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Touting evals, StudentsFirstNY delivers its pitch to parents

In a packed room at the Marcy Library in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a Saturday morning last month, the message to a group of public school parents was abundantly clear: The way to improve their students’ education begins with a better teacher evaluation system.

Standing in the way, organizers said, was drawn out negotiations between the the city and its teachers union, which has been battling over terms of the evaluations for nearly two years.

“We need to be telling teachers we’re watching. UFT, we’re watching,” said Darlene Boston, a parent organizer for Families Taking Action, which hosted the event.

Families Taking Action is the parent-organizing arm of StudentsFirstNY, a well-funded education advocacy organization that launched in April to act as a counterweight to the influential teachers union during the upcoming mayoral campaign.

One area where the union’s influence has been particularly strong is in rallying communities to oppose budget cuts, school closures and charter school co-locations. It has funded citywide and local organizations to educate parents about the issues and turn them into activists.

But the union has not rallied parents around teacher evaluations, a thorny issue that some teachers view skeptically because of its prescribed model and reliance on test scores.

No one else has either, and that’s where StudentsFirstNY is stepping in.

To do that, StudentsFirstNY is beefing up its organizing infrastructure. It is hiring at least two organizers and paying people to train in month-long organizing academies.

The group has already hired parents to head chapters in parts of New York City that have the lowest-performing schools, and where dissatisfaction is the highest, said Tenicka Boyd, the group’s director of organizing. So far they have chapters in East Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, East New York and Brownsville.

Boyd said she hired Boston, a longtime resident of Bed-Stuy, in part because of her personal experiences with the school system’s failures. Two of her sons have dropped out of high school, Boyd said.

“She came with this passion for ed reform,” Boyd said.

Boston and StudentsFirstNY will have their work cut out for them. Seasoned organizers who have worked with parents around education say the reason that teacher evaluations have rarely been an issue for parent advocates is because it hasn’t resonated with them.

“It’s not the first thing that comes to parents’ minds when it comes to teacher quality,” said Megan Hester, a coordinator for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which supports the Coalition for Educational Justice. “What usually comes to mind is to help new teachers get better.”

That point was also raised at the meeting, where some parents said they believed teachers weren’t getting enough support.

“Half of these schools that they’re evaluating, they don’t have help,” said one parent. “They’re losing help. They don’t have no aides, they stick them in the classrooms with 25, 30 kids. Some of these kids are coming from broken homes. They’re coming from broken homes so they take up all the attention in the classroom.”

Anna Hall, StudentsFirstNY’s director of education, came to the meeting and spoke to parents about the complexities of teacher evaluations, a four-tiered rating system that weighs many teaching components differently. She said that the evaluations were intended to help teachers improve, but it was also a way to hold them more accountable than the system’s current model.

“A lot of people are getting satisfactory ratings, but we’re still not seeing the outcomes we should see in our classrooms,” Hall said. “So if our kids are still struggling and we still have schools that are failing, and we still have kids who are not getting promoted, then why are all of our teachers stil getting satisfactory ratings?”

The stakes are high too, Boston said. If an agreement is not reached by Jan. 17, she explained, the city stands to lose nearly $300 million in state aid, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to withhold from districts that did not strike deals on evaluations.

“This money’s at stake and we’re not even at the table,” Boston said at the meeting. She implored attendees to get involved in her group. “We’re not getting together and forming a cohesive group and letting them know, look, this is how we want things to go down.”

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