After dropping her two sons at their Chelsea elementary school one morning this fall, Mary Conway-Spiegel spent several minutes fiddling with the GPS in her black SUV before it spat out directions to her next stop: a high school 15 miles north, in the Wakefield section of the Bronx.
Conway-Spiegel had an appointment with Zenobia White, the principal of a secondary school whose middle grades faced closure by the Department of Education.
Conway-Spiegel had no connection to the school, the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, before last October, when White responded to a surprise offer from Conway-Spiegel to help ASE combat the stigma of being on the city’s shortlist for school closures.
The offer came during a round of cold calls that has become an annual ritual for Conway-Spiegel, who has appointed herself surrogate class parent at some of the city’s most struggling schools. She defends them under the banner of a one-woman advocacy outfit, called the Partnership for Student Advocacy, and the mantra — repeated almost daily via Twitter — “There are no failing schools.”
Conway-Spiegel’s exact motivation — to trek miles north and southeast from her Manhattan home and spend thankless hours sitting through public hearings — is hard to pin down, even for her. But she said a combination of experience as a graduate of the city public schools system and the adoptive parent of an African-American teenager inspired her to “see for myself” what the fuss is about at the city’s lowest-performing public schools.
“I just couldn’t stand it any longer, the discomfort I felt with what a bad job is being done in these communities,” she said. “It just seemed to me that nobody had ever been to these schools. I wanted to see just how awful it was, and when I went to see, none of it was that awful.”
Conway-Spiegel said she also takes inspiration from other parent activists, such as Leonie Haimson and Zakiyah Ansari, who head up organizing efforts around education policy issues, and from the Coalition for Educational Justice, the force behind many school closure protests. But rather than rally at the Department of Education’s headquarters, Conway-Spiegel prefers to log hours inside schools before advocating for them to stay open. She only works with schools where she can establish an on-the-ground presence and a relationship with the principal.
Most principals Conway-Spiegel reaches out to don’t respond — she said she understands that it is difficult for them to invite an outsider in at a moment of turmoil. But the ones who do — at Christopher Columbus High School, ASE, Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School, and the High School of Graphic Communication Arts — receive crucial assistance with public relationship, help with what Conway-Spiegel calls “grunt work,” and, perhaps most crucially, hand-holding when it is most needed.
In 2010 she joined Columbus’s staff in protesting the city’s second, and ultimately successful, bid to close the school. She also helped them put together a proposal to convert Columbus into a charter school and volunteered to present the proposal to city officials, including a team of staffers who worked for Chancellor Dennis Walcott, then a deputy mayor.
At ASE, Conway-Spiegel helped White gather a group of local community leaders to brainstorm how to support the middle school through the closure and improve the high school’s academic and extracurricular offerings.
Last December, Conway-Spiegel arranged and led a meeting for students and staff from the Graphic Communication Arts to show off the fruits of their CTE program to city journalists. (Graphics escaped the city’s regular closure list but now faces being shuttered through turnaround.) Lantigua Sime, a long-time assistant principal at the school, said that meeting provided a rare opportunity to paint his school in a positive light for the public.
“They saw the good things that students do. That’s something that’s never happened before,” he said. “It’s always been a negative thing, that Graphics is a failing school. We’ve always felt like we have quality programs, we’ve just never had the opportunity to reflect that.”
Delving into some of the city’s most troubled schools is an unlikely activity for Conway-Spiegel, who grew near New York University, graduated from the school that is now called Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and the Performing Arts, and founded her own fitness company. She has no education experience other than as a student and parent.
She got a taste of the challenges that low-income families face when she looked several years ago for a high school for a son she adopted when he was a teenager. (She declined to speak about him in detail but said his story was redolent of “The Blind Side,” a book and film about the efforts of a wealthy, white family to adopt a homeless, black teenager in Tennessee.)
But it wasn’t until she waded into a space-sharing fight at P.S. 11, the diverse elementary school her two younger children attend, that she became an education activist.
After becoming PTA president, Conway-Spiegel led efforts to defend the city’s bid to evict another school from P.S. 11’s building to relieve overcrowding.
One comment stuck with Conway-Spiegel long after the conflict was resolved.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she recalled another P.S. 11 mother telling her after a meeting. “You’re doing all this work and I’m not helping.”
If parents at P.S. 11 couldn’t find time to advocate for their school while juggling the demands of work and family, Conway-Spiegel thought, then what challenges must be facing poorer communities, where parents work multiple jobs, don’t speak English as their first language, or are afraid to participate in public education hearings because they are undocumented?
She decided to find out for herself, by attending public hearings that the city must hold when it proposes to close a school.
A prevailing narrative around low-performing schools is that they harbor apathetic educators and serve families who don’t value education. But Conway-Spiegel saw families who cared deeply, yet couldn’t make it to public meetings about their schools scheduled for the early evening or were too timid to speak out.
“There were many, many, many parents afraid to come forward, afraid to show up to hearings, afraid to take the mike,” she said. “I knew that, because of where we were in Manhattan, geographically, politically, we were in an advantageous position. Go to the Bronx, go to Hunts Point, the flatlands of Brooklyn, it’s a different story.”
Talk with Conway-Spiegel about DOE policies aimed at struggling schools, and she will inevitably turn to critiquing the practice of blaming parents, teachers, administrators for their students’ poor performances.
“I’m tired of it, I object to it: parents are not to blame,” she said. “Parents are doing the best they can and especially in these disenfranchised communities, shame on you for blaming them.”
On her way home from ASE, Conway-Spiegel reiterated the thesis that has become her raison d’etre: Labeling a school as failing hurts students and staff and doesn’t begin to solve the deep-seated problems that caused poor performance in the first place
“I just can’t imagine that feeling, hearing three months into your work year, that you suck. That’s just rough,” she said about the schools’ teachers and students. “That’s just rough. My heart goes out to them.”