Downtown students rally against Cuomo’s school plan

 Photo courtesy of Spruce Street School P.T.A. Students and parents outside Spruce Street School to rally against Gov. Cuomo’s proposed education changes.

Photo courtesy of Spruce Street School P.T.A.
Students and parents outside Spruce Street School to rally against Gov. Cuomo’s proposed education changes.

BY ZACH WILLIAMS |  Teachers, students, parents and administrators across the city rallied on March 12 against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s education agenda.

Particularly vexing for opponents are proposed reforms announced in January that would make standardized-testing scores 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations, as well as grant them tenure only after five consecutive years of “effective” ratings under the plan. Principals’ input in evaluations would be shrunk from 60 to 15 percent.

In response, union representatives, as well as teachers, parents, students, and staff from dozens of city schools, participated in demonstrations throughout the day, mostly on a school-by-school basis. In Lower Manhattan, actions were scheduled at a half-dozen schools south of 14th St.

These included Spruce Street School in FiDi, Neighborhood School and the Earth School in the East Village, P.S. 2 Meyer London School on the Lower East Side, and P.S. 3 and City As School High School in the Village.

“For me, it’s a classroom issue…the idea of the principals having so little say in teacher evaluations,” Anastacia Kurylo, co-president of Spruce’s P.T.A., said this week. She joined others holding hands outside the school to protest the Cuomo plan.

“To throw this into a budget at the last minute, instead of letting [education] ideas grow organically, is very troubling to me,” she added.

For teachers and students at City As School, the governor’s proposed changes are at odds with the alternative high school’s effort to boost student achievement through internships and student projects rather than more traditional approaches. About 100 people associated with the high school congregated near its entrance on Clarkson St. in the afternoon, then marched to a “teach-out” in Washington Square Park.

“Standardized testing can’t judge what we do,” said Marcus McArthur, an English and social sciences teacher at the school. “We are here and we are raising and creating innovators not test takers. We got the next great generation of poets and authors and artists and scientists — and the tests, they have nothing to do with that work.”

Momentum continued for their cause over the weekend when Public Advocate Letitia James held a rally at City Hall on Sunday criticizing Cuomo’s pairing of increased funding with the proposals.

Cuomo announced education reforms in January that would make $1.1 billion in new funding contingent on the state Legislature approving his plans. In addition to the changes in teacher evaluations and tenure, the new approach would also require that, if a school fails to show adequate progress through student test scores for three consecutive years, then another school district, nonprofit organization or a “turnaround technocrat” — as the critics put it — would take over management of the “failing” school.

According to a February 2015 report from the Governor’s Office, there is a stark disparity between teachers rated as effective — more than 90 percent statewide in the 2013-14 school year — and the amount of students judged proficient in English and math in state testing, roughly 35 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

Four local Manhattan schools below 14th St. were labeled as “failing” in the governor’s report: Henry Street School for International Studies, Marta Valle Secondary School, P.S. 15 and University Neighborhood Middle School.

“How can so many of our teachers be succeeding when so many of our students are struggling?” the report asks.

The March 12 rally outside Spruce Street School. Photo courtesy of Spruce Street School P.T.A.

The March 12 rally outside Spruce Street School. Photo courtesy of Spruce Street School P.T.A.

Cuomo’s education plan also seeks to raise the cap on charter schools in the state by 100 from 460, as well as make the cap apply statewide rather than by region. Under the current limit, New York City could only add 24 more charter schools.

Mayoral control of New York City schools, which is due to expire this year, would also be extended for three more years under Cuomo’s proposal.

Many people at the City As School demonstration, as well as others across the city, urged the governor to visit more local schools and to address student poverty instead of overhauling the teacher-evaluation process.

During the City As School rally, current and former students spoke about how traditional education had failed them until they arrived at the Clarkson St. building’s nurturing environment. One current student said she had a troubled experience at another school due to her attention deficit disorder. But she said that thanks to the encouragement she received from teachers at City As School, she now plans on attending a local college after she graduates.

The Washington Square Park rally also was an opportunity to highlight the need for curriculum flexibility, especially at schools like City As School that serve students who have experienced difficulties elsewhere, noted Principal Alan Cheng.

“People had a chance to talk to our students, talk to our staff, to be able to understand what it is we do,” Cheng said, “our interdisciplinary courses, our project-based learning, our internships and the kind of impact we’ve been able to have on youngsters in our city.”

Spruce’s Kurylo said the lobbying efforts to Cuomo and key legislative leaders continues with more rallies to come. From what she’s heard from advocates, State Sen. Jeff Klein, a Democrat who has backed the Senate Republicans, will be a key vote in determining whether the governor’s plan passes.

WITH REPORTING BY

JOSH ROGERS

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