Updated, 7 p.m. – Dozens of protests small and large broke out at schools across the city Thursday as teachers and parents pushed back against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education policy changes.
Chalkbeat spent time at three of Thursday’s rallies, where educators railed against the idea of tying teacher evaluations more closely to student test results, raising the charter-school cap, and placing consistently low-performing schools in the hands of outside groups. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook were buzzing throughout the day with photographs of students, parents and educators holding signs and locking hands throughout the city. (A spokeswoman for the city teachers union said they received photos from 300 schools.)
At Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, the protest was marked by big names and some musical flair.
By 8 a.m., the block in front of the school was packed with parents, students, and teachers, many of whom had brought homemade signs. (One included Gov. Cuomo in a “Where’s Waldo” hat.) As parents gathered, Principal Laura Scott led a schoolwide singalong of “We Are the World” with new, anti-testing lyrics.
“We have kids to teach, stop emphasizing tests,” they sang. “It’s time we all unite and put children first.”
[Watch a video of the musical number]
They paused to listen to city teachers union President Michael Mulgrew and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who noted that she had lived in the neighborhood for almost 25 years.
“This is what public education is,” Weingarten yelled into the crowd, as passing cars honked in support. “This is a school Cuomo should learn from, and be at.”
P.S. 10’s principal Scott and the school’s teachers have been critical of the outsized emphasis placed on state tests. At least one speaker noted that the school had such high parent turnout because most were not working multiple jobs and many had flexible schedules. They were there to speak for others, she said.
The rally at P.S. 2 in Chinatown against Gov. Cuomo’s education proposals began this frigid morning as Rachel Torres’ four children nibbled on donuts.
While they waited outside the entrance of the Henry Street school for more parents and teachers to arrive, Torres explained that the governor’s plan to weigh test scores more heavily in teacher evaluations would put even greater pressure on teachers to limit their lessons to tested material.
“I don’t think teaching to the test is right,” she said, a Dunkin’ Donuts box in one hand and a stroller handle in the other. “They should be teaching real-life things that mean something.”
Just then, as if some secret tardy bell had sounded, parents and children appeared and lined up along the metal fence outside the school. Teachers trickled out of the building and handed out signs scrawled in English and Chinese characters. Before long, the line stretched the length of the building.
Catherine Holleran, the school librarian, noted that the state still owes the city billions of dollars from the settlement of a landmark school-funding lawsuit. At P.S. 2, the shortfall means that she had to raise $6,000 from private donors to update the library’s book collection, she said.
“This is what teachers have to do,” she added. “Cuomo is sitting on the money, and he won’t give it to us.”
Then the group — children toting bright backpacks, parents and teachers gripping coffee cups — marched down the block and around to the vast schoolyard behind the building. There they formed a giant ring of perhaps 200 bundled-up students and adults.
Parent Dorris Moreira-Douek said she joined the rally to push the state for more funding, since the school needs updated textbooks, computers, and Internet service — “the staples to run a classroom,” she said. But she also wanted to show her fourth-grade daughter that there is “politics in the day to day,” and that she must get involved.
“If you don’t ask for it,” she said, “you’re not going to get it.”
Just as suddenly as the rally started, it came to an end. Students rushed to class and parents headed to work — except for a few who lingered outside, peering into classroom windows to watch their children start the school day.
Alexandra Alves, a first-grade teacher whose students are all still learning English, said after the rally that it was a pivotal event for the school community.
Many P.S. 2 parents are Chinese immigrants unfamiliar with public protests and citizen activism, she said. At a recent parent meeting, teachers not only explained the debate over state education policy and funding, but also the whole idea of debating such things, she added.
“We talked about how in America we have freedom of speech,” Alves said, “and these are some of the things that citizens do to empower their communities and make positive changes.”
The teachers’ words seemed to sink in. Thursday’s rally was filled with parents who had rarely if ever participated in public protests, Alves said, but they had come to P.S. 2 to take that leap.
“It was a really big moment for the school,” she said.
After school let out Thursday afternoon, about 100 City-As-School students and educators marched from their Manhattan high school to Washington Square Park chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Cuomo’s plan has got to go,” and “stakes are high, test scores lie.”
Demonstrators from City-As-School – one of more than two-dozen city high schools with state permission to tie graduation to a student’s portfolio instead of Regents-exam scores – garnered attention from passersby as they marched through the West Village carrying banners and signs. Being escorted by close to 10 New York Police Department motorcycle officers and a handful of officers on foot, the group attracted even more listeners when it landed at Washington Square Park.
“We want to send a message to the governor that teachers are not the reason why education is not working,” said Vincent Davi, the school’s teachers union representative. “It is not the worker that should be blamed. We need support from Albany.”
City-As-School teacher Marcus McArthur said there would be negative repercussions from further tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. Students at the school, which is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, still must pass the English language Regents exam to graduate.
“Tying their evaluations to the test scores, it’s going to destroy our relationship with our students,” McArthur said. “That has nothing to do with the work that we do and it’s going to lead to people not focusing on the students that really need help.”