About 100 parents, teachers, students, and advocates lined up last week at a virtual meeting to try and convince New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy to vote their way on a controversial contract. At issue: whether the city should pay to test preschool students this spring for admission into the city’s gifted programs.
During nearly seven hours of public testimony, one young speaker made an outsized impression, helping inspire at least one member of the panel to vote “no,” sealing the contract’s rejection by a single vote.
The speaker was Lucas Healy, a 13-year-old eighth grader from Brooklyn who has autism and is enrolled in the city’s District 75, which serves students with disabilities who have complex needs. The son of a parent activist, Lucas has begun to find his own voice in the city’s rough-and-tumble landscape of education politics, and people in power seem to be listening.
“The main thing we need is a chance to be heard and seen,” he said at the meeting, after waiting about an hour for his turn to make a two-minute speech.
The admissions test is often blamed for driving stark racial segregation in gifted classrooms, which also enroll strikingly few students with disabilities and those who are learning English as a new language. (This year, there were also concerns about the safety of the test, which is given in person, as COVID-19 cases in the city remain high.) Lucas looked into the camera from his living room couch, and urged panel members to reject the testing contract, saying the exams “don’t reflect what we know.”
“If we need support because our brains process information in a different way, please give us the support,” he said, taking deep breaths to calm himself.
Just short of 1 a.m., the panel finally took their vote on the testing contract. Before the roll call, Panel member Gary Linnen said the hours of public testimony had convinced him to change his mind and vote it down. Linnen pointed to the outpouring of opposition from local communities, and also cited Lucas’s testimony.
“What really resonated was when Lucas Healy literally said, ‘Please see me,’” Linnen said. “The fact that you have a young individual in a D75 school who is constantly overlooked because he does not fit the profile, we’re doing a disservice.”
Lucas is a budding activist following in the footsteps of his mother, Paullette Healy, who has been a fierce advocate for children with disabilities ever since Lucas was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. He didn’t start putting together complete sentences until around third grade. Now he calls autism his “superpower.” He loves the comic character Captain America, and in school, science and math are his favorite subjects.
“He’s an example of how everyone has different strengths,” said Sadie Lacina, an occupational therapist who works regularly with Lucas. “He’s very enthusiastic about learning, very positive, and he’s a lot of fun.”
Over the years, Lucas has tagged along with his mother to countless late night meetings and politician’s offices as she fought for policies to benefit the about 200,000 students in New York City who have disabilities. About 24,000 of these children are enrolled in District 75 programs, often referred to as D75. Lucas only started to show interest in activism himself after attending his first protest this summer — a rally to convince the mayor to keep schools all-remote amid COVID-19’s continued grip on the city.
Lucas and his mom made signs together for the demonstration, and as Healy readied to leave for it, Lucas asked if he could join. He ended up giving an impromptu speech to a crowd in Lower Manhattan, and since then has marched for Black Lives Matter and testified at a City Council education committee hearing, where he was met with a round of applause by the chair, Brooklyn Council member Mark Treyger.
For last week’s panel meeting, Lucas’s mom helped him type out his testimony. (He had started writing it by hand but soon got tired.) He redirected the panel’s attention to all the ways students needed help during the pandemic, from accessing the internet to extra time to complete assignments for students who are still learning to speak English.
“If we need internet service to learn, please help us get it,” he said.
Midway through, the slide he’d been reading from somehow went missing from the computer screen. A timer ticked down on his window to speak but the panel members waited silently. He took a few audible breaths, a technique his third grade teacher had taught him to help him keep calm in situations like this.
After about 15 nerve-wracking seconds, he found his place, and wrapped up with emotion in his voice: “Show me you see me. Please vote ‘no.’”
When he was done, Healy said Lucas walked around their apartment pumped up with enthusiasm and had an ice cream sandwich to celebrate. The Healys stayed up late and watched the vote tally together. They cheered when it was over, and in class that week, he told his teachers, “I flipped the vote.”
“He finally realized, ‘My voice means something,’” Healy said. “This was the first time I saw as a parent that he understood the power of his voice.”
Lucas wants to keep on advocating for students like him.
“The support was important,” he said. “Maybe people change.”
Lucas is looking for a high school now and is faced with a long commute to find a program that will meet his needs. The thought of traveling far “makes me tired,” he said.
The Healys live in District 20, which spans Bay Ridge, Brough Park and part of Sunset Park and is a stronghold of support for gifted programs that are seen as feeders for top-performing high schools. His mom has been dismayed that so much attention has been devoted to gifted and talented programs — often referred to as G&T — which serve a sliver of the giant school system, while students like Lucas are left without many options.
“None of that will be addressed as long as G&T continues to be a focal point of the divisive conversation,” Healy said. “I think we have a long road ahead of us in terms of our children with disabilities, but I’m happy to have Lucas around with me.”