Then, the mayor's appointees on the PEP ignore the public and dutifully fulfill their role and rubber stamp the phase outs.
Last Thursday followed the script to the letter but it was still a rather unique experience for me as the protesters were split about how to voice displeasure with the process. On one side was the UFT which wanted to stage a huge walk out (or not even show up at all inside the school) and hold an alternate people's PEP meeting while on the other side was the Occupy DOE crowd that includes students, parents, teachers and other activists who wanted to drown out the PEP so they would have to stop the meeting and not be able to vote to close the schools. This dispute was covered on video and by GothamSchools.org. Many people were happy that the Occupy DOE crowd won out as the UFT leaders did enter the meeting and never held their alternative PEP meeting. From my perspective both sides need to examine closely what happened and learn from the experience.
For UFT officials, they hopefully will learn that they cannot control every event as if it were a Delegate Assembly meeting where many of the delegates are predisposed to follow their lead just like the PEP puppets blindly do the Mayor's bidding. Watching them lose control of the protest was something I have never seen nor have they. The Occupy DOE people did not succeed in shutting the meeting down. Using the people's mic, where people say something and the crowd repeats it. in that huge auditorium will not drown out a good electronic amplification system. By posting their intentions to try to shut the meeting down all over the internet, Occupy DOE gave the DOE time to plan.
The DOE strategy for the meeting was to turn up the volume on the official microphone and just wait the protesters out while blanketing the auditorium with police officers. This succeeded as the Occupy DOE crowd burned out so people ended up for the most part walking out like the UFT wanted and the meeting went on with an eerie calm setting in.
In 2010, so many people spoke out against school closings so that the vote to close schools wasn't held until after 3:00 am. Last year there were two PEP school closing meetings since there were so many schools closed at once. The first one on February 1 didn't end until after 1:00 am. At the second meeting on February 3, all of the frustration from the public against the PEP led to a loud walkout which did stop the meeting for a time. Following the walkout, the PEP was able to spout out their lies about our schools to a nearly empty auditorium. At least we were all able to arrive home at a reasonable hour.
Hence, the debate this year about whether to stay or go. There were only about 75 people left in that huge auditorium when the PEP voted to close or shrink 23 schools last week. I was one of them. I stayed along with Norm Scott, a Chapter Leader friend and his friend. I actually kind of wish there were more people there for the vote as I still get sickened each time the PEP votes to kill a school. The DOE needs to hear about the havoc that their policies are causing to school communities even if these DOE officials won't listen. They need to know about the kids who are casualties of school reform: those left behind in phasing out schools. 75 people yelling "shame on you" late at night is not sufficient.
I did not take to the electronic microphone as the Occupy DOE and UFT people seemed not to want us to speak. However, I did see Manhattan PEP representative Patrick Sullivan and told him about what is occurring at Jamaica High School where the kids are totally demoralized as the school phases out. They are not getting the courses they need; many are being taught by out of license teachers; many are not getting proper English as a Second Language or Special Education services and they are being pushed out of school in droves. Patrick raised some of these issues during the discussion and the DOE had no answers.
I think we should not let the DOE or PEP off the hook. Yes the process is a sham and the mayor's appointees will say yes to anything the mayor wants. However, these people need to be told how they are ruining the education of so many young people. I'll explain how awful the teaching and learning conditions continue to be at Jamaica in some detail and how we are continuing the fight in a later post. As for last Thursday, I want to believe we all learned something.