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To protest losing middle grades, P.S. 161 parents plan a boycott

A last-ditch effort to stop their school from losing its middle grades has some parents planning to keep their children home on Monday.

Fresh off protesting at a public hearing about the city’s plan last month, parent organizers at P.S. 161 in Crown Heights are calling for a one-day school boycott.

For weeks, families have lashed out against the city’s plans to close or shrink 25 schools at public hearings about the proposals. But the boycott marks a new form of resistance. It is scheduled for three days before the citywide school board, the Panel for Educational Policy, is set to vote on — and presumably, approve — the city’s proposal to eliminate P.S. 161’s middle school grades.

Under the city’s plan, P.S. 161’s elementary school would remain intact. But Demetrius Lawrence, the outspoken president of the school’s PTA, told me that parents in all grades are planning to join in the boycott.

“We wanted to do one day of direct action in order for us to get a strong statement out,” he said.

Parents who don’t send their children to P.S. 161 on Monday will be able to drop them off instead at a local church, Full Gospel Assembly, whose pastor has opened the doors to P.S. families. Lunch will be provided to families that can’t afford to supply their own, and parent volunteers will supervise as students complete academic assignments, Lawrence said. Parent organizers are even coordinating with some teachers to make sure the assignments support their regular instruction, he said.

“This is not just a day of fun,” Lawrence said.

The boycott has support from elected officials who have gone to bat for the school since December.

“I do not generally support students missing school,” said City Councilwoman Letitia James. “But I support this tremendous show of civil disobedience on behalf of P.S. 161’s parents.”

Boycotts have a storied place in city schools history. In 1905, a one-day boycott by Jewish families in Brownsville resulted in the city banning religious hymns and assignments from its schools. On Feb. 3, 1964, nearly half of the city 1 million schoolchildren stayed home to protest racial segregation in the schools.

Parents have also kept children home as a way to respond to immediate local concerns. In 1985, more than 10,000 Queens parents kept their children home on the first day of school to protest the city allowing a student with AIDS to attend regular 2nd grade classes. In 1990, parents in the Bronx boycotted PS 161 when their pick for principal was passed over. And in 1992, students at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn stayed home for two days to demand smaller classes, bilingual guidance counselors, and safer conditions; they got their wishes, but the school closed in 1998.

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