one year later

Education activists still feel Occupy's effects, for better or worse

Occupy the DOE protesters stsop at Tweed Courthouse on their way to a larger Occupy rally in November 2011.

A year ago, Brian Jones and other education activists crowded into a standing-room-only auditorium where city Department of Education officials were supposed to present new curriculum standards to parents.

Just moments after Chancellor Dennis Walcott began to deliver his opening remarks one member of the crowd stood up.

“Mic check,” he called out.

So began the first offensive of Occupy the DOE, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement intended to wrest authority over the city’s schools out of the hands of the “1 percent” and into the “99 percent” of education stakeholders who are teachers, families, and students.

Minutes after the first interruption, Walcott and the other officials called off the meeting, retreating to smaller sessions in other parts of the building.

Supporters of the movement hailed the disruption as a victory and would soon stage protests at meetings througout the winter. But the demographic profile of the activists and their raucous tactics also alienated groups that had similar gripes about the city’s education policies.

A year later, the broader Occupy movement is in disarray, but the Department of Education is largely unchanged. Walcott remains in charge, mayoral control is still in place, and tests geared to the new standards are in development. But even though Occupy the DOE’s website has not been updated since May, activists say that, for better or worse, the movement has had a lasting impact on education advocacy in the city.

One lesson learned, Jones said, is that protest doesn’t have to be confined to the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s headquarters and a popular location for education rallies. Instead, activism can travel to the very people it is meant to push back against.

“It was a really simple idea,” said Jones, a public school teacher and doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, about the first Occupy the DOE rally. “We were the first group to use the mic check as a disruptive power to challenge people of authority at their own events.”

By disrupting city meetings, Occupy the DOE was able to put parent, teacher, and student voices on the record, and in turn to “bring democracy to education,” said Kelley Wolcott, a Brooklyn teacher who was one of the founding organizers of Occupy the DOE.

“Organizations already existed” to represent teachers and parents, Jones said. “Occupy Wall Street gave them a shot in the arm, some specific tactics to try.”

Perhaps the most significant effect that persists today is the expanded activist base that turns out to education-related events. When a group of teachers called a rally to support striking colleagues in Chicago last month, Occupy-affiliated protesters represented a significant portion of the participants, according to teachers who participated.

Yet the ongoing influence of Occupy could turn out to be “a double-edged sword” for education activism, said John Elfrank-Dana, a teacher and union leader at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan.

He said Occupy’s rowdy tactics and aggressive demands — not to mention the “colorful characters” who commanded media coverage of the movement — turned off more moderate teachers at his school.

“The average teacher didn’t go down and participate in what was going on,” Elfrank-Dana said. “They recognized it as generally positive but not necessarily something they would join or identify with.”

The alienation extended to community members who were already active in education issues but objected to some of Occupy the DOE’s tactics. Ocynthia Williams, a community organizer in the Bronx for the Coalition for Educational Justice, said the mic checks at a February Department of Education meeting about school closures didn’t just inconvenience city officials. They also kept other activists from being heard, she said.

“The leaders of the movement took control of the meeting, putting their speakers upfront using the human mic, denying other group leaders the chance to use the actual microphones set up,” she said.

Williams said students from the schools proposed for closure, which were largely located in poor neighborhoods, suffered the most.

“It made a chaotic and confused meeting, especially for the young people who thought they would speak first and have the microphones to be heard clearly,” she said.

Williams said she thought people of color were underrepresented in Occupy the DOE, especially among the leadership.

“It reflected the overall movement of middle-class folks who were feeling the effects of the economy and felt the need to speak out,” she said.

But Wolcott said Occupy the DOE was actually more diverse than the broader Occupy movement.

“We had a professor from Columbia, principals from Queens, teachers from all over the city, and student groups working with closing schools — Occupy the DOE had a broader representation of gender, race, and even age,” she said.

Wolcott said the movement is alive but refocused after going dormant when its participants scattered for the summer. But she said this year’s version of Occupy the DOE won’t look like last year’s, and it also won’t have the same name.

“Occupy Wall Street was having an identity crisis, so rather than identify with Occupy we decided to continue to the vision we had and work toward it on the local level, the way Occupy was at the beginning of the movement,” she said.

This year, Wolcott said, New Yorkers can expect the teacher groups that fueled Occupy the DOE — including the Grassroots Educational Movement, Teachers Unite, and New York Coalition of Radical Educators — to continue working together. And they are joined by the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a new party within the teachers union that aims to attract a wide range of teachers.

Their fights — against high-stakes testing, mayoral control, and school closures —will feel familiar to those who saw Occupy the DOE in action, because little has changed since last year.

“Certainly if you look at the score sheet the victories are few,” said Jones. “But we raided the consciousness and understanding of a wider and wider circle of people to the mayor’s agenda, and this year as schools come up to be closed we won’t have to reinvent our ideas.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.