mic check

Students prepping for protests get activism lesson from OWS

Occupy Wall Street activists Justin Wedes (right), and filmmaker Kevin Breslin (center) speak to a small group of students and staff at Paul Robeson High School, including English teacher Stefanie Siegel (left).

This week, the subject of Justin Wedes’s regular after school meeting with Paul Robeson High School seniors was part lesson on activism and social media, and part strategy session.

Meeting in the East Brooklyn school’s first-floor student lounge, which in the past year has served both as a place to unwind at the end of a long school day and a place to strategize ways to challenge the city’s school closure policy, Wedes detailed the plans to protest at the meeting where city officials will vote on which schools to close.

Wedes, who is a former city teacher, vocal opponent of school closures, and high-profile Occupy Wall Street organizer, is marshaling activists from within schools to join the Occupy movement in commandeering the evening PEP meeting, effectively prohibiting the agenda proceedings.

Wedes said he has spoken with students and teachers at a handful of city schools this winter in preparation for the event, including Herbert H. Lehman High School and Legacy High School for Integrated Studies.

On Thursday, the city’s Panel for Education Policy is scheduled to vote on half of this year’s controversial slate of school closures. In past years, protesters have delayed the evening vote until the early hours of the following morning. Wedes said the goal is to prohibit the vote from happening at all.

“We’re going to occupy it. We’re going to shut it down,” he said to the gathering of a half-dozen students and staff from Robeson. The PEP “won’t be able to vote.”

Under the banner of “Occupy the Department of Education,” an Occupy Wall Street spin-off, scores of educators, students and people unaffiliated with the public education system have used civil disobedience to derail or shut-down a number of public meetings where the chancellor and other education officials have appeared this school year. One meeting hosted under the auspices of the PEP, was cut short after droves of chanting protesters used the “people’s mic” to take over and staged a walk-out; but unlike tonight’s meeting, it was a special meeting on the Common Core standards with no formal agenda or voting period.

As a city teacher, Wedes made it his goal to inform students about political issues, and he became a leader in protests against school closures and chemicals in schools. But since resigning from teaching in 2010, he has devoted virtually all of his energy to activism, emerging as a spokesperson in the Occupy movement. Through it all, he has been meeting with students — most often at Robeson, but also at Lehman High School in the Bronx and elsewhere — to galvanize them to act against policies they feel marginalize them.

Wedes said the routine of past PEP meetings‘—where PEP members have never voted against an agenda item—demonstrates the need for a drastic change.

“We’ve been through this for years and years,” he said. “You can have hours of public comment, and every single parent and teacher and principal, every student and soon-to-be student who’s not even old enough to be in school can make the most heartfelt plea to these schools to keep their school open, and then at four in the morning, after 7 hours of public comment, motion to vote and then in 30 seconds all those schools are shuttered.”

Several Robeson students said they planned to attend tonight’s meeting to tell DOE officials about the detriments of rising class sizes, and how the phase-out policy has impacted their high school careers.

“I just hope that this whole thing stops, and it ends sooner rather than later,” said Ana Leguillou, a senior who has been active in past protests. “Everything fails, but you have to keep trying and trying in order to succeed. It may be too late for us but that doesn’t mean we should just stop altogether. If we can prevent other schools from meeting the same fate that we are going through…that’s what drives us to keep fighting against it.”

Wedes said the protesters will use a popular call-and-repeat speaking tactic, called a “mic check,” or a “people’s mic,” to drown out the Department of Education’s official microphone.

“Everybody will have a chance to speak, on the People’s mic—On our mic, not on theirs,” he said. “Even schools that aren’t slated for closure should come out ,and will come out.”

The thrum of OWS and the movement’s signature tactics have inflected many school protests this year. Last week, students at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School shouted “mic check!” several times before speaking at the school’s closure hearing. And several OWS activists taught students from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, Lehman High School, and others how to use the “people’s mic” during a protest at Union Square.

Wedes has been meeting with Robeson students on an almost weekly-basis since 2010 he said, to talk about activism and plan student efforts to protest DOE measures, such as the decision to phase-out Robeson due to poor performance. Most recently, Wedes invited the filmmaker Kevin Breslin to campus, where they screened a documentary about OWS on a computer in the student lounge after school. Following the viewing, the group discussed issues of racism, class, police power, social media and nonviolence around OWS and other movements.


Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.